I got an email a couple of days ago telling me what I had already heard. Sometime this year, the SBC’s best state executive director will be retiring. We Iowa Baptists don’t have a lot to brag about. We are one of the smaller conventions – so small we don’t even get representation on our boards and agencies. We struggle to plant churches. Its not easy to get “Southern” Baptists to venture to the frozen north to serve our churches. Iowa is often difficult soil in which to plant the seed. But we have had the best exec in the convention.
Don’t argue with me. I’m right on this one.
I was on the administrative committee of our executive board when Jimmy was hired to be our exec. Our little convention had been through a difficult and tense time – of which I will say little. Jimmy did not walk into an easy job. He faced challenges that would have withered a lot of good men. Jimmy came in and led us well through these deep waters. We got our fiscal house in order and set the convention back on solid ground. We have not had what anyone would call explosive growth, but we are a much healthier, more mature, organizationally strong convention than the one he inherited.
Let me tell you a little bit about Jimmy Barrentine, just in case you are not convinced yet that he is the best exec in the Baptist world.
Jimmy has a servant’s heart.
I remember his first Baptist Convention of Iowa annual meeting. There was this wooden chair contraption sitting in a hallway outside the sanctuary. There was Jimmy, shining everyone’s shoes as they came in – a modern-day version of washing our feet. Now that could come off as some sort of corny (it is Iowa, after all) or showy display. But it wasn’t. It was Jimmy Barrentine. He is a servant.
I’m probably betraying a confidence by saying this, but I’ll ask forgiveness later and Jimmy will have to grant it. It’s in the Bible. But this story will shock you, I think. We were discussing how to cut costs at the state office so we could get our finances straightened out. Jimmy told us that he had cancelled the janitorial service for the Baptist building. There is no reason, he said, why a group of grown ups couldn’t pick up after themselves and share the cleaning duties.
I asked (being the designated statewide smart-aleck), “Who cleans the toilets?” Jimmy looked at me and said, “Well, I do that.”
Do you get that one, folks? I don’t know how long it went on. I’ve been out of BCI leadership for six or seven years. Maybe they came up with a different plan. But for at least a time, our executive director was cleaning the toilets in the state office.
Can anyone say, “servant leadership?”
Jimmy is not a dictator.
I was on the executive committee for a long time and I attended the meetings regularly. They were a joke. We gathered and were told exactly what we were going to do and we grunted our assent and went on our way. The main reason I went was because I enjoyed the fellowship of men from all over the state who were also there to grunt their assent. Iowa is pretty big and these meetings were the only time I got to hang out with the men from the other end of the state. The fellowship more than made up for the feeling that the meetings were a gigantic waste of time.
I will never forget our first meeting as an administrative committee after Jimmy became our executive director. The meeting started at 10 AM and we were handed a 19 item agenda. When it was time to break for lunch, we were on item 2. A strange thing was happening. Jimmy was asking our opinions. He was raising topics for discussion. He did not tell us what we were going to do, he asked us “What do you think?” For the first time I could remember, our opinions mattered. Those of us at the meeting kept looking around at each other as if to say, “It’s a new day for Iowa Baptists.”
It was. Jimmy has not ruled from the state office. He has led. But he has eschewed the old-school regal Executive Director personna.
Jimmy is about making others successful.
I was privileged to preside over three Baptist Convention of Iowa meetings. I was First Vice President when our President, Leo Endel, abandoned us for the even more frozen north, becoming the executive director of the Minnesota-Wisconsin convention (and I’m sure, a close second to Jimmy as execs go). Anyway, I served his final term and then two of my own as president of the BCI. I got a lot of positive (and perhaps semi-amazed) comments about how smoothly those conventions ran.
There was a reason I was able to run the BCI meetings smoothly. When I arrived at the convention, Jimmy handed me a notebook. It had a complete agenda for the entire two days. It also had (printed in blue) extensive notes telling me everything I needed to do. All I had to do was follow the notes that Jimmy had prepared and I came out smelling like a rose. He was not trying to control me. I was free to say and do what I wanted. But he gave me a way to look good holding the gavel.
And Jimmy never said a word about the notebook to anyone. He made me look good and never mentioned it.
Jimmy is a man of peace.
I was one of the few Iowans who supported the GCR. In fact, last year at the convention I sat with a group of Iowa and Minnesota/Wisconsin Baptists during the GCR debate and the votes that were involved. Jimmy was not there with us. But I was the only one who supported the Task Force recommendations. My ballot was very lonely in that group!
During the run-up to the convention, I wrote some things that were not that well-received by some around the state. One Iowa Baptist told me that he would forgive me for my views, because as a Christian he had to. Another told me that they hoped to get me back “on our side.” There was some genuine hostility toward the GCR out there, and some of that was directed toward me. But Jimmy called me and we had a lengthy discussion about the subject. He told me why he was nervous about the recommendations (especially the preliminary ones). But he affirmed me as well. He made it clear that I did not have to agree with him, or tow the party line, or go along with everyone else to be his friend.
Let me say that again, in case you missed it. He made it clear that I did not have to tow the line to be his friend. I’m afraid that spirit is way too rare in Baptist circles today.
With Jimmy, its more than words.
Jimmy allowed us to share in a miracle.
My final year as BCI president was 2004. During that year, I was working on the contingency plan for how the convention would respond when his daughter Jennifer passed away. Soon after the Barrentines moved to Iowa, Jennifer got sick – a mysterious illness that gradually debilitated her, sending her to a wheelchair, then to bed, and taking away even her ability to speak. When I asked what her condition was, I was told that her life expectancy was being measured in days, perhaps weeks, but not months.
Jimmy was a broken man. But he was also a man of strength, character and faith – he modeled a godly response to this kind of tragedy. And he allowed the convention to share in his grief. Jennifer became part of all of our families, all of our churches. And we grieved with him as his daughter’s condition worsened. I had figured it all out, how I would respond and what I would suggest the convention do when the end finally came.
It never came and Jennifer did not die. She began to get better, against all expectations, beyond hope. Her impossible, fatal, incurable illness just simply started to go away. A new diagnosis and some effective treatment made a difference. But I do not believe that medical science should take all the credit here. Jennifer Barrentine is a living miracle and Jimmy’s transparency through that time allowed all Iowa Baptists to feel like the miracle happened to us as well as to the Barrentines. A couple of years ago, I sat talking to Jennifer at our annual meeting. It was surreal. She walked – something no one believed she would ever be able to do again. When she talked, there was no trace of the effects of the disease that had robbed her voice a few years back. I told her, “I can’t believe I’m sitting here talking to you!”
Jimmy and Joan allowed all of the Iowa Baptist Convention to share one of the most amazing miracles that any of us have ever experienced.
And, now, he is riding off into the sunset.
Jimmy’s article in the Iowa Baptist last month made it clear that he was thinking about the end of his tenure here. And he talked about some of his unfulfilled dreams. He had hoped for a more rapid growth of our convention during his time. Of course, we all wish that had happened, but this is not fertile soil for Southern Baptist work. Iowa can grow corn and beans, but Southern Baptist churches often find trouble getting rooted. I remember an incredibly self-confident DOM who promised us that he had a fool-proof system for planting churches. It had worked everywhere else and it would work in Iowa. A couple of years later, he packed his bags and his fool-proof universal church planting model and headed back south. Southern Baptist work in Iowa is a real challenge.
I don’t know if I’m reading this into what Jimmy said, but I wonder if Jimmy feels that his tenure here was something of a failure. If Jimmy thinks that, he would be wrong. Jimmy Barrentine showed Iowa Baptists how it should be done. He modeled servant leadership. He was strong, visionary, and humble. It was never about him, but about the Lord and about making others successful in the service of the Lord.
I wish more of our leaders followed the Jimmy Barrentine model of leadership. I wish his spirit would spread throughout the SBC.
I pity the man who comes to follow him as executive director of the Baptist Convention of Iowa.
Jimmy will be a hard act to follow.