On Sunday, members of First Baptist Church in Dallas confirmed earlier speculation by calling Robert Jeffress to become the church’s new pastor. Jeffress is the fourth pastor chosen in hopes of finding a long-lived successor to the legendary W. A. Criswell, who led the church for 50 years, succeeding George W. Truett, who was pastor for the previous 47 years.
In addition to providing strong leadership to First Baptist, both Truett and Criswell were larger-than-life figures in Southern Baptist life, Truett as a prime mover in the development of the “classic” SBC during the first half of the twentieth cetury, and Criswell as chief cheerleader for the conservative revamping of the SBC during the last quarter of the century.
As Criswell began to make noises about retirement in the early 1990’s, there were several less-than-successful attempts to replace him with someone who could carry on the legacy. Joel Gregory, was called to serve as “co-pastor” in 1990, but found it difficult to live in the shadow of a legend and abruptly resigned in 1992. He later wrote a book about the experience: a second edition of Too Great a Temptation: the Seductive Power of America’s Superchurch is slated for release this year.
A low-key North Carolina pastor, Mac Brunson, was tapped as pastor in 1999. Brunson remained in the pressure cooker for seven years before moving to another super-pulpit, First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Fl.
Now, however, First Dallas seems to have found the legacy link it has been looking for. Jeffries grew up at First Dallas, preached his first sermon and was ordained there, and served as a youth minister at the storied church. After the vote on Sunday, Jeffries revealed a long-kept secret, the belief that he received a direct communication from God while still a student a Baylor. “God said to me, ‘One day you will be the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas.'”
Having served a successful 15-year stint as pastor of Wichita Falls First Baptist, which earlier served as a launching pad for Landrum Leavell (to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in 1974), William Pinson (to Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in 1977) and Morris Chapman (to become president of the SBC Executive Committee in 1992).
Jeffries has served the Wichita Falls church since 1992 and, following Criswell’s lead, has published numerous books. He seems both poised and prepared to spend the rest of his career at First Dallas, which could be a dream come true for both him and the church. “I will pour my life – everything I have – into building this church for the glory of God,” he said, according to the Dallas Morning News.
There’s some building to do … First Dallas has lost thousands of members from its glory days and has been eclipsed in numbers by several Baptist megachurches. Jeffries has his work cut out for him, but is the first new pastor who doesn’t have to worry about either W.A. or Mrs. Criswell looking over his shoulder. At 51, he appears to be both capable and committed to building a lengthy legacy of his own, and we wish him well.