JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–Jerry Vines announced May 1 he will retire next February as senior pastor of the historic First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Fla., stressing that he is retiring from the pastorate, not the Gospel ministry.
“After much prayer, and confident of the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the time has come to announce my retirement as your pastor,” Vines said at the end of the evening worship service. “In no way am I retiring from the Gospel ministry. I plan to devote whatever remaining time the Lord Jesus gives me to a ministry of Bible preaching, teaching and writing, and a ministry to preachers, as the Lord opens doors of opportunity.”
Meanwhile, the search committee of another prominent Florida church, First Baptist of Orlando, announced May 1 that Louisiana pastor David Uth is its recommendation to become co-pastor at the Florida Baptist congregation. Uth, who will preach May 15 in view of a call, would share pastoral duties with long-time pastor Jim Henry for an indefinite period of time, after which Henry would retire and Uth would become senior pastor.
Uth is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of West Monroe, La., where he has served since 1996. According to the church’s website, Uth is a native of Arkansas. He and his wife, Rachel, have three children. Henry, 67, pastor of the Central Florida congregation since 1977, told the church that Uth will serve alongside him and “after a while, take the ball and run with it” as senior pastor. Henry, twice-elected Southern Baptist Convention president (1994, 1995), described Uth as a “gentle, godly shepherd” and a “wonderful man of God.”
Vines expressed confidence in the health and future of First Baptist, Jacksonville.
“The time has come for a new and younger leadership to lead the church in the challenge of sharing the story of Jesus with a rapidly growing and expanding city,” he said.
In accordance with church bylaws, a three-person team — chairman and vice chairman of the deacons and the finance committee chairman — will name a pulpit committee, whose membership will be announced to First Baptist, Jacksonville May 4.
“Janet and I express to you our undying love, greatest appreciation, and deepest thankfulness for all you mean to us,” Vines said, reading from a statement.
Following his prepared remarks, Vines told the congregation, “If a pastor was called on to just draw a picture of his dream church, when he got through it would be a picture of the First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Florida. I’m thrilled to death that God has let me be the pastor of such a dream church. And He’s going to allow me to be the pastor of a dream church for another nine months.”
Appearing to stumble a bit on the words, Vines conceded, “This has been kind of a hard day.”
Vines concluded, “The church is going to flourish like it never has. We’re going to win people to Jesus like we never have. We’re going to reach out to the city. It’s going to be a grand and a glorious period of time, so that when God brings our pastor he’s going to find an on-fire-for-Jesus church at First Baptist Jacksonville.”
The congregation — many of whom cried at the news — responded with a standing ovation as Vines left the auditorium.
At a news conference following the announcement, Vines explained the rationale for the timing of the retirement.
“I have always taken the position that when it comes to retirement as a pastor you would be far better for the people to be asking the question, ‘Why did he?’ than to be asking the question, ‘Why don’t he?'” he quipped.
Vines, 67, joined Homer Lindsay Jr. in 1982 as co-pastor of First Baptist Jacksonville, following pastorates at West Rome Baptist Church in Rome, Ga. (1976-1982), and Dauphin Way Baptist Church in Mobile, Ala. (1971-1976). He shared pastoral duties until Lindsay’s death in 2000.
A leader of the conservative resurgence movement which sought to change the theological direction of the Southern Baptist Convention and its agencies during the 1980s and 1990s, Vines was elected SBC president in 1988 and 1989. He also served as a member of the Baptist Faith and Message Study Committee which recommended the 2000 revision to the statement of faith, as president of the Southern Baptist Pastor’s Conference, 1976-77, and president of the Alabama Pastors’ Conference in 1976.
In response to a reporter’s question about the recent retirement of other SBC leaders, Vines said, “Of course, we knew that this would come. Some of us — Dr. (Adrian) Rogers, and myself, and others who were involved in what has been called the conservative resurgence — were known as the young lions. We were the barbarians at the gate, so to speak, in the SBC controversy. Now we’re considered the old lions.”
Rogers — the first president elected at the beginning of the conservative resurgence in 1979 — retired this year as pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church, near Memphis, Tenn.
Although it is a time of transition in SBC leadership, “I think it’s an exciting time,” Vines said, adding, “We’re going to be in good hands in the future.”
During Vines’ tenure in Jacksonville, First Baptist Church became one of the largest churches in America and was among the annual leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention for baptisms. The church, with 28,404 members and nearly 22,000 resident members, operates facilities occupying more than nine city blocks in the heart of downtown Jacksonville, including a 10,000-seat sanctuary.
One of the most respected preachers in the Southern Baptist Convention, Vines is widely known for his commitment to expository preaching and his defense of biblical inerrancy. Considered one of his most famous sermons, Vines preached “A Baptist and His Bible” at the 1987 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention during one of the most contentious periods of Southern Baptist life.
SBC leaders offered praise for Vines’ integrity, pulpit ministry and denominational leadership.
SBC President Bobby Welch, pastor of First Baptist Church of Daytona Beach, Fla., told the Florida Baptist Witness that Vines’ announcement should “bring excitement and expectation all across the country because now Dr. Vines will become more available to more churches and conferences to share his unparalleled expository Bible study and preaching.” He added, “Dr. Vines is one-of-a-kind in so many positive ways which will help more pastors and churches all across the land.”
Morris Chapman, president of the Southern Baptist Executive Committee, called Vines “one of the greatest expository preachers of our time.” The president of the SBC Executive Committee continued, “His brilliance, passion for Christ, and heart for the lost to be saved all converge in His preaching.”
O.S. Hawkins, president of GuideStone Financial Resources (Annuity Board) and former Florida pastor, told the Witness, “This is another reminder of a passing generation of pastoral heroes. Jerry Vines is without peer in his pulpit prowess, but what is even more God-honoring is that after a half century of preaching his life has matched his lips. His character is beyond reproach and his reputation is spotless.”
Hawkins added, “Jerry Vines is not retiring; just retooling.”
James T. Draper, president of LifeWay Christian Resources — who announced his own retirement plans recently — told the Witness, “I am saddened today because the end of an era for Dr. Vines and First Baptist Church Jacksonville is at hand. On the other hand, I am excited because I know that the preaching and writing of Dr. Vines will continue on into the years ahead.”
Draper, a former SBC president, praised Vines’ preaching, noting, “His careful exegesis of God’s Word and his skillful craftsmanship of words has made him one of the most significant and appealing preachers of our time.”
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told the Witness, “[Vines] is a master of the art and science of preaching, a wordsmith who deploys the English language with skill and verve, and a pastor-theologian who dearly loves the church.” Vines “has been a central figure in the theological recovery of the Southern Baptist Convention,” Mohler added.
Former SBC president Paige Patterson applauded Vines’ “profound sense of humor” and leadership.
“While it is sorrowful to lose one of our greatest pastors, it is sweet for the Southern Baptist Convention, its churches, and its seminaries that he will be more available to us all in the future,” Patterson said. “Dr. Vines’ contribution to Southern Baptists in terms of preaching and evangelism are of enduring consequence. I wish for him the sweetest smile of Heaven.”
John Sullivan, executive director-treasurer of the Florida Baptist Convention, called Vines’ retirement “bittersweet.”
“He has been pastor to me and Nancy for the past number of years,” Sullivan said of him and his wife. “We will miss his preaching and leadership. Because of our schedule we are not able to attend First Baptist Church very often. However, when we are in the service we know we will be fed…. I will miss him in our city.”
James A. Smith Sr. is executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.floridabaptistwitness.com.