NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Many Southern Baptists never have heard of John R. (Jack) Wilkerson, but if they have been to any annual meeting the past 14 years, they’ve seen his work on display.
Since 1993 Wilkerson has been in charge of the planning and execution of the annual meeting — making sure that when the approximately 10,000 messengers show up, everything runs smoothly. It’s a formidable task, and one that Wilkerson and his team spent year-round performing. But it no longer will involve Wilkerson, who at the end of September retired as the Executive Committee’s vice president of business and finance.
“It’s certainly far beyond anything I had ever believed I would be doing in ministry,” Wilkerson said of his service at the Executive Committee. ” … The relationships are the greatest memory, and that will be the toughest thing to leave.”
A native Virginian, Wilkerson came to the Executive Committee as a lifelong but relatively unknown Southern Baptist, having never served on any entity board or convention committee, although he had attended meetings as a messenger, including most of the ones in the 1980s, and was one of the thousands of messengers essential to the success of the Conservative Resurgence. But when Executive Committee President Morris H. Chapman phoned Wilkerson in 1993 to see if he was interested in the position, it was the first time they had spoken.
It was a call out of the “clear blue sky” for Wilkerson, who had worked for DuPont for nearly 29 years but had retired at age 50 because he and his wife, Brenda, sensed a call into full-time ministry. But he didn’t know where God would lead him. He sent letters to friends, requesting prayer for wisdom and guidance, and eventually one of those friends got word to Chapman about Wilkerson’s availability.
In addition to his duties for the SBC annual meeting, Wilkerson’s role at the Executive Committee has included oversight of the receiving and disbursing of Cooperative Program funds and designated gifts, as well as daily management and maintenance of the seven-story SBC Building in Nashville.
But his behind-the-scenes work in planning meetings may have had the most eternal impact. Wherever they traveled, Wilkerson and his planning team of Lynn Richmond (his administrative assistant) and Donald Magee (the EC’s associate vice president for finance) made it a goal of sharing Christ with the people they met — in big cities such as Phoenix and St. Louis and smaller venues such as Greensboro, N.C. In most years at least one or two people accept Christ during meeting preparations.
“The Lord has given us such a platform to have an impact for evangelism as we go into these different cities,” Wilkerson said. “… We deal with people who work tremendous hours in hotels and convention centers. They work days and days back to back, and a lot of times they’re not in church and have no relationship with Christ. And I’m thankful the Lord has given us the opportunity to share our faith, resulting in a number of people coming to Christ.
“Anybody can plan a meeting. It’s unique, we think, if you plan it with a heart for people who are lost.”
One example took place several years ago in New Orleans, after the annual meeting had adjourned and Southern Baptists had left the city, when a food services worker learned that her father had died. She called Richmond, who by then was back in Nashville but was able to minister to the woman, who wasn’t saved.
“That’s the kind of relationships that are built,” Wilkerson said. “They’re lasting relationships.”
Those relationships are built, in part, because planning for the annual meeting is a lengthy process, allowing Wilkerson and company to get to know people. Initial planning begins five to seven years out from the target date, and the final, detailed planning begins one year out. Final planning for the 2008 meeting, for example, began almost immediately after the 2007 one adjourned. And, because the typical meeting has a $12 to $14 million impact on each city, most local officials are happy to work with the SBC’s planning team, who visit the city eight to 10 times in the year leading up to a meeting.
“The convention is not a stressful time for me because of the way we plan it,” he said. “If you don’t plan it over the entire year, if you waited until the last several months to plan it, then it probably would be stressful because there’s a lot of things that have to be done on time. But with Don and Lynn, we plan every month. We get there and train the local people. We do our work. So when we go to set up [in June], it’s basically done.”
Prior to most meetings Wilkerson met the mayor, gave him a Bible and prayed for him. Wilkerson said he prayed the words of Jeremiah 29:7 — that the mayor and the city would enjoy success.
There are many other memories, including meeting contemporary Christian musicians such as the Gaither Vocal Band, and, in 1997 in Dallas, meeting then-Gov. George W. Bush, who was there to greet messengers but arrived early and had half an hour to kill. Wilkerson entertained Bush until it was time for Bush to speak.
“So for 30 minutes I got to sit with the now-president of the United States in the Green Room, coat off and feet on the table, just talking,” Wilkerson said. “He wanted to know about the convention, he wanted to know about my family, he wanted to know what [the reporters] were going to ask him.”
Although retired, Wilkerson is insistent that he’s not quitting ministry. He plans on working more for Crown Financial Ministries, which he has worked for, on the side, for the past 24 years, helping families who are struggling with debt. He eventually will teach Crown’s courses at churches.
“I really have a burden for teaching biblical principles, because our country is plagued with debt,” he said. “It’s an anchor around lost people’s lives, and if you look at the statistical data, it’s an anchor around believer’s lives. Statistical data says believers and lost people live about the same.
“It’s almost as if the pastors today are preaching in jails, because the people sitting in the pews are prisoners, and they’re prisoners to debt. Debt enslaves people. ‘The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is the servant to the lender’ — Proverbs 22:7. The enslavement to debt is tremendous. If people can’t do what God wants them to do, then they’re not free.”
Wilkerson has strong convictions on the subject because he and his wife once faced possible bankruptcy, although it never was declared. They paid off their last debt in 1987 and haven’t had any debt since.
“I’ve been there,” he said of financial problems. “Personal experience drew me to biblical principles because I was searching for solutions.”
Wilkerson and his wife also plan on traveling, perhaps most often to Colorado, where their daughter and son-in-law, who works for Focus on the Family — and twin grandchildren — live.
“I’m not going to quit,” he said of his ministry. “I’m not going to rust out.”
Michael Foust is assistant editor of Baptist Press.