In the fifth episode of “Leading and Thriving in the Church,” Prince talks with Paul Baxley, the executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

In this episode, Paul and Prince discuss:

  • what faithfulness means in this moment
  • what it looks like for congregations to experience new life
  • what denominations are for
  • the need for support networks for pastors
  • practices to foster effective, fruitful teams
  • the connection between theological reflection and thriving in Christian leadership
  • and more!

Guest bio

Rev. Dr. Paul Baxley was appointed the Executive Coordinator of CBF in January 2019. A native of Winston-Salem, N.C., Baxley has held pastorates and ministry positions in Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia, and is a former member of the CBF Governing Board. During his two terms on the CBF Governing Board from 2013-2017, Baxley chaired the Personnel Committee as well as the Global Mission Structure and Staffing Committee, an ad hoc body that worked for 18 months to develop a comprehensive plan for Global Missions committed to the long-term presence of CBF field personnel around the world. He served on the CBF Coordinating Council, the Fellowship’s earlier governance body, from 2009-2010 and chaired the Engaging Missionally Collaborative Team. 

Dr. Baxley has been a leader to two CBF state organizations as chair of the New Day Task Force of CBF of North Carolina (2006-2009) and as a coordinating council member of CBF of Georgia (2012-2015), where he chaired the missions committee and was moderator. 

Dr. Baxley is a graduate of Wake Forest University (Bachelor of Arts – Religion, 1991), Duke Divinity School (Master of Theological Studies, 1996), and Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (Doctor of Ministry, 2003). 

Other ministerial roles include serving as interim pastor at Wingate Baptist Church in Wingate, N.C. (2000-2001) and interim minister of youth and college students at First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, N.C. Additionally, Baxley was campus minister and adjunct instructor in Religion at Wingate University in Wingate, N.C. (1999-2002). 

Baxley has also held a variety of leadership roles including the Board of Visitors of Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology (member, 2012-2018 and chair, 2015-2016); Board of Directors of the Baptist House of Studies of Duke Divinity School (member, 2006-2012; chair, 2009-2010); and the Board of Directors of the Center for Congregational Health (member, 2004-2010; chair, 2009). In 2012, Baxley gave the Lawrence Hoover Lectures at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond and delivered a sermon titled “Preaching as Participation” at the Mercer Preaching Consultation. 

A respected faith leader in his local community of Athens, Baxley currently serves as a member of the Board of Directors of the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Athens and chaired the steering committee of the Interfaith Clergy Partnership of Greater Athens. 

Baxley was ordained to gospel ministry in 1993 at his home church of First Baptist Church on Fifth in Winston-Salem, N.C. Baxley and his wife, Jennifer, a licensed physical therapist, have four children: Olivia, Maria and twins Caroline and Matthew.


Prince Rivers: What does it mean to lead now, especially in the church, especially in this political and social climate? I’m Prince Rivers, and this is Leading and Thriving in the Church, a podcast from Alban at Duke Divinity. Our mission is to help you be the leader God has called you to be. It’s been my privilege to serve as a pastor for more than 20 years, and I absolutely love supporting people who lead congregations. It’s one of my passions. But doing ministry in the post-pandemic era has unearthed new leadership challenges, and it has led us to pay more attention to the need for thriving ministers and congregations. This podcast features conversations with some of the most innovative pastors, leaders, and authors I know. They’re going to help us do church faithfully and effectively, and in a way that is life-giving to those who lead and the people we serve. I’m so glad you’re listening. I can’t wait to introduce you to today’s guest on Leading and Thriving in the Church.

Dr. Paul Baxley is the executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. He is the fourth person to hold this office. Prior to this role, Paul served as senior minister of First Baptist Church in Athens, Georgia. Paul is a graduate of Wake Forest University, Duke Divinity School, and Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, where he earned his doctorate of ministry.

Paul, in my conversations with you, I have found you to be an incredibly kind person and an extremely able leader. Congratulations on your appointment and election in this role as executive coordinator. It is good that you are serving the church in these times. Thank you for being on this episode of Leading and Thriving in the Church.

Paul Baxley: It’s great to be with you, Prince. I look forward to the conversation and appreciate the chance to think out loud with you about some important questions.

PR: Well, that’s wonderful. We had the chance to cross paths recently at the Lott Carey annual meeting, and you were on the program to bring remarks on behalf of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. And I must say, my recollection tells me that you delivered a powerful sermon in the seven minutes they gave you; it was a great introduction and a great opportunity for CBF and a great way to partner with you. Tell me, what are you excited about at Cooperative Baptist Fellowship these days? What’s God up to?

PB: Well, at this point in Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s life, we’re really just in our fourth decade of ministry. Cooperative Baptists were founded in the early 1990s, which makes us, I guess, a really young adult by denominational standards. But at this moment in our life together, there are some things going on that just really encouraged me. I think our fellowship staff, both those who work for CBF Global out of Decatur, and also those who work for our state regional partner organizations, we’re finding better and better ways to support congregations and their leaders, to serve congregations, to learn from congregations, and to figure out new ways to help congregational leaders learn from each other. So I think we’re getting better and better at knowing the needs in our community, and organizing our life to respond more faithfully to those needs.

I’m also really encouraged that the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is experiencing growth outside the predominantly white southeastern community that was our foundation. So Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is still predominantly white, but it is not exclusively white. Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is still predominantly located in the southeastern United States, but we’re starting to grow in other parts of the United States, in Puerto Rico. Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is starting to engage leaders, both clergy and laypeople who are of younger generations. In fact, Prince, when I was elected to this role, I was 49 years old. And one of the biggest concerns on Twitter was that I was too old for the job, which meant that already there were younger people in the life of CBF, who even then in 2019 had a hope and a dream and a life wish for our present and our future and more to be represented in its leadership.

Now, at first, you know, at that time, I was 49 and had an eight-year-old, so I was a little bit insulted. But the more I thought about it, I said, you know, I should get over that. Because the presence of younger voices who care is a tremendous gift. We’ve had the chance to meet and connect with some remarkable new partnership opportunities. You mentioned the Lott Carey meeting. It was a lot of fun to be there. I’ve had a deep respect for the Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention for a number of years. I’ve had a chance to know David Goatley, had begun working closely with Emmett Dunn, Gina Stewart, the president of Lott Carey had a remarkable sermon at one of our gatherings several years ago. There’s so much we can learn as Cooperative Baptist from Lott Carey. There’s enough in common about the way we think about mission. There are opportunities to work together, but there’s also so much I think we can learn from each other. And that’s just one example of new partnerships for mission around the world or ministry for our congregations that are starting to emerge at this point in our life.

PR: Thanks for sharing that. A lot of great things happening a lot of things in the works, and we look forward to seeing what’s going to happen. Now, if you take a step back, like many of our listeners, you made a vocational transition into this role during the COVID-19 pandemic –2019, 2020.

PB: Started in January 2019. I had my first day in the office March 16 or 17, 2019. So we celebrated my one year anniversary by sending everybody home for the pandemic. Not the way we were planning on celebrating that mark, but that’s what we did.

PR: What was that like? You were just getting your sea legs under you. Did you question the timing of making a change like that?

PB: Not in the moment, because I think like every other denominational community and every congregation, and almost every sector of society, we were plunged into trying to figure out how to carry out our calling in an entirely different world. And, you know, congregations and denominations, at least the ones I am around more, are not usually known for responding rapidly to change. But all of us had to. And so in March and April of 2020, we were trying to accompany our congregations and provide them support as they reimagined everything, but we were also trying to reimagine everything, because we’re a convening, catalyzing gathering entity. We host meetings, we visit people, we connect people who otherwise couldn’t be connected, and all of the ways that we had historically done that were suddenly off the board, and we had to figure out how to use technology. We had to theologize in real time. I mean, it reminded me of classes in seminary where there was arguments about different questions about what made communion communion, or under what circumstances you perform a baptism. Some of the first things I had to write during the pandemic were to try to persuade people that we can still celebrate the resurrection of Jesus without having 1,000 people in a sanctuary and a brass band.

In those really exhausting, generative, transforming days of March and April 2020, there were so many immediate questions that to be answered, that there really wasn’t the option of sitting back and saying, well, oh, my gosh, when I said yes to this, I mean, you always know there are other duties as assigned, and surprises around every corner, but it’s certainly the case that I spent the first year doing pretty much what I expected, traveling around the country, meeting people, passing vision, trying to invite renewed engagement, and just to the point where we were getting ready to take – I mean, Prince, in the four months before the pandemic, we engaged in a fellowship-wide visioning process that we called Toward Bold Faithfulness. And it was designed to help our fellowship identify the most powerful gifts the Holy Spirit was giving us and the most urgent needs in our congregations, in the world, and in our fellowship. And we gathered information through multiple means, we administered an online survey that thousands of people responded to, 80% of whom were laypeople. It was the deepest dive we’d ever taken into the minds and views of laypeople in our 30 years. And March 9, 10, and 11, 2020, the team that was working with my office to lead that visioning work was in Decatur, where our headquarters are, in a retreat to distill all that data and named the priorities that were going to guide our life. And literally as we celebrated communion to scatter that gathering, the ACC basketball tournament and the NCAA season, the NBA season, were ending. And the world was getting shut down. And like we had made all these discoveries and had all these clarities and we really quickly figured out that everything we had heard and seen was still true, only more so.

PR: Say a little bit more about that.

PB: We were already catching a glimpse of the fact that the pandemic wasn’t really creating new reality, it was just exacerbating, amplifying, elevating all the other urgent needs that already existed in a congregation, in the world. And so the question was not, who are we called to be, and where are we called to put our energies, in a world where you can’t do any of those things the ways you would have imagined three weeks ago, how do you do that?

So one other example, one of the urgent needs that an overwhelming number of those who participated in our process said they thought our churches and our fellowships would work more on was racial justice and reconciliation. This was data gathered in January and February of 2020, before Ahmaud Arbery, or any of the rest of the racial reckoning that began even as the pandemic intensified. But everything that was happening in the news, and in the public square, only further intensified that need, but the calling was already there. We got congregations that were financially challenged before the pandemic. The ones that came into the pandemic, with financial challenges, only had more. So we didn’t discover the needs we were facing, or even the gifts we had were fundamentally different in June of 2020 than they were in February. It’s just everything was intensified, and the means were all different.

PR: Well, I remember that time, and I remember thinking in mid-February of 2020, “When the schools shut down, everything else will follow,” and that is exactly what happened.

So I read this quote, a quote of yours that says, “This moment requires” – speaking of this 2020 season – “new ways of practice, new kinds of resolve and the courage to let some questions go so that we may pray some others. At our core,” I continue, “we need to let go of the question: when will it be normal again? We need to dare to pray the question, how can we be faithful now? What does faithful look like to you now?” As we re-emerge out of the health challenges, the serious and pervasive kinds of health challenges that we saw 2020, 2021, into wherever we are today, I’m going to ask a big question. What does faithful look like to you now? And maybe you want to tell a story. I mean, is there an example of what you’ve seen in congregations, where you say, “Yes, it’s great that we’re seeing this and I’d love to see more of that”?

PB: A way I have come to think about this, Prince, is most of the times when I travel and preach, I begin with the Revised Common Lectionary. I’m still preparing new sermons every week, that doesn’t mean they’re good, but I am a pastor and preacher at heart. And I learned in a previous season in my life that if I was just preaching two filed sermons, I was gonna get really bored really fast. So twice in March and April of this year, 2023, the Lectionary gave me a text about new birth, or new birth from above. So there was the John 3, Jesus and Nicodemus, then there was the Peter text about new birth into a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. What I am seeing as I travel around that causes me to say yes, with joy and wonder and awe, and terror, is I think we are living in a moment where many of our congregations are experiencing new birth.

Now, we Baptists have a history of talking about being born again without really thinking deeply. There is nothing easy or predictable or controlled about birth. I don’t even know what it’s like to be a newborn; we can only speculate. Two guys having a conversation: we don’t have any sense, we aren’t going to speak with any kind of expertise about what it’s like to give birth, unless we both want to get a lot of angry email and phone calls. But we do know what it’s like to stay in the delivery room, and then be in the hospital and go home without an instruction manual. And we do know what it is not to get any sleep, and to be terrified we’re going to do something wrong. And we do know what it is to be held in the grip of all that. So I think new birth from above begins with a season of restless, unsettled, sleepless anxiety, and I think a lot of our congregations have lived through this. But then the new birth evolves to that point Jesus talked about, where he said, unless you change and become like children, you can’t inherit the kingdom of God. And one of the things that little children do is they ask the most beautiful, unrehearsed, disruptive questions. And what I see that gives me so much encouragement as I visit a wide range of congregations – large churches, small, contemporary worshiping, traditional worshiping, theologically traditional, theologically progressive – is leadership teams and congregations are finding the capacity to ask those kinds of questions, and in so doing, are starting to experience some new life.

Now, that doesn’t mean that we’re in the middle of the third great awakening and everywhere I go there are 50,000 people in church, but what I am seeing is more clarity, more courage, a willingness to normalize the agility we rediscovered in the pandemic. So that agility is in the church’s DNA. Read Acts. As we went through Constantine and the history of the church and got more and more institutionalized, agility did not become our growing edge. But there is something about the work of the Triune God that evokes agility, and certainly keeps you off balance, but it’s been really, really encouraging to see, while not every congregation, more and more congregations feeling the freedom to ask those kinds of questions, try things out, cultivate a holy kind of experimentation. And so when I see that, I say, yes.

PR: That’s good, that’s good.

So you have been in this position for a couple of years. You and I both know that denominations have long been the subject of intense debate. Are they relevant? Are they outdated institutions? I have you on this show, and you are in this job, so I think we both know where we stand on this issue. So how would you describe the mission or the work of denominational institutions, fellowships, networks, in our post-COVID, politically polarized culture? What’s CBF for?

PB: So I think I’ve been being asked the question about the death of denominations since I was introduced in this job. It’s another thing that was already out there before the pandemic, and it’s just there louder now. Now you can hardly go a week without seeing somebody writing an op-ed piece about how denominations are dead. These are some of the same people who were writing op-ed pieces in March of 2020 about how only 5% of congregations can survive, so one should be very suspicious. You should never bet against a God who raises people from the dead. It’s really a slippery proposition.

That being said, I do think a certain kind of denominationalism is no longer helpful. I think a kind of denominationalism that believes that congregations exist to serve denominations is dead. I think a kind of denominationalism that wants to centralize power and control is not very helpful, particularly in a Baptist vision. I think the most beautiful, most complete, most tangible expression of church is a local congregation. And I think denominational communities exist to serve congregations, connect them to Jesus’s mission in the world in ways they cannot be on their own, and provide other kinds of resourcing and support and care and creativity that helps those congregations live out their ministries more faithfully.

So I said when I took this role, I really believe that CBF exists for congregations, to be an instrument by which congregations can be more beautifully faithful to the mission of God in their communities, and more connected with all the ways God is at work in other denominations, in other parts of the world. So we are catalysts, we are connector, we are convener, but above all else, we exist to serve. And I think the most broken expressions of denominationalism I see inside and outside the Baptist world are being torn apart by power dynamics that live in the delusion that somehow the congregations exist for them. And then the political environment you’re describing only makes that worse. So when denominational discourse sounds like DC discourse, that’s not a discourse infused by the Spirit, because there’s no evidence of the fruit of the Spirit. So I do think a denominationalism that’s defined by partisanship and polarization and forgets where real authority lies is in serious trouble right now. If the pandemic proved nothing else, it proved that isolation is dangerous and deadly. So brokers of genuine community, real quick connection are more needed urgently now than ever. And I think that kind of Baptist denominational community has a life that really is life.

PR: That’s good.

You reference the emphasis and the importance and your view of the local church. So you’re a pastor, served First Baptist, Athens, Georgia, in my home state, for a number of years. What kind of support are pastors seeking or longing for today? What are you hearing from pastors?

PB: I am hearing from pastors across the board, a need for widening networks of support. So the pastoral vocation is getting more and more rare by the moment. Even 50 years ago, you could have said, it’s one of the last great generalist professions; in a world where almost everything else is becoming more and more specialized, ministry is actually becoming more and more generalist. I think this is a place actually where a lot of white Baptist pastors have opportunities to learn from some of our Black sisters and brothers who had been generalists for a long time, you know. For a whole lot of reasons, holy and otherwise, we’ve been through a season in church staffing in the white church, where every little area had their own specialist.

PR: I always marveled at that, by the way, yeah.

PB: Yeah. I’m not sure it had the outcome it was intended, because what that led to was a really segmented, really program-ized, really hands off vision and mission and faith formation. But for a whole lot of reasons, some of them with the number of people responding to a call to ministry, some of them with the economics of hiring people, that’s not there anymore. And at the same time, you know, sometimes you’ll hear people in churches say, well, back in the ‘50s, we only had one or two full time ministers and we had all these people in all these programs. And, of course, what they’re not accounting for is back in the ‘50s, the economic structure was such that you had these four- and five- or six-person households, only one of them was working outside the home, which meant there was a very gifted pool of volunteers who could go to work for nothing. That doesn’t exist anymore either now, and coming out of the pandemic, where people are more and more tired, and people’s lives are more and more scattered, not many people wake up every day hoping they’ll get asked to serve a three-year term on any committee, or be asked to teach indefinitely at any Sunday school or small group class.

So staffing models are changing, volunteer patterns are changing, congregating forms are changing, and that’s making the pastor even more of a generalist and more in need of support relationally from fellow pastors so that we can encourage and equip one another, but also, I think, for folks who have responsibilities, like you and I have in different ways, to elevate the visibility, the fact that almost every congregation is facing some of these challenges. So it’s not just a matter of “we have one congregation over here that has this unique problem and nobody else is asking you about it.” So there are some common challenges congregations are facing around volunteerism, around staffing, around trying to move away from a program-driven vision of church, that if denominational communities make visible, that helps pastors say to their congregations, “See, we’re not the only ones, we’re not the only ones.”

So, you know, I think the pastoral life is, I think, more exhausting than ever because of the growing number of demands. And so trying to encourage congregations to make space for self-care, time away, to protect the long-term capacity of those pastors to serve.

And then frankly, another place I think a growing number of the pastors I serve are seeking help is a growing number of our most gifted pastoral candidates are women. And a lot of our congregations have women in ordained pastoral roles that are not yet serving anyone as a senior pastor. Most of us in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship community, typically in recent years, have said, “No, we believe God calls women as well as men to all forms of leadership in the church.” And we think there’s Bible and theology for that, it’s not just about culture. But we’ve got to be willing to call and unleash those who we first encouraged to say yes. And for our women pastors, who are the first women to serve as a senior pastor of a congregation, that also requires a certain network of support and encouragement. So as I imagine the needs of pastors as I listen, I see a need both for more networks of support and encouragement. But also, I think, with every passing year, I have a greater sense of clarity. What are the bigger questions or the bigger challenges or the bigger transitions that we need to give voice about so that people in congregations don’t just believe, “Well, this is all some problem in our church only, and if we had a different kind of music, or different kinds of preaching, this wouldn’t exist”?

PR: So you mentioned the stresses and strains associated with ministry. And I’m thinking about the transition that you’ve made from local church leadership to denominational leadership. Have you had to develop new rhythms and routines for your wellbeing as you’ve acclimated to your new role? And if so, I’m curious about what may have changed.

PB: So I’ve had to reinvent several times. So I mean, I told you the first year went exactly as I planned, but it was a profound routine disruption. And just as I felt like I was starting to get my hands around that, and my family and I were starting to get our hands around that, the pandemic came and shut everything down. And then I was home more than ever, and I traveled less than ever, and that was reality for more than 12 months. And then, then we went through a season where congregations were reopening, and environmental safety, I would travel on the weekends to preach somewhere, but, you know, seminary campuses don’t reopen, boards weren’t meeting in person, and so there was kind of a hybrid year where I was traveling some but not as much, and then only in the last 6 to 12 months has it come back full flourish. So, you know, as a congregational pastor, I finally develop a really good rhythm about when I was home, when I was trying to be off – none of that was ever sacrosanct, but I had rhythms that were more and more dominantly there. And because that ministry was very contextual, there were certain things I always did at the same time of day in my office or somewhere else, there were rhythms about it. No two weeks am I in exactly the same places at the same time anymore, and this ministry is less contextual than any I’ve ever had. And so the question of what does rhythm and a long-term path toward thriving, for me in this role, for my family, that’s still very much a work in progress, because every time I think I’m getting it figured out, something changes.

PR: I would imagine so. And I also would imagine you have a team of people around you. And, you know, we look at a local church context versus organizational context that’s much larger and global in scope, and one of the critical parts of leadership that seminary doesn’t really prepare us to do is build a team. What’s important to you in the process of cultivating teams? And maybe can you talk about any specific practices you use to foster effective and fruitful teams?

PB: So when I think about a leadership team for an organization like CBF, and I think it would be true for a congregation staff too, but you’re right, the scales are entirely different, I want to make sure there’s a wide variety of perspectives in that team, and experiences. And so I don’t want everybody from the same generational – I mean, for CBF, it’s important that our senior leadership team is not just all preachers, and the preachers we had need to be from different parts of the country, with some generational and theological difference. It doesn’t need to be an echo chamber for me, but we need people of different backgrounds who see the world in different ways. And it’s very important to me that within that kind of team, there be enough trust and enough safety to have a really free exchange of ideas. And one of the things I tell people, when they’re being hired for roles in that kind of a space is, like it’s really important to me that you tell me what you actually think, not what you think I want to hear. Like I would much rather have a really open, intense in a healthy way, raucous debate inside that circle, than to rush to a decision, and then find out we had a blind spot that we could have addressed if people had been free to speak up. And so I think when you have a chance to hire new people in a group like that, or evolve responsibilities in a group like that, we’ve got to constantly be asking, “How do we make sure we have an increasing representation of perspectives, and a culture where there can be actual collaboration?”

So I think the most dangerous kinds of leadership are isolated. There’s Bible for that, there’s psychology for that. I mean, we’re made in the image of God who is Trinity, which means everything in the life of God happens in a beautiful kind of dynamic collaboration, the Greek word for which is koinonia, which is sometimes translated as “fellowship.” And so for me, leadership that’s driven by a kind of top-down, “don’t dare question me, I know the answer, I’m going to coerce buy-in, and then make folks” – like that doesn’t help us. What I need in a team of leaders is a diversity of perspectives with enough common sense of mission and calling and trust. And you know, you referenced that quote from early in the pandemic, but I think normal is gone. I mean, whatever we used to call normal is gone. And so you need a leadership culture that can respond to change, and to do so rapidly. And that requires building trust, encouraging dissent, setting intention, because most of the spaces we live in, that’s not been the way it’s been done, that’s not a quick transformation. Either within the organizations we serve, or in the spaces people have served, when they come to our organization, almost everybody has had an experience with an abusive kind of leadership. So you got to be aware that there’s trauma around and trauma within, and brokenness around and brokenness within. So it requires a high-level persistence to build a truly collaborative, open, safe, honest, leadership team. But I think the work is too big and too holy for just one mind. And the gifts God has given is multiple minds and perspectives. And so how do you unleash that?

PR: So you’ve named a few things with building trust and collaboration, encouraging dissent. What other core principles have formed the way you think about the practice of leadership in Christian organizations?

PB: So there is a core principle that the ultimate expression of leadership is service, which means leadership requires a certain kind of humility. The more that you are entrusted with, the more important that humility is, and also, the more difficult it is to maintain. And so seeing leadership as a service is another real foundation for me.

PR: So Paul, one of the phrases that people use to describe you is that you are a theologically profound leader. I think I saw that in a press statement about you coming to CBF. And we know that ministry can sometimes wear you down and you find yourself just trying to do whatever works. We probably both know pastors and pastoral leaders who find themselves at least temporarily in that mindset, and you get tired of thinking deeply. And I’m listening to you today and I don’t think that has happened to you, or at least that’s not where you are today. Talk a little bit about how you see the connection between theological reflection and thriving in Christian leadership.

PB: Well, for me, first, there was a decision that if I could not see this role as a next expression of my pastoral calling, I couldn’t do it. So I was not interested in being the kind of denominational organizational leader who approached the work from anything other than a pastoral, and therefore theological, lens. So I think what makes Christian leadership Christian can be the motivation, it can be the substance, it can be the content, style. But for me, reflecting on the deep challenges and opportunities through the lens of the question “how is God at work?” and “what’s uniquely possible here because God raised Jesus from the dead?” is really important.

Even last Sunday, I was preaching a sermon of the intersection of Joseph’s last statement to his brothers in Genesis 50: “As for you, you intended evil, but God intended for good.” And the Romans 8:28 passage, “And all things God works for good,” which is not the same thing as saying all things are good. Both of those texts are subject to all kinds of dangerous misinterpretation, the most abusive. But if you really believe that in all things God is at work for good, not just in some things, and if you really believe, as Romans says in another place, “The same spirit or power that raised Jesus from the dead is at work in us,” then Christian leadership has to proceed from those foundations. And even when people say, as was said early in the pandemic, like we’ve never been through this before, well, maybe we had one or two people around who very early in their lives in the Spanish flu, but they probably weren’t on the church’s Spanish flu committee. But I remembered that passage in Joshua, where, you know, Joshua says, “You better follow the ark because you’ve not passed this way before.” Joshua said, “You’ve not passed this way before. God has.” So there are lessons from the past, and there are ways God is at work on each and every stage, and I think part of Christian leadership is trying to pay attention to what’s uniquely true and uniquely possible because of the claims of the gospel.

Now to some people, that sounds like delusion. I decided several years ago I didn’t have any use for the word “optimism,” but I am profoundly committed to hope. They’re very different things. And I think there is an important blend between seeing challenges clearly, but also watching for how God is at work on the stage of the challenges, and allowing that to give hope. So I think Christian leadership has to proceed from a theological, biblical foundation, and that’s one reason, as I already alluded to, I’m still trying to prepare new sermons, because that’s one way I stay in conversation with the text, and with this richer tradition. So those are at least some of the ways that theology and faith and a uniquely Christian view of reality frame the way I think about leadership.

PR: I am enjoying talking to you today, Paul, and we could do this for hours, I’m sure, but I want to ask you this as we sort of transition to a close. What’s some of the best leadership advice someone has given to you that still shapes and informs how you think about leadership today?

PB: So the first person who held this job that I’ve got now was Cecil Sherman, and Cecil pastored several congregations, and essentially was asked to start CBF as his retirement project. But when I was in the Doctor of Ministry program at Baptist Seminary at Richmond, Cecil was teaching classes in the art of pastoring, leadership, things like that. And he gave us advice, and it still sticks with me. And if you knew Cecil at all, anybody who’s listening knew Cecil at all, you know he spoke in a very peculiar Texas drawl that I will not try to interpret, and he would often say things that were really, really simple, but at the same time were quite profound. In his basic class on leadership, he, in good Baptist fashion, gave everybody a three-point sermon on what they should do: Tell the truth; love your people; use good judgment. And though I found other ways to express that, I think honesty, love, and diligence are really good qualities in leadership. So that would be one.

And then, you know, a number of people in different ways over the years have encouraged and modeled for me the kind of collaborative vision of leadership that still energizes and nourishes me today. So those are two very different kinds of answers to your question.

PR: That’s great. Dr. Paul Baxley, executive coordinator of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, thank you so much for being on this episode of Leading and Thriving in the Church. I pray God’s blessings upon you as you live into this role, and I look forward to talking with you again.

PB: Thank you so much, Prince, it’s been great to be with you.

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