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Merritt sets fast pace as Southern Baptists’ leader

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–If a movie is ever made detailing the drive that propels James Merritt, it will surely be called “The Running Man II.”

The Southern Baptist Convention president has energy abundant to make coffee nervous. Interview him and he will give insightful and candid answers while sipping water and walking at a Gatling gun pace — all the while greeting and shaking hands with everyone he sees.

Mix in a couple of cell phone calls, a brief conversation with an old acquaintance and a mad car trip across campus to gather items from his boarding room, and a reporter’s conversation gains a 10-minute snapshot of a day in the non-stop life of the SBC president.

“It’s kind of a crazy pace I guess, but I have thoroughly enjoyed it,” Merritt said of his time as president of America’s largest Protestant denomination. “This pace kind of suits my personality.”

This much is certain of Merritt, a two-time graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.: as a denominational leader and pastor of one of the SBC’s largest churches, the 48-year-old Georgia native is a pacesetter.

First Baptist Church of Snellville, Ga., serves as a tribute in microcosm to Merritt’s leadership abilities and enthusiasm for the evangelization of souls. Since Merritt took the pulpit in 1985, the church has undergone massive growth — numbering 7,826 baptisms and increasing in membership from 2,168 to nearly 12,000 as of February 2000.

In addition to leading the SBC and the mega-church, Merritt is featured on “Touching Lives,” a weekly national television ministry. He also writes articles and preaches across the country. Merritt has served in ministry of one form or another since 1971, when he became minister of youth and activities at Blackshear Place Baptist Church in his hometown, Gainesville, Ga.

Though he had served in virtually every position from youth pastor to senior pastor to SBC committee leader, Merritt says his first year as head of the convention was one of much learning. But now, as ever, the gregarious Merritt says his priority — and the key to effective leadership — remains people.

“I’ve learned a tremendous amount during my year as SBC president,” he said. “First of all, the saying really is true, ‘Everything rises and falls on leadership,’ everything. The second thing I’ve learned is that leadership … is based on relationship — the ability to relate to people, to get on their level, which then dictates your ability to motivate people to catch your vision for what needs to be done and to help you achieve that vision and make it a reality.”

One aspect of leadership Merritt sees as crucial to success is the ability to stay the course of biblical conviction despite a postmodern culture’s rejection of it. Merritt has seen this rejection of truth play out in the SBC over the past year on such emotionally-charged issues as women in the pastorate and the use of confessions of faith.

“It takes courage to be a leader,” he said. “If you’re going to be a leader, you’re going to have to make unpopular decisions. If you’re going to be a leader, you have to realize up front that you cannot please everybody.”

Merritt’s influences in terms of leadership and ministry cut across a broad spectrum — from SBC pulpit legends Jerry Vines and Adrian Rogers to political legends Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill. Another influence that looms large in his consciousness is the sports ethos. A huge fan of college football and the University of Georgia Bulldogs football team, Merritt said he gains some insights from the best in sports.

“The great coaches know how to recruit good talent, and they know how to motivate that talent once they recruit them,” he said. “They know how to set goals and objectives, so it is a great arena in which to learn valuable lessons in leadership.”

As his drive might suggest, Merritt is not content to merely sit on the sidelines of SBC life and observe trends while filling the presidency. Merritt virtually spanned the globe during his first year as president, calling the highlight of the past year his several visits to fields around the globe where SBC missionaries labor to harvest souls.

“I made a commitment with the International Mission Board to go to all 15 regions of the world (during his two years as president),” he said. “… To see the work that our missionaries are doing has been absolutely phenomenal. It has given me a much deeper appreciation for missionaries and the tremendous work we are doing around the world in trying to carry out the Great Commission. So I’d say that’s probably been my highlight of my year [as president].”

If Merritt himself is the “running man,” perhaps his tenure thus far as SBC president could be called “The Best of Times.” Merritt was overwhelmingly elected to a second term at the SBC annual meeting in June. With no controversy on the convention floor, Merritt said the New Orleans meeting was literally the Big Easy: Southern Baptists are united, and best of all, Merritt says, the denomination is about the Father’s business, the business of winning souls and propagating the Gospel.

“I anticipate [the SBC] will be peaceful for a while. I think that there’s a tremendous sense of unity and harmony in the convention and excitement about what we’re trying to do, what we’re trying to accomplish. I think there is a strong confidence in the leadership of the convention, and I think right now Southern Baptists are a happy people.”

Still, Merritt sees inroads the SBC still needs to build, particularly with young persons. The denomination’s pulpits are increasing in age, and Merritt hopes to find a way to attract more young men into leadership in both local churches and the denomination.

“We’ve got to find a way to get younger pastors involved in our convention,” he said. “I think that we’re a graying denomination, and I think we’ve got to find a way to reach more young pastors, not just in preaching itself, but also in leadership.

“We’ve also got to do a better job of reaching the next generation. We’re not doing a very good job overall of reaching teenagers and youth. The vast majority of people who come to Christ come before the age of 20. I think the third thing, and this is going to be a perennial issue … we need to keep the main thing the main thing and focus on winning people to Christ and evangelism and never letting anything else displace that as our No. 1 priority.”

    About the Author

  • Jeff Robinson

    Jeff Robinson is director of news and information at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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