DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (BP)–Bobby Welch’s 32-year pastorate at First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla., came to an end Aug. 27, focusing attention on the theme of his ministry –- winning people to faith in Jesus Christ.
During a special worship service celebration, Welch gave his evangelistic final charge to the congregation and baptized eight people.
Welch delivered his sermon in bare feet after co-pastor David Cox had washed his feet in an emotional ceremony in which Cox reciprocated the gesture Welch made in the prior week’s worship service when he washed Cox’s feet, symbolizing the pastoral transition. Leaving his shoes and socks off, Welch said it was appropriate, given he was “standing on holy ground.”
Preaching from 2 Timothy 4:6, Welch said, “The time of my departure is at hand,” and told the church he had three words for them -– “thanks,” “come” and “go.”
His long list of thanks included “the good Lord for saving me,” his family, the pulpit committee that called him, church staff colleagues and church members over the years.
Welch noted the words of Jesus, “Come unto Me,” which are prominently displayed in the sanctuary of the church conveying Jesus’ message to the lost and to the saved.
The immediate past president of the Southern Baptist Convention told the congregation they must “go to the lost” and win them to Christ.
“Do whatever you’re going to do … for the lost,” Welch said.
“You cannot fail by giving your life to reach the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. You can fail by just hanging out with the 99 and forgetting the one lost and without Christ,” Welch added, alluding to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18:12-14.
Participating in the foot washing service were the church’s ministerial staff who each brought a cup of water; Welch’s longtime assistant Peggy Campbell who brought a pitcher of water; Martha LaNasa, 43, one of the first persons Welch baptized in 1974 after he began his pastorate; and Shawn Johnson, an 8-year-old boy who was the last person Welch baptized.
“Martha and Shawn represent the bookends, if you will, of this ministry,” Cox said before washing Welch’s feet. “If there was only one thing in the ministry that Bro. Bobby could be known for based on these last 32 years, what would it be?” Cox rhetorically asked, and then answered, “Soul-winning.”
A white towel embroidered with “1974 BHW 2006” used by Cox in the ceremony was then given to Welch who used it to wipe the tears from his eyes.
The congregation honored Welch by naming him pastor emeritus; announced that the pulpit made of three crosses designed by Welch would be “retired” and put on prominent display in the church; presented family portraits of the entire Welch family and the grandchildren; and gave a love offering contributed by members and friends from across the Southern Baptist Convention.
Video tributes came from John Sullivan, executive-director of the Florida Baptist Convention, and Joe Kines, assistant football coach at the University of Alabama.
Sullivan told Welch in the video, “Your passion for evangelism has never waned from the first time I heard you preach in New Orleans, La., years ago where you talked about evangelism and winning people to faith in Jesus Christ.” Welch served on the search committee that ultimately recommended Sullivan for his current post.
Sullivan also praised Welch for his “consistency in the preaching of the Gospel” and said he was “true and faithful to the Gospel.”
Kines, a college classmate and roommate of Welch’s at Jacksonville State University in Alabama, said he was able to get season tickets for Welch and former First Baptist Jacksonville pastor Jerry Vines to Alabama home football games, directing the camera to a large photo of a jam-packed stadium on the wall behind him, teasingly pointing to the worst seats in the cavernous arena.
Considering Welch’s ministry, Kines added, “Probably somewhere in heaven you could assemble all the people that you were responsible for getting there, and that would make a pretty good crowd,” once again motioning to the stadium photo.
A letter of congratulations from President George W. Bush also was read to the congregation. “By answering the universal call to serve, you have helped spread the joy of God’s blessings, mercies and grace to those around you,” Bush said to Welch in the letter.
Charles Allen, a member of the pulpit committee that recommended Welch in 1974, told the “story of how all this began. I’ve been here for the entire journey.”
Allen recounted that Welch was recommended to the committee early in the search process but the letter went back to the “bottom of the stack” because the then assistant pastor at a Nashville, Tenn., church was too young at age 31.
“Routinely, a letter with the name of Bobby Welch kept making its return to the top of that stack. We read it again and prayed. Oh, but he’s just too young,” Allen said.
But after considering other more “promising” candidates, “that letter at the bottom of the stack kept rising to the top of the stack” and Welch became pastor in August 1974.
Allen summarized Welch’s ministry by stating: “Thirty-two years of pastor-church relationship that brought new life and vision to our membership; outreach programs that led many to Christ and increased our membership; building programs and property development that gave us room to minister; programs that reached out to our community, missions teams that reached the lost around the world; [the evangelistic strategy] FAITH, for us, for the entire United States and for much of the world; increased staff to lead us and run the race with us; glorious preaching that touched our hearts, stirred our consciences, inspired us to witness and minister, and to live our lives for Jesus.”
With his voice breaking, Allen concluded, “So, today 32 years later, we come to the end of that wonderful journey with him as our pastor. And today, pastor, we thank you, I thank you and honor and congratulate you on a job well done and a life well-lived. We’re eternally grateful…. I’m so glad that letter of recommendation kept floating to the top of the stack. To God be the glory.”
Emotional tributes also were given live and via videotape by members of the Welch family –- his wife Maudellen, son Matthew and daughter Haylee.
“As a father, you have always had time for us,” Matthew said. “Whether it was talking, listening or discipline, you’ve always made time for us. Nothing took place in the course of your day that was more important than your family.”
“You have always been our biggest and best cheerleaders and now it’s our privilege to be your biggest cheerleaders,” Haylee told her parents via video.
Maudellen, having thought she could voice her comments without breaking down, told the congregation, “I should have put it on video, especially once Matthew started.”
Welch’s wife commended her husband’s ministry and playfully told him after working “seven days a week” for the Lord at the church for 32 years, “Perhaps you will have the chance to enjoy some rest, but I do have list of things that need to be done around the house -– a long list.”
In his own video comments, Welch recalled a letter dated Feb. 17, 1987, he wrote “to the Lord” on his 44th birthday while in India that he found in his office desk while “in the throes” of cleaning out his office.
Writing to the Lord, Welch said of his wife who led him to Christ, “My very first real view at you, Lord, was in a person like her. For your sovereign way that you allowed such a risk of her happiness and soul’s joy to be an eternal lifeboat to rescue me, all the while she was chancing a double-drowning with a guy like me.”
In his live remarks, Welch told the congregation, “It’s time for you to go where God is leading you in the future. It’s time for me to go do whatever God’s going to do with me. But I can promise you this as we go different ways today, if we keep coming to Jesus and we keep going for the lost … we will continue to see each other and bump into each other on the journey.
“So, today … we are not saying goodbye,” Welch continued. “We realize as we go that we will see you later -– we’ll see you later here, God willing; if we don’t, we’ll see you later there. The time of my departure is at hand. Now, I’m going to practice what I preach. I’m going. I’m going.
“Maudellen and I love you beyond words,” Welch concluded, with the congregation responding with a sustained standing ovation.
In a brief interview following the service, Welch told the Florida Baptist Witness newsjournal that his pastoral retirement would allow him to continue what he started as SBC president to encourage Southern Baptists in evangelism.
As he had done for the Southern Baptist Convention annual meetings in Nashville and Greensboro, Welch plans to relocate to San Antonio to assist with pre-convention evangelism efforts in the months leading up to the annual meeting. Welch said that he has begun talks with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention about the effort.
“I believe that our greatest possibility to change the world is through the Southern Baptist Convention,” Welch told the Witness. “And so I want to do all I can in any way I can to continue to urge and encourage our churches, their pastors and people, to do evangelism and discipleship.”
James A. Smith Sr. is executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, on the Web at www.floridabaptistwitness.com.