After my time with Mac Brunson recently, when I asked him why he thought Jim was the right man for First Vice President of the Southern Baptist Convention, I was able to track Jim down and hear his heart.
From Dr. Brunson's words, I came to like Jim Richards. Now, after personally hearing Jim share his heart, I admire Jim Richards more. And, I think, after reading the conversation below, you'll see why.
Jim Richards Sharing His Heart
Peter: I’d like to begin, if I may, Dr. Richards, with your background, your heritage. Tell us a bit about growing up, your family, your conversion.
Jim: God blessed me with a wonderful home. Both my mother and dad were strong believers. They were involved in the Lord’s work. Mother was a registered nurse and would witness to the patients at the hospital where she worked.
Dad worked in law enforcement and as a firefighter. When he died, he had been serving for a number of years as the lay music minister at his church.
Although I was brought up in a Southern Baptist church I was not saved until I was seventeen. Mother’s prayers and constant witness were impossible to escape. My best friend in high school witnessed to me about Christ. Alone in my bedroom in April 1970, I received Jesus as my Lord and Savior.
Three years later I met my wife, June. After a three week courtship I asked her to marry me and within four months, we were married. This is our 34th year together. God has blessed us with two daughters and one son.
Our daughters are married to fine men who love the Lord. Our son was a late-in-life gift and is still home with us going into his junior year in high school. We also have one grandchild, Hannah Grace, whom I call “Gracie”.
Peter: So, when did God call you into the ministry?
Jim: Even before I was saved there were times when I sensed God’s call upon my life. Three months after being saved God burdened me deeply about preaching His Word. I spent a day alone fasting and praying. He confirmed His call in my heart.
Peter: There’s been quite a lot of change in theological education through the years. How was it when you went to seminary and what is different now?
Jim: I need to back up to college. In 1970 I entered Louisiana College, affiliated with the Louisiana Baptist Convention. There, for the first time I encountered theological liberalism. Two of the religion professors denied the miraculous accounts in the Bible. The parting of the Red Sea, the feeding of the Five Thousand and the first eleven chapters of Genesis were all ridiculed as myths. More significantly they denied the Virgin Birth, Blood Atonement and the Bodily Resurrection of our Lord.
I would raise my hand and lower my grade in the classes. Eventually, the President asked to me to leave the school because of my activism against theological liberalism. This put a fire in my belly to fight for the Word of God as long as I live. “The grass withers, the flower fades, But the Word of our God stands forever,” Isaiah 40:8.
Today, Louisiana College has been reclaimed. It is a sovereign work of God. Now the professors believe in the inerrant Word of God. It took the courageous sacrifice of untold numbers of men and women who wanted nothing out of it other than a place where their children could get a biblically sound education.
I was out of college nine years before going to seminary. Being a late bloomer put me in seminary during the middle of the Resurgence.
Fortunately, New Orleans Seminary did not have a lot of liberals. There were some who were definitely neo-orthodox in their approach. There were some who did not recognize the historicity of the text. Some denied stated authorship. Yet, about half of the instructors who taught me were inerrantists. Praise God that NOBTS is now completely sound theologically!
Peter: Some have recently raised questions about not only the validity of the CP but its survival. Dr. Richards, tell us the significance of the Cooperative Program and how have you supported it through the years in your ministry?
Jim: As a Southern Baptist pastor, every church I served gave 10% or more through the CP. As a Director of Missions in Arkansas I promoted the CP even though the Association received no direct CP support.
After coming to The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, the Cooperative Program has grown from a $900,000 budget our first year to almost $20 million in receipts last year.
The SBTC gives 54% of all undesignated funds to the Southern Baptist Convention for national and international causes. No other state convention gives away more than it retains in-state.
The Cooperative Program is the envy of the denominational world. There is no other giving channel like it.
Direct support of missions is very undependable and even capricious. Southern Baptists tried societal missions for 80 years and found it didn’t work. Hopefully, we will not return to the past.
Peter: Jim, tell us about the present position you hold and some of the goals you have not only for Texas but the entire globe.
Jim: Since the founding of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention I have served as Executive Director. Anyone who knows Baptists knows my title is a misnomer. There are no “execs” in Baptist life and no one “directs” Baptists to do anything.
Seriously, this has been the greatest ministerial challenge of my life. Almost nine years ago 120 congregations came together to form a confessional fellowship in Texas. Their desire was to be a Great Commission Partner with the Southern Baptist Convention.
These two factors caused the formation of the new convention. Since that time we have grown to almost 1900 affiliated congregations.
Church Planting has been the emphasis of our convention. It is the largest line item in our budget. No other area of ministry is equal to the Church Planting line item.
In a little over eight years the SBTC has been involved in supporting 350 new church starts in Texas. Missions and Evangelism make up nearly 40% of the budget. Reaching into the un-evangelized and under-evangelized areas of Texas with the Gospel of Jesus Christ is our greatest goal.
A new initiative this fall is the Ezekiel Project. With 70% of Southern Baptist churches not experiencing conversion growth, on a plateau or declining, we have developed a comprehensive strategy to assist churches to come to life again. At this fall’s annual meeting we will roll out the plan and put it to work. We are praying that God will use it, not only in Texas but across the SBC.
Time does not permit me to tell you of the over 100 local church ministries the SBTC services. We partner with NAMB and IMB to help churches connect to their Acts 1:8 mission fields. SBTC involves the next generation of leaders through mentoring and coaching. The list goes on.
Peter: Dr. Richards, there is some unrest today about the Baptist Faith and Message, whether it says too much or too little, whether it’s too restrictive or too loose. What is your view of the BF&M 2000 and your personal adherence or non-adherence to it?
Jim: Let me answer the last question first – I believe the BF&M 2000 is good statement for Southern Baptists. The SBTC being a confessional fellowship, requires all ministry employees to affirm agreement with the BF&M 2000. The SBTC staff does their entire ministry within the parameters of the BF&M 2000. Churches also affirm their agreement with the document as they affiliate.
To say the BFM provides exhaustive guidelines for our SBC ministries would leave us in dangerous territory. NAMB has a policy on divorced persons and ordained women (not just senior pastors). IMB has requirements on the age of children and current debt for career missionaries.
As far as I know IMB still uses the Body Mass Index in evaluating missionary candidates. The BFM 2000 does not directly address alcohol or tobacco use. Are we willing to allow missionaries and seminary professors to partake? The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC confronts the culture on issues not addressed in the BF&M.
We cannot include every practice or doctrinal issue in the BF&M. For the SBC each agency must be free to set expectation for service.
Peter: Another question some raise today pertains to fairness and openness when seeking out strong Southern Baptists to serve on our various Boards and agencies of the Southern Baptist Convention. Do you see yourself potentially working both well and fair with Dr. Page in the appointing process as First VP of the SBC?
Jim: Dr. Page personally asked my input this year and I was happy to give it. If I am elected, I will assist him to the best of my ability in whatever he asks me to do.
Peter: There’s been a tremendous amount of criticism brought against some of the decisions of Boards of Trustees, sometimes coming from vocal dissenters within the Board itself. Consequently, the tiny minority seems to have caused much dissension through their vocal dissent.
Dr. Richards, what is your view of the “Trustee System” we have in place as Southern Baptists to “get the work done” for the Kingdom? Also, how would you intend to “reach your hand across the aisle,” so to speak, to solve some of the divisive issues raised?
Jim: I support the trustee system of the Southern Baptist Convention. With that said, I think, for example, a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on private prayer language might have averted some of the controversy. What someone does in private devotions is between them and the Lord. I believe in reaching out to others who hold a different view.
There is room in the Southern Baptist Convention for those who believe in the active practice of the sign gifts. A popular interpretation is that God could enable a person to speak in a language they had not learned in order to present the gospel. This would correspond with Acts 2, 10 and possibly 19. Indeed, if the Scriptural restrictions on the use of tongues found in 1 Corinthians 12-14 were enforced, most of the modern practice of so-called tongue speaking would disappear.
Since the Charismatic movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s (which split many SBC churches at the time), there have been Charismatic Southern Baptists. Up to this time their practice has not been viewed as normative. Advocacy for these individual experiences to become normative in Southern Baptist life is where the dissent becomes distractive.
Southern Baptists may have to decide whether they are willing to accept some non-language “gibberish” prayer as a valid position within Baptist life.
Peter: Small Churches sometimes seem disenfranchised from the inter-workings of the Convention. Also, sometimes highly qualified men and women appear looked over in the over all appointing process. What is your view of the contribution small Churches and their Pastors offer in Kingdom work Southern Baptists do around the world?
Jim: This is a great question. I never pastored a church that averaged over 350 in Sunday School. I’m not saying that in a prideful way. I wanted to pastor a mega-church. Yet, God allowed me to serve Southern Baptists through the years from the context of a small church. There are many smaller membership church folks who provide invaluable service to the Kingdom.
The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention Executive Board is required to have 1\4 of the members at the time of their election from churches with less than 400 resident members. If a person is elected and the church grows, the person is not penalized but is allowed continued service. This guarantees a perspective from the majority of our churches that fall into the category of “small” church.
Peter: If one description could be spoken, Jim, that captures what you desire others to know about Jim Richards, what would that be?
Jim: He loves the Lord Jesus Christ and the Word of God. He loves his family. And He loves Southern Baptists.
THE END of Interview
Southern Baptists are graced by our Lord to have sober, humble servants like Jim Richards willing to offer themselves to whatever challenge the task to which they are called affords.
I must say, after hearing Jim Richard's heart, his love for Scripture, his passion for missions and new church starts...his no-nonsense support of the Cooperative Program, his commitment to fairness in the appointing process and his inclusion of and appreciation for small Church leadership... not to mention his kind but sober approach in dealing with dissent, how is it that we could pass up this great opportunity to have, as our First Vice President of the Southern Baptist Convention, Jim Richards?
Oh, did I mention Jim is a avid runner?
With that, I am...