Jim Richards: The boots “still fit” after 21 years leading the SBTC

Editor’s note: This draws to a close our year-long series on many of the SBTC’s founders.

GRAPEVINE — Gerald Smith presented Jim Richards with a pair of custom-made cowboy boots when Richards was confirmed as the first executive director of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention at its inaugural meeting in Houston in 1998.

Smith said later that he and other founders figured Richards, a Louisiana native, needed a pair of cowboy boots, a necessity in Texas.

“After 21 years, my boots still fit,” Richards told the TEXAN in a recent interview. “I still love jambalaya and LSU football, but Texas is in my heart like no other place.”

Richards discussed a few of the issues surrounding his original candidacy.

The fact that he was not a native Texan almost derailed Richards’ chances for the job. Some members of the board of directors of the Southern Baptists of Texas, Inc.—the organization that preceded the then-unchartered SBTC—felt the job belonged to someone from the Lone Star State.

Others charged with recommending someone to lead the new convention were concerned about Richards’ extensive involvement with the national Southern Baptist Convention. Would choosing an SBC stalwart mean Texas was ceding control to the national entity?

Richards’ long SBC involvement included serving on the SBC’s Tellers Committee and chairing the Committee on Nominations, Committee on Order of Business, and the trustee board of the ERLC (formerly the Christian Life Commission) at various times.
Some on the board of directors preferred other candidates.

Richards himself had reservations. He had spent more than two decades pastoring churches in Louisiana and, since 1995, had been comfortably filling a role he loved as director of missions for the Northwest Baptist Association in Rogers, Arkansas.

“I loved where I lived. It was on the side of a mountain in the Ozarks. This was no perk for me to move to the concrete jungle,” Richards said of the 1998 decision that would take him from the mountains to the DFW Metroplex.

Nonetheless, when Richards finally gained assurances of support from the directors of the old SBT and the potential officers of the new SBTC, he agreed to fly down to Houston, where he was elected to lead the new convention on Nov. 9, the day before the SBTC was formally constituted.

A more thorough examination of the circumstances surrounding Richards’ selection appears in Gary Ledbetter’s history of the convention, SBTC: 20 Years of Reaching Texas and Touching the World.

When asked how he feels 21 years after taking the helm of the SBTC, Richards said with a chuckle, “I feel older.”

He admitted to having found a few surprises in his new job in 1998. He was told there were 300 affiliated churches originally; instead there were 120. Criticism from the other state convention came steadily, too.

“In the early days, there were internal forces that could have caused the convention to have been stillborn. Godly men and women stood for principles of integrity and would not let the convention go down the wrong path,” Richards said, adding, “God protected us from making poor decisions when we were very capable of doing so.”

Richards also praised SBTC staff: “God sent leader after leader to serve on staff. They provided sacrificial service to the churches of the SBTC.”

Richards’ threefold vision of the SBTC’s core values remains the hallmark of the convention today. The SBTC was to be a confessional fellowship, with affiliated churches affirming the Baptist Faith & Message 2000. The efficient use of resources was another core value, with missions and evangelism at the forefront. Finally, the new convention would cooperate in friendly partnership with the SBC, contributing significantly to the national Cooperative Program.

The 2020 SBTC budget continues this practice: 55 percent of undesignated CP receipts are forwarded to the SBC while the SBTC invests 45 percent in Texas ministries.

Richards admitted he had a goal of seeing 3,000 churches and a $30 million Cooperative Program budget by 2020.

“We came close. By God’s grace, those numbers will be reached in a few short years,” he said.

As for the SBTC’s future, Richards said much will depend upon the next generation. “The rising generation will have to hold the convictions of the founders for it to be blessed of the Lord,” he said, expressing optimism by adding, “I’m excited about the young leaders in the SBTC. I believe they will hold true to our confessional fellowship, kingdom focus and missional drive.”

Richards confirmed the SBTC must continue its commitment to the primacy and inerrancy of Scripture. “There can be no compromise relative to the Word of God,” Richards said. “God blesses his Word. He blesses those who honor his Word.”

Honoring God’s Word is something Richards has done since he was saved and called to preach at age 17. The distinguished alumnus of both New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div.) and Mid-American Baptist Theological Seminary (D.Min.), and his wife, June, have three children and four grandchildren.

Today, even some of Richards’ former detractors have been won over as they’ve seen the new convention flourish.

“You live long enough, you get to see some of these things happen,” Richards said.

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