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An interview with Robin Hadaway

Robin Hadaway, senior professor of missions at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, in scheduled to be nominated for SBC president by Wade Akins at the SBC Annual Meeting in Anaheim. (Baptist Press/Brandon Porter)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Baptist Press will be releasing in-depth interviews with each of the known candidates to be nominated as SBC president at the Annual Meeting in Anaheim. We released our interview with Tom Ascol on May 2, Bart Barber on May 3, and Robin Hadaway on May 4. The interviews have been edited only for clarity, grammar and length.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP) – Though he’s a busy senior professor of missions at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Robin Hadaway will be somewhat of a hometown presidential candidate when the SBC Annual Meeting takes place in Anaheim this summer. Hadaway and his wife, Kathy, live in nearby Oceanside, Calif., where he pastored before they became International Mission Board missionaries.

“I just felt we need to focus on the mission,” Hadaway told Baptist Press when asked why he would be nominated. He’s been committed to the mission for his entire ministry career, serving for 18 years as an IMB missionary, 18 years at MBTS, and six years as a pastor of a local church.

Hadaway, 73, is calling for the planting of 500 new churches in North America, 2,000 new church plants overseas and a new emphasis on chapters of the Woman’s Missionary Union in churches.

“The Southern Baptist Convention president, he has no pay, no power, but he does have some influence during those two years, and I think he can set the tone for the convention,” Hadaway said.

We sat down to talk with Hadaway on April 27 on the bustling campus of Midwestern Seminary just before the seminary’s final chapel session of the spring semester.

Why are you willing to be nominated to be president of the SBC?

Well, I had never thought about being nominated for SBC president. But when Ed Litton declined to run a second term and the convention was in Anaheim, I thought that I might have the opportunity to serve Southern Baptists in this way.

I have had the honor and privilege of working for the denomination for 36 years, 18 as an IMB missionary and 18 as a seminary professor and counting. Now I’m a senior professor. I did pastor for six years and was very involved in the Conservative Resurgence when I was pastoring.

So, I followed the denominational patterns throughout my ministry, and while I was with the IMB.

I just felt that we needed to focus on the mission. Not that we haven’t been focusing on the mission, but I just wanted to call out the called because I never thought about being a missionary when I was a student at Dallas Seminary and then at Southwestern.

It wasn’t until my wife and I went to Glorieta for Foreign Missions Week that we heard somebody talk about the need for people to leave their pastorates and go overseas. So even though we were already pastoring in a mission field in California, we stayed there four years before we went overseas, we just felt this call to go to an unreached part of the world, to northwest Tanzania.

I remember one of the IMB presidents saying one time, “Where are the pastors at these missions conferences? Because it’s great that laymen are going overseas, but we need people with an M.Div. We need people with theological training to go and to train the nationals. I don’t feel that everyone should or could be a missionary. It’s for those that are called.”

I believe strongly in a missionary call, which I mentioned in my book, A Survey of World Missions, what the missionary call actually is. I just want Southern Baptists to focus on missions.

So, I’d like to see 500 new church plants, net new churches, in North America and 2,000 overseas. And I’d like to see a re-emphasis on the Woman’s Missionary Union because they’re the ones that got Southern Baptists through the Great Depression when Southern Baptists had no money. The ladies found ways to support the missionaries. This happened in the late 1800s as well, during those financial downturns.

I just believe that right now most of our churches are not doing missions education for our elementary school, junior high and even high schoolers.

What are some ways that you would try to bring about that change, the church planting and the emphasis on the WMU chapters?

Well, of course, I have confidence in Paul Chitwood and Kevin Ezell. They are leading us well towards church planting in North America and overseas. But I think when the president of the Convention says it, I think it speaks to Southern Baptists. Maybe seminarians, people like me when I was a pastor of a small church that said, “Hey, perhaps since my wife and I are healthy, we have two healthy kids, we’re qualified to go, but we had to see if we should go.” So, to call out the called.

The Southern Baptist Convention president, he has no pay and no power, but he does have some influence during those two years; and I think he can set the tone for the Convention. I think you can see that has been true throughout the last 30 years, what the tone has been with the SBC.

Do you believe the message of presidents of the SBC has drifted off of that emphasis on missions?

No. I know Ed Litton. I knew Ed Litton when he was a 25-year-old pastor in Tucson. We were in the same state, and he and his church came down to Brazil to preach for me. There’s nobody more of a soul-winner than Ed Litton. So I would never say that either he and … JD Greear was a two-plus-two missionary sent out by Keith Eitel, and then Steve Gaines, you go back there. And you can’t count the number of mission trips that Bellevue sends out and has sent out over the last 25, 30 years. So, no, I would not say that. I say what’s happened is that the discussions within the SBC have drifted from our focus. I would not say that the presidents have drifted from the focus.

Would you say the message of the SBC has drifted in more of a political direction over the past few years?

Yes. And I think that’s reluctantly. People don’t really want to do that, but it is just something that happens because of social media. I think there’s the vast majority of pastors and churches and in-the-pew church members, and most in-the-pew church members don’t even know there is a Southern Baptist Convention president.

I was thinking this morning that there used to be a big controversy amongst Southern Baptists in the ’60s, over the charismatic gifts. In associations and state conventions, they were de-fellowshipping churches because they believed certain gifts were for today. Well, I just don’t see that as an issue much. I don’t think most Southern Baptist churches are charismatic, but it’s not an issue that we’re going on the internet about and looking for who’s this and who’s that on the issue.

In the 1920s, we were worried about women’s suffrage, and there were different opinions over whether women could vote or not among Southern Baptists. I don’t think that’s a big issue anymore, so there’s always going to be cultural issues.

I think we tend to focus on the cultural issue of our day rather than what might be a biblical cultural issue, but since I teach each culture and worldviews, and I have a chapter on it, then I like to get my students to look at their worldviews so they can understand other worldviews.

Do you believe the next generation is coming back to a focus on missions?

You know, when we first started our college here, I didn’t really think I wanted to teach college students because I was happy teaching master’s and doctoral students, but the college students became my favorites because you get these 18-year-olds, and they’re so excited, you know?

Well, I think they’re excited to be away from home, one thing, but they’re also excited to just be studying and they’re out witnessing. They’re doing things.

[Midwestern] just sent out 39 Fusion students to closed countries, and they’re going to be there for six months.

I must say people talk about millennials—my students, master’s and [bachelor’s]—I am very encouraged with their mission-mindedness. I really am.

You were involved in the creation of the Fusion program, right?

Yes, I was. I’ve taught all of the Fusion classes except the two when I was on sabbatical but I can’t take credit for that. I would say that was Scott Brawner’s and Phil Roberts’ vision. I would compliment them for that. It’s something that grew from just maybe six men and six women and two advocates to a big program.

Will you tell us about your salvation experience?

I was born in Nashville while my daddy was at Peabody College before it became part of Vanderbilt, and when I was 4 or 5, we moved back to Biloxi, Miss., where my parents were from on the Gulf Coast. They just spent one or two years there, and then we moved to Tallahassee, Fla., when I was starting the second grade.

So, I went from the second grade through 12th grade in Tallahassee. My dad was over the parks and recreation for the city of Biloxi and Tallahassee and then Memphis and then Los Angeles. So that’s how we got out to L.A.

My parents tried different churches. They went to the Methodist church for a while, but I had one grandmother that was Christian Science.

So we were going to the Christian Science church, but then my youngest brother was born with Down Syndrome. And of course, Christian Science says there’s no such thing as sickness or disease or disabilities. And their insurance agent had witnessed to them and the pastor of First Baptist Church, Tallahassee, C.A. Roberts, came to my house and led my parents to the Lord.

So, when I was 12, we went from Christian Science to a Southern Baptist church, which was a big, big shift. I went to training union, choir practice, Wednesday night, Sunday morning, Sunday night, everything.

I was a pretty good kid, but I determined I was an atheist, and it wasn’t until I graduated high school, went to Memphis State, now University of Memphis, that a guy shared Christ with me as a college peer. And that’s how I became a believer.

Will you tell us about your call to ministry?

I never thought about being a minister at all. I was going to be a lawyer. After I was saved in college, I had already committed to go into the Air Force. So, I went to pilot training. I was there for about eight months, and I got hurt. I had a T-37 canopy come down and almost decapitate me. I couldn’t turn my neck at all for a while.

So, I went into air traffic control, and they sent me to Alaska and then on to Miami. I had orders to go to Vietnam. Four days before I was to leave to fly to Vietnam, the war ended. I was very happy.

While I was in King Salmon, Alaska, my first job in the ministry was as youth director for Don Rollins, who was a Home Mission Board missionary. He had a dogsled team. He had an aircraft that had pontoons and skis. He was a tough guy. He told me that he had to learn to lose to the Native Americans because he could beat them in dogsled, and they didn’t like that because he was from Florida. But he had contextualized himself to the point where he could do anything. He shot moose and caribou and all that kind of stuff.

But in the military, I was one of 20 officers with 400 enlisted men, the military would not let him come on base. I knew the most about the Bible, even though I had only been a Christian for two or three years. They wanted me to preach, so I started preaching. It was a little bitty chapel that was probably three times the size of this room. I did that every Sunday morning for a year. Then I went off base for their service. God called me to preach through that. So we went to Dallas Theological Seminary because none of the Southern Baptist seminaries were conservative because this was 1975. After two years at Dallas, I transferred to Southwestern.

Would you tell us about your family?

I met my wife while I was a student in seminary. She had grown up in El Paso, Texas, born in Lubbock, then moved to El Paso, and then she and her family moved to Phoenix when she was 16. She was a member of North Phoenix Baptist Church with her family.

We got married in Dallas by W.A. Criswell. We have three children.

Wait. You were married by W.A. Criswell and ordained by Adrian Rogers?

Yeah. What can you say? It’s kind of funny.

The year my wife and I got married, my parents moved to L.A. My father was the general manager of parks and recreation of the city of Los Angeles. So we went to California and met with Stan White, the [director of missions] at the L.A. Baptist Association, who was the son of K. Owen White, one of the [SBC] presidents before the Conservative Resurgence. The people at Monterey Park had me as their full-time pastor.

That’s how we got up to California. Because I felt like, after going to Dallas and Southwestern, there were too many people in the South. I grew up in the Deep South, and I loved the Deep South, especially southern food.

But I felt like there were really enough pastors and churches there because you’d have 40 pastoral candidates for a single position. In California, it’s much different.

The messengers [this year in Anaheim] are going to find that the California churches are conservative. The reason they’re conservative is because they’re fighting the culture tooth and nail, and they know what they believe. Now there’s a few that will be a bit different, but they’re not any more different than some of the ones in the South that are kind of different now, too.

What are a few things every church must get right?

So, I’m visioning it has great worship with expository preaching. I teach in my books you can do expository preaching on the mission field. So I teach nationals in all of the countries that I’ve worked how to just go verse by verse through the Bible.

A focus on missions and evangelism, too.

What does it mean to be Southern Baptist?

So, I read the preamble of the Baptist Faith and Message. It says that the churches are voluntarily joining together for missions, educational, and benevolent causes. Those are the three purposes of the SBC.

I would say, of course, missions is why we were founded because the Judsons, when they were sent out in 1812, they went from being congregationalist to Baptist and they had nobody supporting them. So they just called back to the states and said, “Hey, we need a convention to support us.” So the old Triennial Convention sprung up of which we’re heirs to that tradition.

So, the flavor of all the churches in the SBC, the flavors are going to be very, very, very different.

What that means is each church sets their CP amount. There is a Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, and an Annie Armstrong, and many states have a state offering as well. There’s other designated offerings for local missions and so forth. So each church does that.

I will say that one of the hardest things for a church to do is to trust their entities because, having been in IMB administration and being one of the regional leaders down in South America, we had to rent the house or buy the houses, buy the cars, maintain the property, handle traveling freight, back and forth, provide money for computers and cell phones, and things like that.

Being on the mission field is like being in the military. You give up some of your rights to be an IMB missionary. You can’t raise support. Everybody makes the same thing. As a regional leader, I made the same as my missionaries. In fact, some of them made more money than me, but I think some folks are having trouble trusting their entities with the people that are sent to them. 

I spent eight months as the interim president, and I scrutinized every single application for being a professor.

There were some I rejected because they were a little bit fuzzy on the women in ministry issues. But I know that every president takes that very seriously, and the IMB takes it very seriously.

Back in 2001, every missionary had to sign the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. I met with 40 different missionaries who had some issues about that. I sat down with them personally, and we just talked through it. Some signed, some resigned.

We do have accountability, but it’s slow and it doesn’t satisfy everybody.

I have a pastor friend in California who said, “There are always foxes in the vineyard.” There are always these little things that come up. It just happens in life, whether it’s the IMB or NAMB, whether the seminaries or the entities, you’re always going to have little issues that you have to have to deal with. Some of them have to be dealt with confidentially, and they can’t answer every single concern that everybody has.

What is the role of women in the local church?

I am firmly complementarian. I believe women have an important role in the local church. Most Southern Baptist churches have committees so that means Southern Baptists see that women can have roles as committee members.

We also have requirements for the Committee on Committees and Committee on Nominations that they be lay people and not just ministers that are on these committees and our trustees. Our women serve well as committee members. I believe that the Baptist Faith and Message is our guide on women in ministry.

Now, when I was regional leader down in South America, I had five ladies who were female church planters. So when I got there, I said, “Well, what is it you do?” They said, “We just facilitate. We don’t preach.”

One of them told me, “I just show Wade Akins church planting films, ‘Ways of God.’” The ladies who are missionaries are either working with women or they’re in facilitation roles on the mission field, that’s all I can speak to. We have female professors [at Midwestern], but they’re teaching in college, more of the secular subjects.

We want to support our women in ministry.

Do you believe there is an elite group of leaders running the SBC?

The Southern Baptist Convention is 14 million people. I like to say that, if you add up the countries of Paraguay, Uruguay and Panama, you get 14 million people. It would be hard to find a power structure among 14 million.

My short answer is no, because I knew these guys when they were young. I knew Johnny Hunt when he was 40 years old or younger. I met him out on the mission field. Johnny came down and helped me. Ed Litton came down and helped me. Ken Whitten came down and helped me. I know all these guys. They did not set out to be an elite. Some people may call them elite, but they’re just guys pastoring, preaching the Gospel. I think those that maybe want to be recognized, maybe younger guys that, but that’s not why we were called into ministry.

I pastored a church that, back when we used to call the number you had in Sunday School, averaged 409 in Sunday School. The years I was there at First Southern Baptist Church, Glendale, that was the fourth largest church in Arizona.

We had come home for two years on a leave of absence from the IMB because we have a handicapped child. She’s in the Missouri Baptist Children’s Home group home. We raised her on the mission field. She can’t read or write, but she learned to speak Portuguese, so figure that out. So what I struggled with, did I want to stay in the States and pastor a larger church? But God called me to go to the mission field, back to the mission. So that’s when we went to North Africa, first to Tanzania and then to North Africa.

I don’t believe the so-called elites see themselves as elites. I really don’t. The guys I know, they don’t consider themselves elites. I think if somebody disagrees with these people, they … James Merritt came down [to South America] when he was president of the Southern Baptist Convention. The IMB sent him down and Wade Akins and I took him out street preaching. So James, he’s a great guy. So all these people that people have problems with, they’re just trying to pastor their churches.

Do you believe racial reconciliation needs to be addressed in the SBC?

I grew up in Tallahassee. My high school was either the first or second integrated school in the state of Florida. In 1963, I remember the separate water fountains, the separate restrooms. And when I was 16, on the basketball team, our star basketball player had to stay in the janitor’s home on an away trip because they wouldn’t let him stay in the hotel with us because he was Black. I came home to my parents at 16 and said “that is wrong.”

When my wife and I were considering where to go on the mission field, we thought we’d go to China because Monterey Park was the first Chinese-majority city in the United States. It’s 50,000 people, 95 percent Chinese. But God introduced us to the missionaries from Tanzania. I didn’t go to Tanzania because of my background, but I spent 12 years in Africa. I had African pastors.

In Africa, I was always treated with respect. When I was in Africa, because of my background, I did do one thing differently. I decided I’m going to treat these guys the same way I would treat all my friends. I would eat out of a common bowl with them. I would share my water bottle with my African friends because I knew that some of my friends back when I was growing up would’ve never done that. I would say the finest believers on the planet are the ones that I served with in North Africa. We opened Baptist work in [North Africa], the Muslim part.

My answer is, and I thought this just this morning, race is not a biblical word. Ethno is the biblical word, ethnicity. As we know, there’s only one race, the human race, but there are different people, tribes and the word translated most often, which it’s also in my book, if you go to the contents, the keywords, look up ethnos.

So what is ethnicity? It’s language shared, an ethnic group. I think that by talking about race, we’re emphasizing something that’s not a biblical term. Let’s talk about ethnicity. Are there different cultures in America? Yes, there’s a myriad of them, but we pretty much have the same language of English. It may be spoken a bit different.

Certainly, there needs to be racial reconciliation, but it’s more of an American thing than it is an overseas thing. They’re not talking about that in Africa. What they’re talking about is tribalism and colonialism, which is left over from the colonial powers that rule them.

I just like the tactic that Nelson Mandela took, where he just forgave his captors. And you know, the movie about his life, where he’s supporting the South African, all-white rugby team, wearing their jersey just to emphasize, “Hey, we’re one people now.”

I understand the Deep South, and I know there’s some hurts there, but I tried to make a difference personally in my life.

What are the most important assignments in the role of the SBC president?

I would say, just because of the history of the Conservative Resurgence, is to appoint the Committee on Committees. My wife served on the 1989 Committee on Committees, a Jerry Vines appointee.

The SBC president represents Southern Baptists to the secular world and also to the Southern Baptist world. Southern Baptist presidents visit disaster sites. I think that’s an important pastoral role.

[A pastor] in my association told me the Southern Baptist Convention needs someone to pastor it. I like that. You kind of serve as the pastor of the Convention, with all that entails.

As you know, I attended every EC meeting for five years. So I kind of know how the EC works. The president speaks in the plenary sessions, kind of gives a sermon pretty much so he can set the tenor and the tone for the EC. Then, also, he’s an ex-officio member of all the boards and agencies. I know that the presidents try to get around to attend board meetings. It’s hard to get to all of them, but I think they try to prioritize that.

The SBC president is typically a pastor, but you aren’t right now. How does that make you unique for this role?

Well, being a senior professor of missions, I think I’ve got time for this position, even though it has no pay and no power. Somebody who pastors a church, their time is grounded, limited.

Having pastored churches, I understand the SBC, and that’s why I feel like I can pastor it since I was born in Nashville, grew up in Biloxi, Miss., and Florida, lived in Kansas City 18 years, went to seminary in Texas, lived in Richmond when I was on the IMB staff for a couple of years in Richmond—and Richmond is a whole different type of SBC life—and lived in California and Arizona, Nevada, and Alaska. I know the mission states well, have traveled a lot up into Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

I think, focusing on what I would bring uniquely, is this focus on missions. I’ve trained almost 2,000 students.

I just love pastoring pastors because a lot of my students in the master’s program are already bi-vocational or pastors. We’ve even had some megachurch pastors take courses here, and I appreciate their humility, trying to finish their degrees here. Then I teach doctoral classes, and those are almost all pastors.

So I like to pastor pastors, and I think I can remind Southern Baptists how bad things were and that things aren’t as bad as sometimes we think they are.

What makes you happy to be a Southern Baptist?

I would say what makes me most joyful is that we send missionaries. They’re able to do their work without worrying about losing their support.

I know one of my students living in India. They had to go to a third-tier India hospital in the middle of COVID-19. They decided to stay on the field and not come home. It really spoke to the nationals. Our third child was stillborn. My wife went full-term with her, and she’s buried in Nairobi. So missionaries go through those kind of things that are harder when you’re not in your home country. There are four [missionary kids] buried in the cemetery in Nairobi and two missionaries. These are the people I would say of whom the world is not worthy. That’s the kind of people we send overseas.

Then my former pastor, Don Rollins, up in King Salmon, Alaska, he spent his life up there in that cold weather, which I spent one year in Alaska, and then I went to the tropics, and I’ve never left. I tell people I’m a tropical preacher.

You’ve been around the SBC for about 45 years. Where do you think it needs to go in the next 50 years?

I have a chapter on contextualization in my book. Every generation has to contextualize the Gospel for their generation. The Gospel never changes, but the culture does. We have to see how we’re going to package the Gospel for this generation. It is true, if you preach an expository message, that preaches anywhere. But your music, the way the church looks, the way the pastor looks, the way the pastor dresses, the way the church members interact with each other, that’s all going to be different in different parts of the country and in different times. I think we have to find a way to have more small groups. I’m in a small group in our church. It’s interesting.

Here, in this part of the country, I was doing a lot of interim pastorates, but just moving out there in California, I preach at my church in Monterey Park, Calif., once a month, but it’s an hour and a half drive. So I don’t go there every Sunday. The other times, I’m in my regular church. I think here’s where some of the debate is in our convention are on because what’s good contextualization is what I do, and bad contextualization is what you do. So that’s how contextualization works. No one ever does it as well as we do ourselves. So there’s always something that we could tweak. I think that’s what a lot of this debate is and what people are reacting to on social media.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I’m not part of any group. I guess this could only happen in Southern Baptist life. Wade Akins just decided that it would be a good idea if I ran. My wife agreed with it. So you’re probably not supposed to do it that way. I don’t think anyone can accuse me of having an agenda.

My agenda is just to focus on missions, not saying others haven’t done that because I know the heart of the last three presidents, and I’d say even going back further than that. But I don’t want to go back any further than the last three. They certainly focused on missions, but I think the convention is a bit tired right now. They need some refreshment and joy. And so I hope to bring that.

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