News Articles

FIRST-PERSON: Wanted: bridge-building leaders

NASHVILLE, Tenn.–John Roebling believed expanses were made to be crossed, and believed the most efficient way of getting from one side to the other was by bridge.

Roebling was the genius who proposed and designed the Brooklyn Bridge, the world’s longest suspension bridge at the time. Roebling died unexpectedly shortly before construction was to begin and the consensus was that his son, Washington, would do it. Washington had some experience as an engineer building bridges for the Union Army during the Civil War, but nothing compared to the sizeable challenge of completing one of the greatest engineering feats the world had known to date.

He took his father’s designs and daily made adjustments for years until the bridge was finished. There may have been some doubts in the beginning about Washington Roebling’s experience — he was in his early 30s when he took over — but there was no doubt when the signature landmark was completed. Its use continues more than 115 years later.

I wrote a lot about frogs, tadpoles and kettles and the Southern Baptist Convention over the summer. The columns scratched the surface and revealed an entire generation-plus of ministers frustrated with the SBC, its politics, its loss of evangelistic focus and its exclusion of many younger ministers from positions of leadership.

And I heard from you, loud and clear!

I solicited your response, but in hindsight I probably didn’t need to. You were primed to express your opinions, were looking for a place to unload, and you did — en masse. That’s OK. I learned a long time ago if you ask people for their opinions, they’ll give them. I received hundreds of e-mails and a stack of letters.

What I found was that “younger ministers” is a misnomer. I received messages from men and women, fully funded and bivocational ministers and laypeople. I’ve gone from saying, “younger ministers” to “emerging leaders,” since there is such a great diversity. The consensus among you is, “Yes, something needs to be done, but what?”

That’s where you, the emerging leaders, come in. You are the SBC’s Washington Roeblings of today and of tomorrow. I said in the “Frog” columns that we older guys need to quit preaching at you and start listening to you. Well, that’s what I’m doing, and hopefully in a way that effectively connects with the techno-savvy. I am launching an electronic bulletin board on Monday, Nov. 29, at www.lifeway.com/emergingleaders. I’ll be very active on the bulletin board through Friday, Dec. 3. I’ll continue to interact as much as possible in the weeks that follow and I’ll have some help from others who are working with me on this. I want to hear how we can bring your energy and your ideas to bear on the challenges we face as a denomination.

I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have all the answers. That’s one reason we need you in the bridge-building business. We need access to what you bring to the table.

Another purpose of the bulletin board is so you all can network and exchange ideas with each other. I don’t feel the need to control this thing, but I do want to provide a forum for us to get together and corral ideas. It is easy for us to criticize all that isn’t working. What we want to do is rise above that and come up with solutions and directions for the future. I’ve said that we don’t need to be building the SBC of tomorrow; we need to be building the SBC of 10 years from now. I’m offering you an opportunity to be on the design team.

But this is just the beginning. I also said in the “Frog” columns that I wanted to spend time talking face-to-face with you, and we’re going to do that too. I have the privilege of preaching in churches of all sizes across our denomination. It can sometimes be a rigorous travel schedule, but it is exciting to be so close to the heartbeat of who we are as a people. I’m going to coordinate opportunities to meet with you when I travel to an area so we can speak together personally. The logistics are still being worked out.

Just a quick word to you “old” guys over 40. I value your opinions as well. I know a lot of you have been faithfully blowing this same horn for years. Jump in this dialogue! I feel I can directly address these “under 40” emerging leaders without offending you because I know you wish that somebody had listened to you when you were that age. We’re trying to break a cycle, so I appreciate your support and I know you’ve got good ideas as well. Let’s hear them!

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book a couple of years ago called, “The Tipping Point.” The subtitle is: “How little things can make a big difference.” He dissects epidemics and how they happen and how lasting change comes about. I’m excited because I really do see us trying to string together some related little things that can make a big difference, and that difference has eternal consequences.

Both John and Washington Roebling offered something unique that enabled them to overcome an engineering challenge. They were intensely focused on completing that task. If they can focus like that to build a bridge, I passionately pray that we can focus like that to build God’s Kingdom. Let’s bring together all the little things that make a big difference. Let’s “tip” this thing and just watch what God can do when we bring our resources together for a single cause: Lifting up the name of Jesus.

See you on the bulletin board Nov. 29.
James T. Draper Jr. is president of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

    About the Author

  • James T. Draper Jr.