EDITORS’ NOTE: Joni B. Hannigan, managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, spent three days in late April with Southern Baptist Convention President Bobby Welch to give readers a glimpse of his life on the road.
GREENSBORO N.C. (BP)–Admitting the Southern Baptist Convention will never be without struggles, Bobby Welch pledged to “give the best of the rest” of his life to urging and encouraging Southern Baptists to focus on evangelism.
“I have considered all other options and there is nothing in existence today — all of us will die and our children will die, before we will ever again see any organization or organism [such] as the SBC with its potential to change the world,” Welch said. “There is nothing to compare with it.”
Insisting he was not bragging, Welch said he is humble and appreciative of what God has done with the SBC.
But Baptists’ best efforts are yet needed so that “not only have we reclaimed the inerrancy of the Scripture, but that we reclaimed the Great Commission of that inerrant Scripture,” Welch said in a wide-ranging interview with the Florida Baptist Witness in Greensboro, N.C., in late April.
Welch, 63, announced his retirement May 28 from the pastorate of First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla., effective Aug. 27 when he’ll assume the role of pastor emeritus.
Approaching the end of his second one-year term as SBC president, Welch said he believes it was providential for him to have served at the helm of the convention at a time when his church brought in a co-pastor looking ahead to Welch’s transition toward retirement.
“That co-pastor [David Cox] is already called as the next preacher and he’s been there now three years,” Welch said. “So these last two years ended up being a tailor-made godsend to complete or culminate that transition from me to him.”
Welch said Cox’s presence at the church has allowed him to become an unusual SBC president, one who has met masses of Southern Baptists and their pastors at churches — after hurricanes and on the steps of burned-out sanctuaries, urging individuals to share the Gospel with his “Everyone Can!” battle cry.
“It is not possible for the preacher in average pastoring circumstances to do what I have done,” Welch said, “because you cannot walk away from the church for two years.”
ON HIS SERVICE AS PRESIDENT
In reflecting on his service as SBC president at this juncture in the convention’s history, Welch said it was “God arranging things for such a time as this,” citing the Annual Church Profile report which says the number of Southern Baptists churches declined by 11 percent between 2004 and 2005 and circumstances at the North American Mission Board prompted a change in its leadership.
“It’s no wonder that I think God was preparing to sort of try and bridge the gap and fill in the blank during these struggling times,” Welch said of his leadership and emphasis on evangelism.
Providing practical advice for how Southern Baptists should approach problems and differences of opinion, Welch said “this convention must learn to play hurt … [and] fight wounded.”
“We must become specialists at solving our problems while at the same time moving toward our objective,” Welch said. “We have fallen into the trap too often where … we all shut down everything and run to the problem and obsess on the problems…. We have to learn to stay on the high ground and solve our problems as we move along.”
ON WORKING WITH ENTITIES
Responding to questions about the role of the SBC president in helping the SBC boards and entities work through their various challenges, Welch said any president would be “duty bound” to look out for the best interests of the convention, but going beyond praying for those involved and being available for questions and conversation might be considered intrusive.
“The president of the convention, I think, generally, unless he’s really a busybody, he does not [get involved], he is not the CEO of all these organizations,” Welch said. “[The entities] really have no responsibility to report to him about what they are doing and he really has no responsibility to pry into their business.”
Welch recounted having a close working relationship with disaster relief personnel at the North American Mission Board in response to the hurricane crises of the past few years and he in connecting with state executives from the Gulf Coast areas to encourage them and provide a networking of sorts during those trying times.
“My belief is that there should be an asterisk forever and always put by the year 2005 because that’s going to have significant long-range implications as to giving, other additions, baptisms and all that” among Southern Baptists in the Gulf Coast states.
“We are not going to get over this in a year. This has been significantly traumatic for us. And as you say, all these numbers are down but the giving is up, how do you explain it? The money came in because of [Hurricane] Katrina, but that will not always be the case.”
Lamenting the fact his own church was down in the number of baptisms from 2004 to 2005, Welch said that didn’t surprise him.
“One of the reasons is, I have been gone,” he said. “That has not helped any. I hope they are going to be up this year. This … is the year of the million.”
Expanding on his view that the SBC president should not be overly involved in the actions of trustee boards of entities, Welch responded to questions of his view of the new International Mission Board guidelines on baptism approved by trustees during his tenure.
“At the end of the whole discussion, what I believe is that we have the trustee approach to operations in place and we have to trust that and let them work,” Welch said. “I am trusting them to continue to work through this. I don’t think we are finished with it. I expect there will be conversation on these subjects on the floor of the convention.”
On what he believes and his church practices regarding baptism, Welch said he believes scriptural baptism is “when you are immersed in a local church to show the outward expression of your inward commitment to the Lord. I think every believer should follow the Lord in believer’s baptism.
“First Baptist Daytona just doesn’t open its arms to everybody who says, ‘Hey, I’ve been put under the water,’ just because they say [that],” he continued.
If a person was baptized by a church which believes in regenerate baptism, for instance, Welch said they would not accept that as scriptural baptism because “that’s not ‘like faith and practice.’”
That said, “Now when you come to the question, what do I think about the IMB’s policy on baptism, now that’s two different things,” he explained. Expressing confidence in the way SBC entities are led by boards of trustees, Welch said that’s the way of things.
“The truth of it is that we have to labor under where the board is now. Because that’s the way it works. It really doesn’t matter at this point what I think about, what you think about, or what [IMB President] Jerry Rankin thinks about it; it’s what the board has said is the policy,” Welch said. “We live by the board. They make the rules and that’s the way it works. We can all say, ‘Well, I don’t do it just like that,’ or ‘I don’t do it like this.’ But that’s how it works; we elect those trustees to be trusted people.”
Welch said he believes the IMB’s trustees should work to resolve their difficulties and not bring these issues to the convention floor of the SBC annual meeting in Greensboro.
“The convention is not equipped, in my view, in a general assembly, to deal with all these circumstances. That’s why we have the trusteeship,” Welch emphasized.
“It is a disservice to the convention, because the convention is not best equipped to deal with these things as a whole. It is like when trustees and CEOs cannot handle the circumstance and it is forced to the floor of the convention,” Welch continued. “That is tantamount to sending a man with a splinter in his eye out to ask the 1,000 people to get it out all at the same time. You are going to end up losing your whole eye with good-intentioned people trying to help you.”
On the other hand, messengers to the annual meeting can bring any issue before the convention, Welch said. If, however, messengers must guide trustees “from the floor of the convention,” that defeats the purpose of electing responsible trustees except in “extraordinary circumstances,” he concluded.
Welch said the trustee system is not what is broken, however, and has served Southern Baptists well.
“I am certain this is not the first time that we’ve had struggles. I am certain it will not be the last time. We must learn how to move through these hard channels but not lose focus on the larger goal of what we are doing together collectively,” Welch added.
On being collective, inclusive and accommodating, Welch said the SBC has always been large enough to include people with various viewpoints — such as those involved in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, those who are Calvinists and those who are charismatics.
“I think the convention will always be forced to [accommodate] because people change their positions,” he said. “Many of those groups you named, I guarantee you, if you research it that the odds are that many of them were not that way 10 years ago. They have a newfound experience. And people move around in their position and in their practice.
“So we’re always going to have to deal with that,” Welch said. “To me, my whole concern and focus is to be able to create this unity of purpose that outruns and rises above the ability of splinter groups to thwart the progress that we’re making to carry out the Great Commission — regardless of which group it is — and you might add to that, all those who might niche-market our convention into their direction.”
On whether Calvinist views might affect evangelism, Welch said it depends on “what strand of Calvinism” is being discussed. Using D. James Kennedy, the Presbyterian pastor at Coral Ridge Ministries in Fort Lauderdale, as an example, Welch said Kennedy, who founded Evangelism Explosion, is a Calvinist whose kind of approach to the Gospel will not hurt evangelism.
“If it is a strand of non-evangelism, regardless of where it comes from, [and] it does not foster or strengthen the reaching of lost people,” that would be detrimental, Welch said. “We’re going to reach lost people by preaching the Gospel and sharing the Good News of Christ…. And anything that slows that or impedes that is contrary to our best efforts for evangelism.”
Welch said he has seen examples of this in Southern Baptist churches.
“I have seen churches, of course, who have gone this route and pastors who have gone this route and you see what happens to their approach to evangelism, I’ve seen some of that,” he said. “Beyond that, I don’t know how else I would know that.”
Drawing on the issue of evangelism, Welch said he admits to having been single-minded about the issue during his two years as president.
“I plead guilty,” he quipped. “There are a number of other issues and I’ve not been unaware of those and I have tagged base on a number of things along the way, but I have, in every one of them, always drawn a straight, bright line to reaching people. I carried thousands of hundred dollar bills to the Gulf Coast and gave them out, but I never gave any of them out that I didn’t connect them with the Gospel.
“I tried to be that focused and consistent with everything I did this year, because I operate under the absolute conviction that we do not have one problem as a convention or a church that soul-winning will not solve. Not one,” Welch continued. “So anything I talk about or am involved with — somewhere along the line, there’s gonna be a line connected to that and evangelism.”
ON CHRISTIAN EDUCATION
Responding to a question about Christian education, Welch said churches should be involved and can’t do “enough to try to impact education from the Christian perspective.”
“I frankly think that despite all of our best efforts for salvaging the morality of public school, that the brightest days of the private school have not yet arrived and I pray that when that day comes that there will be an overwhelming majority of them as Christian private schools,” Welch said.
As for more intentional involvement on the part of Southern Baptist entities to help equip churches to provide Christian education, Welch said “everything that’s good needs to be bigger.”
“Right now if we don’t get good at reaching people, we’re not going to be good at much of anything,” he warned, “because we can’t continue on this route that we are now following. You can be the best at a number of things, and you name them, but if there’s nobody’s here, you are not going to be very good at anything long.”
ON LOOKING BACK
Welch said, in reflecting on his two years as president, he would like his actions to be seen as “evangelistically outgoing with broad personal connection.”
“I wanted it to be hands-on. I have wanted the people at all walks of the convention to feel like they count as much as anybody else. That’s why … two months in Nashville, two months here, a month or so on the bus, all these other things,” he said. “This has been hugely personally intensive, these two years. That’s not brag, that’s just fact. And that’s the only way I knew how as one person to get at this.”
Welch said the words he will hear echoed time and again will be snatches of conversation from people of many different backgrounds and experiences who said repeatedly, “I can’t believe it. I never thought — and I can’t believe — the president of the convention came.”
Recalling one encounter with a retired director of missions back in a rural hollow of western North Carolina at a pastors’ luncheon, Welch described the stooped, bald-headed man grabbing him by the shoulders with a big smile and bright eyes and saying, “Hey, I just can’t believe it. I’d never thought I’d see the president of the SBC come up here.”
Welch said his only disappointment is that he couldn’t speak to more people.
“This convention is so longing to do as a body what Christ would like to see it do together and it just waits for someone to touch them and encourage them in how to do that,” Welch said. “If we could just touch more people with this encouragement that we have been able to give maybe personally to 100,000 or so, then it would make a difference, a bigger difference.”