ORLANDO, Fla. (BP)–“If I had a thousand lives, I’d be a pastor,” Jim Henry said in a wide-ranging hour-and-a-half interview with the Florida Baptist Witness reflecting on nearly a half-century of pastoral ministry, including more than 28 years as pastor of First Baptist Church in Orlando, Fla.
“As I look at nearly a half-century that went really, awfully fast, I feel like David … when he sat down and considered God’s blessing, he said, ‘Who am I and who is my father’s house that you’ve set me in this place.’ And that’s the way I feel about God’s grace and goodness to me. I’m awed and eternally grateful.”
The interview came amid a weeklong celebration of Henry’s tenure at First Baptist, including his final sermon as pastor March 19; various recognition dinners with constituencies of the mega-church; and a special two-and-a-half-hour celebration service March 26. Henry concludes his pastorate March 31.
During the March 26 celebration service, Henry was named pastor emeritus of the 13,000-member church he has led since 1977.
Other recognitions during the service included:
— an announcement that an auditorium at LifeWay Christian Resources’ Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina will be named “The Dr. James B. ‘Jim’ Henry Auditorium,” presented by James T. Draper Jr., retired president of LifeWay Christian Resources, and personnel committee member John Bozard.
— an endowment in Jeanette Henry’s name to assist pastors’ wives to attend the annual meeting of Florida Baptist State Convention, made on behalf of the church and the Florida Baptist Convention and presented by church member Lois Wenger and John Sullivan, executive director-treasurer of the Florida Baptist Convention.
— a gift from the deacons of the chalice Henry used to serve the Lord’s Supper for more than 20 years at First Baptist Orlando.
During the March 26 service symbolizing the transition in leadership, David Uth, the new senior pastor who was called as co-pastor last May, washed the feet of Henry, and Henry “passed the mantle” to Uth with a shawl and in a dedicatory prayer over Uth.
Under Henry’s leadership, First Baptist Orlando outgrew its the downtown campus and moved to the present John Young Parkway campus, premiered Singing Christmas Trees, opened a community crisis pregnancy center and opened The First Academy, a K-12 Christian school.
In his final sermon to the congregation March 19, Henry walked on the platform carrying a briefcase telling the church, “Well, I’m on my way out.” The briefcase held eight Bibles, from the first one given to him after his baptism by his first pastor, W.F. Powell at First Baptist Church in Nashville, down through all the Bibles he has used during 45 years of pastoral ministry.
Henry’s final sermon as pastor, “The Worthiness of Jesus” from Revelation 18:11-16 and Psalm 24:7-10, is among his favorites, delivered more than 50 times during his ministry, he said.
“For 45 years I’ve been inviting people to follow Jesus, to trust Jesus as Savior and Lord,” Henry said.
Concluding his sermon using every letter of the English alphabet to highlight a different attribute of Jesus, Henry told the congregation, “All we need from A to Z, He’s worthy. … Consider Jesus as your Savior and Lord of your life. Consider Jesus, the coming King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”
Following Henry’s final sermon, Uth told the congregation, “Can I tell you guys a secret? This wasn’t the last time Jim Henry’s going to preach right here.”
During a March 21 retirement dinner with 600 members who have served in leadership positions during Henry’s tenure, Henry was presented a “first-class” golf vacation in Scotland, including one round of golf at the historic Saint Andrew’s Golf Course, and Jeanette Henry was given a set of travel luggage.
In his retirement -– or “redeployment” as he prefers to call it -– Henry will focus on mentoring young pastors and assisting churches, he said in the Witness interview.
“[When] people are at their deepest point of opportunities and needs, nobody can be there more than a pastor can,” Henry said, adding in a final encouragement to pastors, “If God’s got that call on your life, love Him, love His Word, love His people. If God’s called you, look at it with a sense of joy and expectancy and thrill –- the adventure of pastoring.”
Henry, 68, said the time was right to step down as pastor -– for him and his wife and for the church.
“If God gave me health and strength, I wanted enough time to go and do two things -– encourage churches and help younger pastors or pastors. I didn’t want to stay until I was so tired and spent that I had nothing left to give back to the next generation of leadership,” he said.
Henry also said -– through tears -– that it was time for him to give more to his wife who has had health problems in recent years.
“I can give more to her now at this time in her time,” he said. “She’s been a great trooper. I want to give her what she so richly deserves. So, I’ll get to do that.”
Henry told the Witness his greatest satisfaction in ministry is “seeing lives transformed by Jesus Christ and maturing in the faith, and the personal relationships with people. … I feel like I’m rich in those experiences in the four churches I’ve pastored.”
He noted, “Other opportunities have come along since I’ve been here to do other things, but God gave me a shepherd’s heart, He made me a pastor.”
Acknowledging that one of those opportunities was to become president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Henry said he does not regret his decision to stay in Orlando, although “I really struggled with it; Jeanette and I both did.”
Henry said the biggest challenge in ministry has been balancing the demands of ministry with time for his family and “carving out time to be quiet before the Lord.”
Henry said “some basic human needs never change” -– whether he was pastoring his first church in rural Mississippi as a student at New Orleans Seminary 45 years ago or a mega-church in a major metropolitan city like Orlando today.
“That guy sitting in the pew at Mt. Pisgah [Baptist Church] and the guy sitting in the pew at First Baptist here nearly 50 years later, I see the same guy, the same lady a lot of times, and the same Christ able to step into their lives and make a difference. Those things don’t change,” he said.
Henry agreed, however, that the breakdown in the Judeo-Christian consensus in America has heightened the degree of “brokenness” in people to which churches must minister.
Once again, fighting back tears, Henry recalled the simple desire of hurting people who need the gentle touch of a minister, telling the story of a recently married young man who wanted Henry to meet his wife because as a boy Henry would occasionally touch his and his mother’s shoulder when he came into the sanctuary at Nashville’s Two Rivers Baptist Church.
The young man recalled how as a boy he was grieving the loss of his father and told Henry years later, “You didn’t know it, but that was the glue that held us together for a long time. And I wanted my wife to meet you because you held me together when I was very vulnerable and I wanted to come and say, Thank you.”
Henry told the Witness, in a barely audible voice, “That knocked me out of the park. I just didn’t realize that.”
Recalling his two terms as president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 1994-96, Henry said his most enjoyable experiences were “seeing the great heartbeat of Southern Baptists,” introducing evangelist Billy Graham during the SBC’s sesquicentennial celebration in 1995, leading the SBC in a resolution of racial reconciliation acknowledging the convention’s complicity in slavery and lack of support for civil rights for African Americans, and representing the SBC in meetings with presidents and other political leaders, including trips to observe the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan and to Israel for the funeral of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Henry conceded that he did not enjoy the boycott of the Disney corporation, which he publicly opposed, and expressed puzzlement “that some people felt me suspect in my convictions as a conservative.”
Henry was elected president in the first contested election between conservatives after the “Conservative Resurgence” of the SBC had begun in 1979 in an effort to move the denomination back to its historic commitment to conservative theology.
Henry has led First Baptist Orlando to be among the SBC’s strongest supporters of the Cooperative Program, a commitment which brought the recognition of the SBC Executive Committee in 2000 when Henry was honored with the M.E. Dodd Award.
Reflecting on that award, Executive Committee President Morris H. Chapman told the Witness, “Jim Henry has displayed a loyalty to the Southern Baptist Convention throughout the years of his ministry that is a model for all pastors, present and future.”
Henry expressed concern about the future of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Referencing the SBC’s baptism statistics, he said, “I feel like in some ways we’ve kind of flat-lined, and in a growing population that bothers me.”
On the other hand, Henry said that he is encouraged by the young people who are fiercely committed to the mission field, even in the most difficult places of the world.
Although his calendar is already full for the first year of his “redeployment,” Henry said he is still not entirely sure what retirement will hold.
“It’s kind of a step of faith for me. … My passion and interest are in encouraging churches and helping pastors,” he said.
During the March 26 celebration service, the church was told that a donor had given $100,000 to establish a fund to be used at Henry’s discretion to assist and mentor young pastors.
Henry and his wife will maintain their memberships at First Baptist Orlando, although they plan on spending summers in North Carolina, promising to not “be in the shadow” of Uth, but instead to be “his best cheerleader,” Henry told the Witness.
“It’s time to back off and let the young guys take it and run with it.”
James A. Smith Sr. is executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, on the Web at www.floridabaptistwitness.com.