Some time after Katrina (I’m not sure when. Months maybe. Those early years are a blur to me now) I arrived back to my house from a long day of helping visiting mission teams gut homes. My wife Michelle met me at the door with a big smile. It was hard to smile then and we were very busy. Well, I was very busy. Maybe too busy. But Michelle greeted me with a smile and said, “hurry in and look at what we received today.” There on the kitchen counter was probably the prettiest bouquet of flowers I’d ever seen and on the note was something like the following,
Dear Michelle and Jay, We know how busy you are during this difficult time and just wanted to let you know that we are praying for you both. Especially you, Michelle, for the sacrifice you are making while Jay is spending all this time serving with Disaster Relief. You are both appreciated.
Signed, Chuck and Rhonda Kelley
That note was then, and remains today, one of the most thoughtful things anyone ever did for us. I can’t tell you how much we needed that kind word at that time.
I have long appreciated Dr. Kelley for his encouragement to me and his heart for evangelism. I have loved him for his love for New Orleans and his service to our school. He has been gracious to my family, including to my mom and dad (Dad served for 10 years on the Board of Trustees at NOBTS). I publicly defended him from the floor of the Convention way back during the “Sole Membership” issue. Prayed for him in the aftermath of Katrina. Disagreed with him on some administrative issues at NOBTS and then this past Tuesday was disappointed and deeply frustrated with his chapel message that opened the Fall semester at NOBTS. You can find the link to that video HERE.
In the 16 years I have known Dr. Kelley I had never seen him stick out his neck like he did this past Tuesday. He rarely engages in polarizing topics. He appears never to be rattled by the goings on around the convention. He, to my knowledge, has never publicly waded into the trite debates of social media. But there was something markedly different on Tuesday.
Admittedly, he did something he had never done before and that was to publicly offer his own personal thoughts, from his private journal, during a chapel message about the state of the Southern Baptist Convention. While many of us in the blogosphere regularly comment on SBC issues without giving it a second thought, for him, it is unusual. And it was disconcerting and uncomfortable for me to see it happen the way it did.
Most everything he said during the first half of the message (much of the second half was agreeable to me) felt to me, not angry or malicious, but rather like I was watching a deeply hurt man react to frustration and pain that has been building for some time.
I basically disagreed with almost everything he said. He spoke of communicating with people who expressed great disappointment in the meeting in Dallas and on the direction of the future of the convention. I, on the other hand, have never been more encouraged and excited about the SBC and its future. He spoke of concerns for entities and decision makers that came across as frustrating and perplexing for him, and although I have had concerns about our entities from time to time I have not once been as moved to the level of disappointment that he is experiencing.
After his message Tuesday afternoon I though about contacting him, but then I thought (or hoped) maybe folks didn’t interpret the message the way I was afraid it was going to be interpreted. So I waited, but I didn’t have to wait for long. Social media lit up and it was clear that for some, his message came across even worse than I assumed it had. So, Friday afternoon I contacted his office for a meeting and he graciously received me. What follows is not a verbatim account of our two hours but is a survey of our interaction and my thoughts. It was a private conversation with privileged information which I will not divulge, but he is aware that I was going to write about our meeting and spoke openly to me.
After a kind welcome, he asked about my dad’s health. We chatted for a moment and I began my remarks by expressing my appreciation for him, retelling him of the story of those flowers after Katrina and how important I believe, just as he does, it is for brothers to speak with one another when we have differences. I expressed my concern over his comments, how I believe they have been taken in a very negative light by a great many Southern Baptists. I expressed my concern for him and for how his remarks reflected on our school as well. I told him that it was clear to me, although others may not have seen it, that I was watching a man that was hurt and that I was surprised by his message because it was not what I was used to seeing from him. I went on to state my concern for how his words could be damaging to recruiting efforts for new students and frustrating for current seminary students who might feel as if their thoughts/opinions and their hopes for the future of the SBC have been dismissed as being off course. I spoke for quite some time on a number of concerns and he listened actively and with interest. Then it was his turn to share his thoughts.
If Dr. Kelley is anything, he is a walking encyclopedia of Southern Baptist life and history. He recounted some aspects of the history of the SBC of which I was unaware. He spoke of the histories of entities, of stories of convention work and cooperation through the years and his deeply held conviction about what is happening in the SBC.
Although he did not “double down” on his remarks from Tuesday, his conviction regarding his concerns remain steadfast. He did not say this to me but I honestly do not think he expected the kind of response his message engendered. It is clear to me he feels strongly that he is expressing the sentiments of a significant portion of people in the SBC and as evidenced by the number of people that have corresponded with him before and after his message, he appears to feel validated in most, if not all of the concerns which he shared on Tuesday.
I believe he painted an unfortunate, dark and foreboding picture of the SBC on Tuesday and I could not disagree with him more. I see great hope in the future of our convention. I am very happy about the election of our new president (of whom, by the way, Dr. Kelley spoke very highly and shared his confidence in Dr. Greear’s work in evangelism and passion for the gospel). I am encouraged by the overall direction of the entities (but will continue to offer critique when I feel it is appropriate) and I am down-right excited with this current generation of pastors and young people who have a great passion for the lost and a heart for discipleship. I have argued in the past that convention entity heads ought to be allowed to speak their mind about issues in SBC life, just like the rest of us (albeit not in the area of entity servers being used for electioneering 🙂 ) … and, well… he did just that. He shared his concerns. I just wish he hadn’t done it in chapel.
It is most evident to me that his greatest concern is with the change in dialogue we have witnessed which favors spending time on secondary and tertiary issues in place of focusing on the “heart matter” of evangelism. To me, it appears that his particular critiques weren’t as much about the specific concerns he shared as it is that those things, in his mind, are the evidences that our focus is not where it should be. He offered me a helpful analogy in the form of “conversations at a party.” He noted that the tone and tenor of a party is often loud with many different conversations going on at the same time. He suggested that the reason for or theme of our party (the SBC) is for the work of evangelism. However, he notes, when the purpose of the party has been lost, people begin to hear and pay more attention to the private side conversations taking place at the party and we become distracted by the peripheral dialogues. He believes the reason for the problems, which he has pointed out, is due to our lack of focus on evangelism. I heard him loud and clear on that. In fact, I’m now rehashing his sermon through that lens. All in all, it is even more clear for me that a sort of perfect storm happened for Dr. Kelley on Tuesday with (1) his personal convictions, (2) validation from an agreeing segment of Southern Baptists, and (3) his own hurts and concerns culminated in privately-journaled thoughts that were (unfortunately, in my opinion) unveiled in a chapel message.
Dr. Kelley does not need me to defend him, nor would he want me to, and certainly, in this case, I would not do so. We not only have disagreements about the content of his message but also about some of the mode and tone of the message. However, what we ALL need is to realize that each of us are more often misunderstood than completely understood by others. I know I have been. I believe Dr. Kelley to be wrong about most of his concerns, although I now understand his concerns better than I did. I believe him to be wrong about the state of the SBC, but I now understand what he is seeing that moves him in that way, even if I disagree with his interpretation. What is NOT wrong is his heart for the lost, his love for the SBC and his willingness to stand up and say what he feels is right even if he is in the minority. I think the most important thing I took from our meeting is that we would all do well to remember in these days, however you feel about the state of the SBC, there are considerable numbers of Southern Baptists who feel differently about the health of the SBC.
On a side note, I was reminded today why it is so important to interact with those with whom we disagree. Sitting down with one another does not mean, nor should it mean, that we rise in unanimous agreement. But it does mean that we are giving ourselves and the other an opportunity to listen and to be heard. I have been reminded anew that to sit on the other side of a computer screen and lob ad hominems to and fro is sinful action. It is unchristlike. I needed to remember that. We need to be better at communicating. We need to engage one another. We need to be people who will “talk with” one another rather than just “talk about” one another.
Also, let me reiterate something for current and any possible future students of NOBTS. I am very proud of our seminary on a couple of fronts. As Dr. Kelley mentioned in the later part of his message, NOBTS has always been a balanced school. In my words, we have had both 5 point reformed profs and 4 point remonstrant profs. 😉 Speaking as a Pastor who holds to a reformed soteriological position, I can say that I have only and ever been appreciative of the good balance of professors at NOBTS. We are not a “Reformed” seminary and we are not an “anti-Reformed” seminary. We are a Baptist Seminary holding to the tradition of “both rails” and I want to assure anyone who might view Dr. Kelly’s chapel message in contrary terms to rest assured, that will not change. His hiring philosophy has kept our school balanced and for that I am very thankful.
We left one another still in disagreement about the particulars but I hope we left with a little more respect and appreciation for one another having sat down to talk as brothers should. This is how Jesus taught us it ought to be. For the sake of our school I believe we can move past this issue and on to a mutually shared excitement for the future of the cooperative work of the SBC.
P.S. I have asked Dr. Kelley if he would be willing to consider writing something for us here at Voices that might offer more insight or help to clarify his position and he received that offer with a smile and suggested he would consider that opportunity. I hope he does.