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FIRST-PERSON: Remembering a great man, James L. Sullivan

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–When I became an employee of the Sunday School Board in 1970, the only thing I knew about its president, James L. Sullivan, was his name.

During the last five years of his administration and the 29 years of his retirement, while I never had daily contact with Dr. Sullivan, his influence as a statesman, a man of wisdom and a faithful Christian looms large in my life.

I often heard Dr. Sullivan speak, but it was in more simple acts that I saw his character. When he came into the Sunday School Board cafeteria for lunch or a cup of coffee, he rarely sat with members of his staff. Instead, he would choose a table of employees who otherwise would have had little or no occasion to have a conversation with their president.

As editor of a magazine for teenagers, I once enlisted a high school journalist to interview Dr. Sullivan and accompanied her to his office. He welcomed the young woman and took time to visit and make her comfortable before starting the interview. He seemed in no hurry and carefully answered each question.

Because Dr. Sullivan was a consummate storyteller, I learned many things about his life — that he was from a rural area of Mississippi called Sullivan’s Hollow and that, as a young boy, he was smitten at first sight of the girl who became his wife years later. I learned that Dr. Sullivan had to move his family to the suburbs of Nashville when he took a stand for the rights of African Americans and that threats were made on his life.

I learned about life in Southern Baptist churches before the Cooperative Program, when speakers for causes such as missions, colleges and seminaries regularly came, calling to raise funds to stay in ministry. I learned about the history of the Sunday School Board because Dr. Sullivan saw himself as one in a line of leaders of a great institution and believed he could be effective only as he operated out of that understanding.

But Dr. Sullivan didn’t just tell stories. He used them to communicate truth. And while I wondered what the point was going to be during some of his longer tales, he always got around to the purpose of his illustration and I am the richer for it.

I didn’t know what church polity was until I learned about it from Dr. Sullivan through his book about the Southern Baptist Convention which he described as a “rope of sand with strength of steel.” I initially found the imagery confusing but came to understand that autonomous churches who have the privilege of choosing to affiliate and cooperate — while sometimes “messy” — makes for a stronger organization in the end. We can do more together than separately.

In 1990, as we were launching the year-long celebration of the Board’s Centennial at the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in New Orleans, we included on the program Dr. Sullivan and his seminary classmate and long-time friend, Herschel Hobbs. Dr. Sullivan was the oldest living president and Dr. Hobbs was the most prolific writer for the Board.

I shall never forget seeing these two giants of faith sitting down together before a rehearsal on the night before the presentation. It was obvious they were delighted to be in each other’s company. But they drew a circle that included those of us who had been standing on the fringes, enjoying their stories. They did most of the talking, and the rest of us felt we were witnessing a special moment of friendship and statesmanship.

When we began exploring a possible name change for the Sunday School Board in the mid-1990s, we sought Dr. Sullivan’s counsel. As someone who had spent his whole life and ministry relating to the Sunday School Board name, we wondered if he would question or even oppose the idea of a change. Instead, he reminded us that he had pursued a name change during his administration. He believed the Sunday School Board name had been outdated since areas of work beyond Sunday School had been added to its program assignments in the early 20th century. He liked the biblical foundation of the name, LifeWay, and spoke in support of the change.

During the 1990s Dr. Sullivan was regularly invited to be a part of Anniversary Day celebrations and tell a story. Many of the employees in the audience had little idea of who he was or what he had accomplished. They saw a now frail man, but they recognized the wisdom in his words and wanted to know more about him and how he had shaped the institution where they worked.

My prayer is that his influence will live on for generations through the countless lives he touched.
Linda Lawson was employed by the Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources) from 1970-2002. She directed the Communications Department from 1992-2001 and is now a freelance writer.

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  • Linda Lawson