Ledbetters leave legacy of ‘positive truthfulness’

Gary and Tammi Ledbetter

GRAPEVINE—Gary and Tammi Ledbetter, noted journalists in Southern Baptists’ conservative movement, have drawn the praise of friends and co-workers as their 21 years of service in the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention ends.

Gary gave direction to the SBTC’s news journal, the Southern Baptist TEXAN, as its editor while writing columns that were neighborly in tone but clearly biblical and Baptist in perspective. He will remain in an advisory position with SBTC communications but is stepping down as TEXAN editor at the close of 2021.

Tammi penned an array of stories—covering SBTC annual meetings and Executive Board sessions and recording the witness for Christ of pastors and church members across the state—while also nurturing the TEXAN’s cadre of correspondents.

“A ‘positive truthfulness’ is their hallmark,” said Jim Richards, executive director of the SBTC since its founding in 1998, who transitioned from the post in July after the election of his successor, Nathan Lorick.

"They never backed away from putting in print what had to be said, but they also did it with grace and dignity."

“They never backed away from putting in print what had to be said,” Richards said of the Ledbetters, “but they also did it with grace and dignity.

“Gary set the gold standard for state convention papers over the last two decades” while Tammi conveyed “insight beyond the average news story. Her pursuit of the facts and desire to capture the entire account is unparalleled.

“We got a two-fer with Tammi and Gary,” Richards said. “They had traveled the road of the Conservative Resurgence. By life experience they could speak into events and denominational situations with precise acumen.”

Lorick, who served as SBTC director of evangelism from 2012 to 2017, said the convention’s communications team “would not be where we are today without the faithful ministry of Gary and Tammi. They have set the bar high and created a culture of excellence in telling God’s stories across Texas. As we move into the future, the impact the Ledbetters have had will always be evident.”

Roots in the gospel

Their native state of Arkansas is where it all began.

“Extended family was a huge influence on my spiritual development,” Gary recounted. “The consistent example and daily religious practice of several Ledbetters showed me the gospel.”

He turned to Christ during a week of Vacation Bible School at Bethel Heights Baptist Church in Fayetteville between the fifth and sixth grade. “My grandmother was the teacher. I made a public profession the next Sunday and was baptized in a local creek a couple of weeks later.”

Tammi is among an estimated 500,000-plus people who made professions of faith under the preaching of Angel Martinez, whose evangelistic ministry spanned six decades.

“He clearly presented the plan of salvation in a way that I could easily understand at a time in my life when the Holy Spirit was working to convict me of the need for a Savior.”

They went to high school together and their relationship grew.

“I realized that I not only loved her,” Gary said, “but had more in common with her than with anyone.”

As for Tammi, “Through years of friendship with Gary, and each of us sensing a call to ministry, we realized God had called us to marry and serve him together.”

They married in 1976 after Tammi finished a journalism and speech degree at the University of Arkansas. Gary earned a bachelor’s degree from Criswell College in 1978 while Tammi edited the school’s Shofar magazine. Gary earned a Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1981 and a Doctor of Ministry from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., in 2000.

Turning points

Gary recalled “standing under the dome [in Southwestern’s flagship building] thinking of my New Testament prof who ridiculed us for believing that God would judge the dead and my ethics prof who advocated for Roe v. Wade. I remember that day as if it was yesterday and had the thought that I could not be a Southern Baptist if this is what we supported.”

Tammi had taken theology, church history and evangelism classes at Criswell and became “more aware of the concerns about being faithful to Scripture and the way that our entities were led.” The practical outworking of such views “especially in regard to pro-life issues seemed to put the spotlight on that for me.”

After  Gary worked in college and student ministry at churches in Indiana and Texas, the Ledbetters joined the staff of the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana, he as editor of the Indiana Baptist newspaper and director of collegiate ministries, and she as the paper’s managing editor.

Marty King, a member of the Indiana convention’s Executive Board then, noted, “Both had their hands full—Gary in two of the most challenging roles on the small state convention staff and Tammi raising three kids and writing state and national convention stories.

"The Indiana Baptist was, to a great degree, the voice of the Conservative Resurgence in the 1980s. I soon came to see Gary as a calm, thoughtful administrator with a gift for biblically-based editorial writing. Tammi was the bulldog writer the SBC needed at that paper. They were perfect for Indiana Baptists and for the SBC."

“The Indiana Baptist was, to a great degree, the voice of the Conservative Resurgence in the 1980s. I soon came to see Gary as a calm, thoughtful administrator with a gift for biblically-based editorial writing. Tammi was the bulldog writer the SBC needed at that paper. They were perfect for Indiana Baptists and for the SBC,” said King, who later served as director of communications for the North American Mission Board, associate executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association, and director of corporate communications for Lifeway Christian Resources.

Arriving in Texas

The Ledbetters joined the SBTC staff in 2001 after 7 years with Indiana Baptists and 5 years at Midwestern Seminary, where Gary was vice president for student development and Tammi, director of communications.

With the SBTC, Gary edited the TEXAN and served as staff liaison with the convention’s Texas Ethics & Religious Liberty Committee. Tammi, who preceded Gary in retirement in 2020, initially served as managing editor of the state paper and later as news editor, assignments editor and special reports editor.

The couple relocated to the Fayetteville area, close to family in 2021.

The Ledbetters, as part of the Richards-led SBTC staff, have seen the convention grow from 120 affiliated churches in 1998 to nearly 2,700 churches today.

“It’s been a joy to see churches doing well, being faithful, [and] for people to see the stories we’re publishing issue by issue,” Gary said. And in convention affairs, “never having to spin the truth to keep people from knowing what we’re doing has been a privilege.”

King called Gary’s editorials “as applicable in Texas as they were in Indiana” or anywhere else reflecting on the Christian family, missions, the local church, denominational affairs and biblical ethics. “His pieces always helped his readers think about what it means to be a believer, a parent, a church member and a Southern Baptist,” King said.

In an editorial titled “The sting of death,” for example, Gary exhorted fellow believers to “listen to a culture that speaks foolishly of ultimate things. Watch those who twitch and fidget at Grandma’s funeral. There is no solution to their fear but the gospel we bear. Remember that we will all die either in terror or in bright anticipation of the God we all will meet. … How can we, believing what we say we believe, be uncaring about the fate of our neighbors?”

On instances of leadership tumult, Gary wrote in 2019, “I deeply regret the details of some of the transitions Southern Baptists have faced in the past couple of years. That does not mean that nothing good can come of the transition—far from it. New faces, new skill sets and new generations in the top slot will be alternately annoying and delightful as our institutions implement new visions. Since new vision is necessary, we can shrug off some of the annoyances. A new slate of leaders committed to innovation and well-versed in the reasons for the things we’re already doing sounds like progress for our Great Commission work.”

Gary said his mother raised him to be a “voracious reader,” spawning an interest in “dabbling in writing because I loved good writers of history, poetry and fiction.” Of his editorials, he emphasized commonality of interest with his readers: “I hoped people would think about something that had intrigued me, be convicted or encouraged by something that moved me, know something that I’ve had occasion to know and, on occasion, to be outraged by something outrageous.”

Respected reporting

Tammi, meanwhile, was a frontline writer for both the TEXAN and Baptist Press, covering the news conference held by each of the SBC’s newly elected presidents for more than 20 years. In Texas, she found covering missionary appointment services to be especially meaningful.

“I always tried to give everybody a chance to state their opinion in their words, to quote them as fully as possible,” she said, describing her journalistic method as “a fairer way to handle coverage” of key events.

One of her most salient stories came in 1990 when she was with the Indiana Baptist. At the SBC annual meeting in New Orleans, she noticed the convention’s registration secretary, the late Lee Porter, an editor with the then-Baptist Sunday School Board, addressing a seminary class at the registration area along a main hallway.

She took notes on the exchange, later reporting a range of Porter’s assertions regarding “fundamentalists” who had been gaining control of the convention since the 1979 election of Adrian Rogers. “They’re like Hitler and Khomeini,” Porter said. “They just overkill” and “want you to agree with every book of the Bible.” At the credentials desk, he claimed, conservative pastors were the “biggest liars” and “meanest people.”

Porter never disputed the report about his comments, resulting in a BSSB stipulation that he choose between his work at the board or his SBC post. He chose the latter and continued in office until being defeated for reelection at the 2002 annual meeting in St. Louis.

Tammi’s penchant for expanding the TEXAN’s corps of correspondents enhanced the paper’s depth of coverage and its reach across the state.

Jane Rodgers, the TEXAN’s managing editor for the past year, came to Tammi’s attention as a Criswell administrator’s wife with writing and teaching experience.

“Tammi is a quick-witted, funny, creative, visionary editor who sees writers for what they can become as journalists,” Rodgers said. “She exemplifies the rare combination of wife, mother and professional, with no one neglected except maybe herself.”

Bonnie Pritchett, a stay-at-home mom in the Houston area who became a prominent TEXAN correspondent, said, “[The Ledbetters’] knowledge of all things SBTC and SBC—and other state conventions for that matter—always amazes me. People, dates, events, the nuances of high-profile stories and the people involved in them—I have always appreciated their willingness to let me pepper them with questions about these things. I wish I remembered half of what they told me.”

“It is rare,” Lorick said, “that an organization like the SBTC can have such high-caliber journalists as part of their team … that for two decades the Lord blessed the SBTC with two of the best. The Ledbetters have dedicated so much of their lives to help proclaim the gospel through journalism. We have been so fortunate not only to have them serving the SBTC so well, but also to call them friends.”

TEXAN Correspondent
Art Toalston
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