Heartbeat: Fond recollections of Dr. Sullivan through the years

Article Date: Feb 21, 2014

I was just cutting my teeth as a reporter during the height of the Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention when I learned to respect the serious, no-nonsense parliamentarian on the platform of the 1988 annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas.

John Sullivan had a stare that cut right through nosy reporters, and sent anyone without serious permission to be involved in the business of the Convention packing. Thankfully, I didn’t learn by experience, but I was warned he had no tolerance for fools. 

I’ve always had a healthy respect for great leaders—and Dr. Sullivan was a man to be reckoned with back in the day.

Learning at the feet of my mentor, teacher and coach, James C. Hefley, Ph.D., author of The Truth in Crisis series on the Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention—I have been privy to inside stories of the mov­ers and shakers of many who are the fabric of what I have come to appreciate as a great denomination.

Dr. Sullivan served on the Peace Committee, for instance, a blue-ribbon commission created by the SBC Executive Committee in 1985 that forced SBC brothers and sisters to examine causes of conflict in the SBC and make recommendations to resolve the controversy.

The latter part of the 20th century in the SBC was rocked by growing charges of liberalism within the denomination—a view that was rooted in the belief that teachings in its six seminaries fed this theological drift.

An immediate effect of the Peace Committee was to ask reporters to change from using terms like “liberal” and “fundamentalist,” to “moderate” and “conservative.” I recall heated arguments over that Peace Committee recommendation—but I chose to believe there were valuable lessons to be learned from the great men of God steering us through those trying days. 

I was happy to oblige. 

I thought about those days a few weeks ago at a dinner celebrating Dr. Sullivan’s 25 years in Florida. Although most Florida Baptists are most familiar with his wonderful preaching, his “I Don’t Mind Telling You” columns in the Witness, and his faithful leadership throughout the state—it was his solid reputation on the SBC level that predisposed me to his distinction before my arrival in 2002.

Some of my earliest assignments in covering Southern Baptist news—resolutions, motions, Executive Committee action—gave me an awareness of Dr. Sullivan as an expert parliamentarian and a stickler for the rules. 

As my reporting repertoire grew, however, I learned he was also a dynamic preacher and a model ministry leader. In 1994 when I was asked to be one of the first freelance writers to be part of the regular Baptist Press newsroom during SBC annual meetings, I discovered time and again that Florida was at the center of the news with key leaders and much-sought-after models of ministry.

It didn’t surprise me. 

Dr. Sullivan had been unanimously elected as Florida’s exec in 1989—and in just a few short years the state led the SBC in baptisms, church planting and ethnic ministries. He is a known leader throughout the SBC for creating the African-American Ministries Division—the first cultural specialty program division of its kind in any state Baptist Convention. And in recent years, with his leadership, the Convention opened the South Florida Urban Impact Ministry Center. 

When I came to the Witness as managing editor in 2002, I was thrilled to come to a state where I understood solid conservative leadership flourished. It has made me glad to see Dr. Sullivan in a somewhat different light in Florida as a beloved leader, one who hugs pastors’ wives and whose own wife, Nancy, has championed pastors’ wives in a way that created in 1995 the Ministers’ Wives Endowment Fund to help defray the expenses of the SBC Ministers’ Wives Conference luncheon.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since I hesitated to approach the podium in the ‘80s. I’m no longer an upstart reporter, and I’ve been allowed to be slightly closer to one of the great men who has shaped Southern Baptists for my generation. 

In conversations, Dr. Sullivan has been always been kind. Months ago when we were between executive editors at the Witness, he stopped by my office and told me to let him know if I needed anything. He has a top-notch communication staff that well-represents his interests; and an interview with him about his view of the Great Commission Resurgence (GCR) task force report in 2010 was my first and last.

Dr. Sullivan is no “titular head,” as Jim Hefley was fond to call certain of our officers, entity heads and leaders during the Conservative Resurgence—who had little to bear on the actual direction of our convention. 

In looking at the Florida Baptist Convention and the Florida Baptist State Convention, there is no doubt Dr. Sullivan brought to Florida the same gifts he utilized in key positions as an SBC leader for which he was recognized with the Homer G. Lindsay Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award at the Jacksonville Pastors’ Conference hosted at First Baptist Church in 2013.

One of the things that eased my transition to Florida was that our practices are a microcosm of the SBC on a national level. I recently told the Witness’ new executive editor that to understand the Florida Baptist State Convention and how it operates will give him great insight into the SBC.

And that, I believe, did not happen by accident.

Indeed, Dr. Sullivan is a pastor to pastors, a leader among leaders—he is a Southern Baptist Statesman.

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