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Harold Bennett remembered as an encourager to the faithful

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A twinkle in his eye, a winsome smile, a gift for encouraging others and an unshakable faith in Jesus Christ were among the traits that distinguished Harold C. Bennett in the many leadership roles he held, speakers said in honoring the Southern Baptist leader during a July 30 memorial service.

Bennett, 78, died July 27 of pancreatic cancer at his home in Brentwood, Tenn., near Nashville.

He was president-treasurer of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee from 1979-92 and executive secretary-treasurer of the Florida Baptist Convention from 1967-79 after earlier leadership positions with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board) and the Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources).

“[W]e shall revere and cherish all the love and light brought into our lives by both Harold and [his wife] Phyllis as long as memory lasts,” James N. Griffith, retired executive director of the Georgia Baptist Convention, told Bennett’s widow and family members and an audience of several hundred people at First Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn.

That appreciation, Griffith said, is shared by all state convention executives who were Bennett’s contemporaries.

“His reputation for fairness and graciousness to all was honestly earned,” Griffith said, noting that Bennett sought “always to be fair to all, whatever the circumstances might be.”

Griffith said he had told Bennett during a visit at the most recent SBC annual meeting in Phoenix “that I did not know of anyone who could have done a better job than he did in the particular time he served as president and treasurer of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

Describing the 1980s and early 1990s as “the most hectic, troubled and turbulent times in the history of our convention,” Griffith said, “… at no time did I observe him losing his temper, speaking in a negative way about anyone or failing to show Christian grace toward everyone. He somehow rose above the discord, rose above the littleness into bigness and never let his Christian testimony fall below the high standard of our Lord for his most faithful and dedicated servants.”

Integrity, Griffith said, “was the defining word in the life and ministry of Harold Bennett. Selfishness and self-centeredness did not occupy places in his life. With heart and hands, he forged tools that would build lasting support through our state conventions for national and world mission causes of Southern Baptists.”

In addition to Griffith, the memorial service included remarks by Denton Lotz, general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, and leaders of two organizations for which Bennett had been a key board member, Eugene Habacker, president of the American Bible Society, and Brad Smith, executive director of the Souper Bowl of Caring.

Lotz, describing Bennett as a statesman, said, “Whether meeting with world leaders or poor peasants, Harold saw them as individuals for whom Christ died.”

Lotz noted, “Harold Bennett was a southerner; he loved the South. He was a Southern Baptist; he loved the Southern Baptist Convention. He was an American, he was a patriot; he loved America. But more than all that, Harold Bennett was a world Baptist. He knew that when we sang that song ‘in Christ there is no East or West …’ we’re all one because we’re one in Jesus Christ.”

Citing the global paradigm shifts of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent disintegration of communism, along with paradigm shifts in the Southern Baptist Convention and other U.S. religious bodies, Lotz said, “… yet, through all of this, Harold Bennett had one word: He understood unity.”

Bennett saw Jesus’ prayer for unity among his followers, recorded in the Gospel of John, chapter 17, as “an evangelistic prayer of Jesus Christ,” Lotz said. “The very unity that we experience and show as Baptists from all over the world is one that will be able to bring men and women to Jesus Christ.”

During various BWA-related meetings in which Bennett participated in the range of roles he held with the global organization, from vice president to personnel committee chairman, Lotz said Bennett could be quite convincing in “the way he would argue and be rational and talk.”

And he could deliver an occasional rebuke, marked by his eyes turning steely, Lotz said. “And if you knew Harold Bennett didn’t want you to do [something], you didn’t do it.”

But moreover, Lotz said, Bennett “had a great gift of encouragement. How many times Harold Bennett would call me on the phone and say, ‘Denton, don’t worry, everything’s going to be alright, the Lord is in control.'” It’s the sort of encouragement especially needed for today’s young people as they move into leadership roles, Lotz noted.

To Phyllis, Bennett’s wife of 55 years, Lotz said, “… when we think about you, we always think about Harold and Phyllis. That just goes together. You’re a model to so many younger couples of what marriage is really about. He was always concerned about you and your health, you were always concerned about him. And what a wonderful model you were to so many of us that people in executive lives need to also keep up the romance and keep up the love.”

Eugene Habacker of the American Bible Society noted that Bennett had served on the organization’s board for more than 20 years.

“Dr. Bennett truly loved people. His smile and warm greeting have made many a cold room warm — quickly,” Habacker said. “… He lived the words of Romans 12:10, ‘Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.'”

Bennett also was “a person of tremendous focus,” Habacker said. “Harold was not lukewarm on issues, yet he always reflected a charitable attitude in the way he expressed his point of view. His views were always accompanied with the kind of integrity that marks godly leaders: Both his actions and his words gave evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in his life. Yet he kept his eye on the goal. He completed whatever he was assigned.”

Describing Bennett as a peacemaker, Habacker said, “He always sought to find the common ground, without compromising on principle. I never saw him eager to pursue division in order to win the argument. Rather, he always sought to bring people together.

“As you might imagine, in an organization as diverse as the American Bible Society, where our hallmark is to pursue our mission without sectarian or doctrinal distinction, this pursuit of peace is not always easy. Yet Dr. Bennett, through multiple board leadership roles and assignments, always sought to be a peacemaker. In that sense, Harold reflected important qualities commended by our Lord, the true Prince of Peace.”

Bennett was “truly a man of God,” Habacker continued. “I don’t know of a higher tribute I could give than this: To serve his Lord well, fully, without reservation was his sole purpose in living. In Harold’s words and in his life, this one desire was always at the top of his agenda and evident to everyone he worked with.

“He died hard at work on board projects and various assignments,” Habacker reported. “And he left us, yes, we know to go to a much better place, but he also left us a godly example of service and faithfulness to the Lord.”

Brad Smith of the Souper Bowl of Caring, a yearly emphasis to raise funds for soup kitchens and other ministries to the needy, said he first met Bennett in 1987 when he was a seminarian helping make arrangements for Protestant leaders to meet with the pope during one of his U.S. visits.

Smith said he was there “pretty much as a nobody,” yet Bennett “had a way of looking you in the eye, [and] with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face, you knew that you were a somebody. And I remembered that.”

Years later, as the Souper Bowl movement began to need a national organization, “I remembered this man I had met once who, even though I was a nobody, had looked me in the eye and treated me like a somebody. And I thought that’s the kind of man we need to help this little movement of God’s love to become what it might be.”

Bennett, at the inaugural meeting of the council of stewards, was nominated for chairman by a 17-year-old youth representative who had felt his resume “was the best.” Smith recounted Bennett, then in his early 70s, as saying, “I didn’t come anticipating being elected the chair of this, but if you need me I’ll be glad to [serve].”

Countless lives of young people have since been touched, Smith said, and more than $20 million has been raised for local ministries.

“Harold had a way of lifting us up, encouraging us,” Smith said, “so that we might reach for being who God has in mind for us to be.”

Frank Lewis, Bennett’s pastor at First Baptist Church, underscored the memorial service as a time of celebration not because he was a committed churchman, husband, father and grandfather, and “not because he served on so many boards, not because he was so precise, not because he was so friendly, not because he was such a good all-around person, but because he trusted in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.”

Bennett’s son-in-law, Paul Howard, a children’s hospital chaplain in St. Petersburg, Fla., included thankfulness to God in his benediction for Bennett’s family life, that “he was the same loving, caring, godly man at home” as he was everywhere else.

A quotation from Bennett was included in the printed order of service: “In my life, with the variety of conflicts and demands thrust my way, I have discovered that a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is the only way to maintain an inner peace. It is a joy to be a Christian and to have the privilege of serving as an ambassador for Him. I long for others to come to have a similar peace with God.”

And a passage of Scripture was printed, Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.”

In addition to his wife, Bennett is survived by two sons, Jeffrey of Palm Harbor, Fla., and Scott of Charleston, S.C.; his daughter Cynthia; and five grandchildren.

He was buried in Woodlawn Memorial Park in Nashville.

The family has designated the American Bible Society, 1865 Broadway, New York, NY 10023, and the Baptist World Alliance, 405 N. Washington St., Falls Church, VA 22046, for memorials.