Richards: ‘Stay faithful! Jesus is coming!’

Jim Richards became executive director of a new fellowship of 120 churches 23 years ago this month. The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention has since grown phenomenally—a leading state convention in size, giving and ministry innovation. 

Earlier this year, Dr. Richards welcomed his successor, Dr. Nathan Lorick, who became SBTC’s second executive director in July. Dr. Richards serves Dr. Lorick in an advisory capacity currently and will become executive director emeritus Jan. 1, 2022. The Richards family recently moved to East Texas, nearer their kids and grandkids, and Jim is keeping a busy preaching schedule. 

The Texan asked Dr. Richards a few questions about his time leading SBTC and his thoughts about the current state and future of Southern Baptist cooperation. 

Southern Baptist TEXAN: What makes you happiest about the time you led the SBTC?

Richards: The most rewarding part of my service for the SBTC was seeing churches being convictional about the Word of God and affiliating with the convention. Each autonomous local church had to make a decision: “Are we going to identify with a confessional fellowship of churches or remain in something less?” Normative-size churches and large churches came in huge numbers to be together for missions and ministry in Texas, America and the world. From 120 founding churches to now 2,700 churches, the SBTC is comprised of congregations that love the Lord Jesus and his Word.

Are Southern Baptists headed for another battle for the Bible? Another Cooperative Baptist Fellowship-type fracture?

Every day is a battle for the Bible because Satan never rests. There are always people in the church leading people astray. We never can hang a banner that says “mission accomplished” until we see Jesus.

All the identified groups (within the SBC) I know of affirm biblical inerrancy. I don’t see a departure. I do think there are subtle indicators that culture is influencing the direction of interpretation. In order to maintain some interpretations, biblical inerrancy will be undermined. We have to stay on guard.

(A fracture) is more likely to happen if (dissenters) coalesce around more than one or two social issues. Commonality over a broader base of issues is necessary to form a group that survives. In 1998, when the SBTC began, there was a problem with whether or not the (existing) convention was going to affirm biblical inerrancy. That was a no-brainer that provided a stack pole for churches to rally around. At that time, the current social issues were not as prominent. Because of that one clearly defined issue, it was easier for hundreds and even thousands of churches to come together.

Can you think of one or two things that surprised you as the convention grew and matured?

After 51 years in the ministry, little surprises me. I did find one of the most difficult tasks was to serve the SBTC while the SBC and other factors out of our control impacted our ministry. Being supportive of the SBC while doing what was best for the SBTC at times was a balancing act.

On a positive note, through more than two decades, I was able to see a new generation of leaders grow up. There are some extremely gifted young leaders who are committed to cooperative work. Pundits had predicted the demise of convention ministry. The young leaders will prove them wrong.

What is the greatest challenge on the horizon for Southern Baptists?

In one word—unity—we find the greatest challenge for Southern Baptists. The SBC is made up of a wide diversity of constituents. With the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 as a basis, churches must be willing to tolerate one another on a number of issues beyond the faith statement. There are danger signs about matters that fall outside the BF&M 2000 in the SBC. Valid concerns have to be addressed. Unfortunately, at times when these concerns are confronted, it is the right message but the wrong messenger. If I had a solution on how to bring the varying agenda-driven groups together, I would do it immediately. It is sad to see the greatest missionary force for the gospel threatened by infighting.

Have difficulties related to our strong connection with the SBC been a challenge to our unity?

When the SBC sneezes, we catch a cold. When there is a policy misstep that is unacceptable to local pastors and congregations, we are so closely identified with the SBC that the repercussions fall on us. Even when SBTC leaders would disagree with an SBC position, it still adversely affects the state convention. We are inextricably tied together—not just in giving, though that is a major portion of it—but through our vision for national and international missions. We are sometimes caught between the churches that generally appreciate how the SBTC has helped local churches and churches that are disenchanted with an SBC action or leader.

What’s the most encouraging thing you see happening in the SBTC?

Nothing excites me more than our new leadership in the person of Dr. Nathan Lorick. He is connecting with pastors and churches all across our convention. His winsome ways and strong convictions are the tools God will use to continue building the SBTC. He sees the landscape with fresh eyes. He brings new energy to the same task of keeping the churches moving forward together. He is leading well.

I believe the SBTC—not only in Nathan Lorick, but in other leaders of his generation—has a bright hope and future. This is true of the SBC, as well. These young men and women, if they’ll stay the course, and not deviate from who we are, and keep our core values, the future of the SBTC is bright.

What valedictory charge would you make to our fellowship?

The apostle Paul, in his farewell address to the Ephesian elders [Acts 20], captures some of my feelings. He loved the leadership and the church. It has been my privilege to watch the faithfulness of pastors in out-of-the-way places serve Jesus and proclaim God’s Word. My heart is knitted to them. Seeing churches determine that their beliefs align with the confession of the SBTC has blessed me beyond words. Having relationships with great leaders has been equally rewarding. Echoing Paul’s concerns to the Ephesians, I caution the pastors and churches about those who would lead the churches away from this strong fellowship. Stay faithful! Be courageous! Keep serving! Jesus is coming!

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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