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Landrum Leavell: ‘second to none’

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–In the summer of 1975, my wife and I were finishing college and preparing for a move to seminary. Our decision was mostly made, or so we thought. After a day of fasting and prayer to finalize what would be one of the more important decisions of my life, I found myself certain that I should not go to that school with a great evangelism program, in the city where my wife had just gotten her dream job, in a state where I was already known and preaching revivals widely.

Instead, I knew quite clearly that God wanted me to go to a seminary without an evangelism program, in city where Baptists were few in number and neither my wife nor I had a job, and a state in which no one had any idea who I was or had ever called on me to lead in silent prayer.

What did God use to redirect my thinking? He showed me that He intended to use living in the city of New Orleans as my primary classroom for evangelism, and He convinced me that a seminary led by its new president, an outstanding SBC pastor named Landrum P. Leavell II, was bound for great things. The reputation of Dr. Leavell was an important influence in my seminary decision. The reality of his greatness as a leader became an important influence in shaping my life.

When I arrived at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in the summer of 1975, Dr. Leavell and I had two things in common. We were both passionate about evangelism and we both came to New Orleans from Texas. Texans on the seminary campus were few and far between at that time, as were students wanting to study evangelism. He was returning to New Orleans after a fabulous ministry as a pastor and was a well-known preacher. I was coming for the first time.

Those two commonalities were enough to give us a connection, and that connection became one of the more important relationships of my life. That connection eventually included our wives, and as time went by they discovered they shared similar passions as well — passions for student wives and ministry to women, passions for hospitality and entertaining, passions that led a gifted, talented woman to immerse herself in her husband’s ministry as his helpmate and partner. We never spent large amounts of time together, and we were different in personality and gifts. We did get to know one another. We did spend time in each other’s home occasionally. We did work together more and more and learn one another’s heart. In other words, I was able to have a front row seat to see what made Dr. Leavell a great man and a great leader, and in the process of observation and collaboration I became a better man and a better leader myself.

A precise definition of greatness will never be agreed upon by all, but here is the Kelley version. Greatness is the ability to fulfill your calling effectively and efficiently, whatever the circumstances, while nurturing and building up the people around you in the process. This is the essence of the life and ministry of Dr. Landrum P. Leavell II. If I may adapt one of his favorite expressions, as a leader Dr. Leavell was better than many, equal to any, and second to none. Here are some of the reasons that cause me to celebrate his life.

Dr. Leavell always got it done. “It” was whatever God gave him to do. As a pastor, every church he served grew in conversions, attendance, budget and ministries. Go back today to any church he served and you will find he is one of their legendary pastors. The same could be said for all of the churches he served as an interim. As president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, he led the school to record enrollments, record budgets, record fundraising, the expansion of property and facilities, and pace-setting educational innovation.

As long as this seminary exists, he will be on the list of legendary presidents. If he served on a board, that board moved forward. If he accepted a civic responsibility, the progress was measurable. He did more than show up. He did more than stay out of trouble. He did more than work hard. He got done whatever had to be done for all the years of his life.

Also, he got it done efficiently. There was never waste. Dr. Leavell was very big on quality, but not impressed with flash. He always treated God’s money as if it was his own: not to be wasted, not to be used purely to impress. If you look at any building he built, any program he established, any project he undertook, you will not call it cheap, nor will you call it over the top. He made our seminary a national leader in budget efficiency and in the process he expanded our programs, enlarged our campus, and took bold steps in innovation. This is not easy to do, but he did it well, and that is why every successful businessman I know, including my father, loved him and respected him. He always got it done, efficiently and effectively.

Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that Dr. Leavell always got it done, whatever the circumstances. He was president during times of great controversy in the convention. While other schools were imploding in conflict, he kept faculty, students and trustees focused on the job at hand. Most would agree NOBTS was the SBC entity least affected by the years of conflict. That was not an accident. The greatest controversy in the history of the convention was not an excuse to be distracted from the work of preparing students for ministry. He never addressed the controversy in chapel or faculty meetings. He never used the seminary campus as a venue to express his feelings and opinions about leaders on either side. He made people on both sides mad at one time or another, but he never lost his focus on the work of NOBTS.

To give another example, most schools this large serving a particular denomination are located in a strong base of that denomination’s churches. No one has ever called the city of New Orleans a Baptist bastion. That could have been an excuse for difficulties in fundraising. Dr. Leavell went out and secured an active Catholic businessman to be the local chairman of his largest financial campaign and exceeded the campaign goals. He got it done, whatever “it” was, regardless of the circumstances. There are always reasons to fail. Dr. Leavell found ways to succeed. This is one of the more important marks of greatness. Ideal circumstances are not required. Skill, patience and strength of will are.

One of the most important aspects of great leadership emphasized and illustrated by Jesus is the effect of a leader on the people around him. Jesus accomplished the mission given to Him by the Father. He atoned for our sin. He did it, however, in a way that nurtured the people around him, producing disciples ready to take up the Gospel as He returned to the Father. It is not enough for a leader to be productive. To be truly great he must do it in a way that nurtures and develops people.

Dr. Leavell was a strong leader whom people always knew was in charge. He never let that overshadow the work of leadership development. I suppose this is where I come into his story.

Early on in our relationship, Dr. Leavell trusted me and gave me opportunities to grow and develop. He gave me opportunities to preach in settings where a person of my age rarely preached. He hired me as a faculty member though I did not have a great deal of the experience which was his usual standard. He gave me things to do without telling me how to do them. Because he was such a strong leader with such great effectiveness, many thought you could never disagree with him. It was his way or the highway. I found we could discuss, disagree, even argue a point and maintain our relationship. I knew he made the final decisions and always respected them. He allowed me to be honest and open. We rarely spent much one-on-one time together, but he maintained a nurturing climate around him. He never ceased to be an encourager.

He also did exceedingly well that which is hardest for a great leader to do. He allowed me to take up the mantle he laid down and serve the seminary in my own way with his unceasing blessing. Such a precious gift few men who follow a great leader ever receive. I will ever be in his debt.

You need to know that my story is not unique. I am only one of many who would tell a similar story about this man of importance and significance who took the time to know them, nurture them and encourage them to excellence. We are legion, and we are profoundly grateful for the privilege of being under his influence.

For these and many other reasons, the occasion of Dr. Landrum P. Leavell’s homegoing is the celebration of a life well-lived. It is the celebration of a man who was a great leader in his generation. Allow me to say it one last time. As a leader he was equal to any, better than many, and second to none. We are saddened for his family and for ourselves. We rejoice for him. His journey is now in its sweetest chapter. Well done faithful servant. Enjoy the table of the Lord!
Chuck Kelley is president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

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  • Chuck Kelley