Willy Rice doesn’t need this California normative-sized SBC church pastor to endorse his nomination for the SBC presidency. Pastors of far bigger and more effective churches have already endorsed this nomination and deservedly so. Anyone at SBC21 with ears to hear and eyes to see realized we heard a timely message from a true man of God as Willy delivered last year’s convention message.
Many others know Willy far better and can testify to his giftedness in leading his church and Florida Baptists to effectively engage a lost community, state, and world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Still others know him and his wonderful wife Cheryl personally on a far deeper level and can testify to their personal godliness, character, humility, and interpersonal graciousness.
We’ve all seen how Willy’s humor, sound exegesis, rhetorical argument, and excellence in preaching were used by God to simultaneously rebuke, encourage and challenge Southern Baptists on the biggest stage in our convention. But I’m writing because I saw Willy preach and lead when there was no camera crew, lights, recording equipment, influential leaders, or even a very big crowd in the room. I saw how Willy led, encouraged, preached, and treated people when no one of any real worldly significance was around and when he wasn’t a “big name” pastor in Southern Baptist circles.
It was shortly after Willy had accepted the call to shepherd Calvary Church in Clearwater, FL. I was a very new IMB missionary working amongst unreached people groups in east Indonesia in partnership with a local Baptist convention. As a seminary professor in that convention’s small school, I was informed by local leadership that a Southern Baptist pastor had volunteered to come train and encourage national pastors in the convention. I was asked to help coordinate logistics and assist with translation. That’s how I met Willy and Cheryl.
For about a week I was with Willy and Cheryl for hours at a time each day. The conditions weren’t great. Even for Indonesia, this was largely a backwater group of Baptist leaders that had been gathered. Multiple times a day, Willy would teach and preach to this group of pastors in far less than ideal conditions. Radically oppressive heat and copious sweat were inescapable. The food was strange to most westerners, incredibly spicy, and often difficult to swallow (even for Indonesia). The little mountain churches Willy preached in often didn’t have finished walls let alone fans or air-conditioning. Most were equipped with bare concrete floors and tiny little benches. The meetings went long as Indonesian Baptist meetings are prone to do and that meant ministry was an early morning till late at night endeavor. The significant neighborhood crowds that gathered to see this white man preach and the pressing questions of local pastors made escaping people impossible. Cheryl was by Willy’s side through the large public events and met with Pastor’s wives in smaller groups to teach and encourage them.
Honestly, it’s just about impossible to describe how the combined heat, crowds, noise, children, random animals inside the church, strange smells, language, and cultural differences can make even the most seasoned missionaries turn inward, selfish, and petty after a long day of ministry. And that’s why I’m writing this article. Because not once did I see anything less than godliness, humor, humility, and grace from either Willy or Cheryl. I’ve since had the responsibility of leading hundreds of short-term volunteers on mission trips and most of us have an “off” morning or day when the circumstances overwhelm us. But not Willy or Cheryl.
They were consistently authentic, humble, and gracious. They treated us missionaries like we were their heroes even when we didn’t have solutions to the challenges they were facing. They asked about our families and prayed and laughed with us. They faced the unique cultural and situational challenges with humor and joy in serving.
And they loved the Indonesians. No, I don’t mean they loved an ideal Indonesian pastor on a prayer calendar. They actively loved “on”, prayed for, encouraged, and built up the pastors and their wives. Men and women who lead tiny mountain congregations of maybe twenty to forty believers were trained with the same excellence, care, and passion as bigger city pastors. They were encouraged and made to be seen. They were loved and blessed in a real way by a highly gifted leader whose own congregation probably came close to being a quarter of the size of their entire convention. Not once did Willy exhibit an attitude of “lording it over” or “looking down” on local pastors whose flocks were smaller than Sunday school classes at Calvary church.
At the end of their trip, I had the privilege of scuba diving with Willy for a day. I saw who he was when he was “off stage.” And what I saw was the same godly, compassionate, gifted, prayerful, and evangelistic leader I’d seen every other day of that long week.
Two years later a much unexpected and truly undeserved opportunity came to serve on Willy’s staff. Even then, he was looking for catalytic leaders to equip, encourage and mobilize his church to reach the nations with the gospel. After months of agonizing reflection, prayer, and long conversations with my wife, I turned down that opportunity because we truly sensed God’s leading elsewhere. The biggest struggle in that decision-making process was that I profoundly wanted to follow, learn from and serve alongside a godly and gifted leader like Willy.
Sixteen years have passed and I’ve since met a number of significant SBC pastors and leaders. Amongst them are many good, godly, and gifted men. But when I think of a man who effectively leads and authentically loves pastors of worldly insignificance like Jesus, Willy’s name comes to mind. I still shake my head in disbelief when I recall that chaotic week of ministry and remember the sense of love, encouragement, and challenge all the missionaries and local pastors left those meetings with.
When I first heard that Ed Litton would not be seeking a second term as SBC president, the first name that came to my mind as the leader for this moment in SBC life was Willy Rice. It’s not just because of his immense organizational, leadership, preaching, and other gifts. It’s not just because of his proven effectiveness in global missional mobilization or church planting. It’s because Willy genuinely loves and serves pastors, their families, and their flocks whether they are of any worldly renown or not. And I think that’s the kind of leader we need to unite, encourage and challenge us in the days ahead.
Christopher Cole is Lead Pastor at Redeemer Baptist Church in Paso Robles, California.