James Baird: A Personal Remembrance
James MacKenzie Baird, Jr.
August 11, 1928 – January 31, 2020
James M. Baird, Jr. was among the most consequential Presbyterian pastors of the mid to late 20th and early 21stcenturies. He was one of a dozen or so men who rightly could claim to be a founding father of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). He was a churchman, guiding the denomination over its first four decades, while pastoring churches in Clinton, Mississippi, Gadsden, Alabama, Macon, Georgia, Coral Gables, Florida, and Jackson, Mississippi. I will leave it to others to elaborate the exceptional breadth of his influence and many accomplishments.
Mine is a personal remembrance. In the course of three short years at the Granada Presbyterian Church in Coral Gables, Florida (1980-1983), Jim Baird invited me to be his intern (where I met and married my wife, Emily Billings), he officiated the weddings of both of Emily’s sisters, Anne and Claudia, buried Emily’s father, James S. Billings, and baptized the first Billings’ grandchild, Maggie McDougall (now Mrs. Jonathan Iverson). “Dr. Baird,” which is what I always called him (never “Jim”!) played a crucial role in our family during those crucial years and until his death remained my most important pastoral mentor on this side of the Atlantic.
I first encountered Dr. Baird when upon graduation, a group of us Gordon-Conwell students drove down from Boston to Ft. Lauderdale to attend the PCA’s General Assembly in June of 1981. My goal was to secure an internship. I had begun my theological education as a Baptist sent by a congregational church (Lake Avenue in Pasadena, California) to an Anglican theological college (Trinity, in Bristol, England) and emerged a convinced Presbyterian. Two subsequent years at Gordon-Conwell solidified my Reformed convictions. I joined the Presbyterian Church in America, but literally knew no one in the entire denomination.
In the course of what seemed like interminable debates, points of order, and calls for the question, Dr. Baird went to the microphone in order to address the question of whether or not the PCA should unite with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He spoke in favor. I was impressed. He was humble, clear-headed, and sensible. He had “presence.” He was a no-nonsense sort of man, and I thought to myself, "I could work for him." During the next break I introduced myself, handed him my resume and asked if he had any internship opportunities. He said he had just hired two interns and his session would never go for taking on a third. My heart sank. Yet we continued to talk. He asked where I was staying. I said I had parked my yacht at a dock in Ft. Lauderdale. He was amused as we continued to parley back and forth. The next day he found me and said he’s read the resume and found it “impressive.” “Maybe we can work something out,” he continued. “Can you meet me outside these doors at noon today?” Of course I could. He proceeded to a meeting of the Mission to the United States (as the MNA committee was then called). He and another leading pastor emerged with a couple of additional internships for the Gordon-Conwell boys. Who would intern with which pastor? I couldn’t contemplate interning with the other pastor. So I went with Baird.
That is how it all started. What did I learn from him?
Four months into my internship, Dr. Baird convinced the session to make the time of the Sunday evening service to accommodate the Super Bowl. I had come out of broad antinomian evangelicalism and thought, in joining the PCA, I had reached the New Geneva. I was distraught by this decision and took it upon myself to write a note bitterly denouncing the decision, photocopied it, put it in envelopes, and distributed it to the pastoral staff. I don’t remember what I said except one word: “travesty.”
Baird summoned me to his office and read me the riot act. One remark remains fixed in my memory: “Terry, there are enough people who call a spade a shovel.” His point was, you think you are calling a spade a spade, but you are not. You are mischaracterizing the session’s desires and using intemperate language. I left thinking I was being fired, and he later told me he thought I was quitting. Instead I went to the men’s room and cried. My future mother-in-law responded characteristically by throwing a Super Bowl party (!) after the mid-afternoon Super Bowl Sunday “evening” service. I attended, but refused to watch the game.
Yet restoration to Baird’s good favor came quickly. He didn’t hold a grudge. He didn’t burn the bridge. He let me make mistakes and forgave me, and yet let me continue to serve, my convictions intact. When the Baird boys were home, I would join them on Saturday afternoons to watch college football games. I was astonished to find Baird scratching out a sermon on the back of an envelope. I spent hours and hours working on mine, but his seemed to flow effortlessly.
Dr. Baird taught me the importance of relevance. He said that if I wasn’t answering the question “so what?” every five minutes, I was going to lose the average person. He urged me to constantly demonstrate the relevance of what I was preaching. That person in the third pew is tempted to pull out his Day-Timer. Don’t let him do it. Show him why he must continue to listen.
At the General Assembly, a table full of his former interns and assistants were eating lunch and laughing. Baird walked by, gazed over at us and asked, “What are you guys laughing about?” I answered, “We were just saying, if it wasn’t for us you wouldn’t even be reformed.” Without missing a beat, he shot back, “If it wasn’t for me you wouldn’t be relevant.” We roared with laughter, and so did he. This is why we loved Baird. We didn’t always agree with him nor he with us; but he loved and appreciated us, as we did him. Dr. Baird taught me there is a broken heart in every pew, and even in the wealthiest neighborhoods, a broken heart behind every door. Preach to them. Comfort the afflicted, even as you afflict the comfortable.
“Always wear a dark suit on Sunday morning,” Dr. Baird advised me. I’ll never forget the look on his face when I told him not only didn’t I have a dark suit, but I didn’t own a pair of dark shoes. Young Californians didn’t wear dark shoes back then. His point was not so much the dark, or the suit, or the shoes, but the decorum. His point was humility. His point was, don’t draw attention to yourself. You are leading, but don’t ever think the service is about you. It’s not. He never attempted to be hip. Or cool. Or charming. What he projected was gravitas. Worship was serious business. He led and preached with solemnity, somehow taking God with utmost seriousness, yet himself, not so much.
Whenever I was in a crisis in Savannah—not uncommon during my first seven years in Savannah (what I refer to as “the Seven Years War”)—I called Dr. Baird. At the low point of all low points I called, and as I began to describe the crisis, I couldn’t speak. I was only 32 years old at an old downtown church. Thirteen of the 18 elders were against me. I was in way over my head. After a moment of silence, he said, “Terry, you can do this.” He repeated himself. “You can do this. You can handle this. You will be all right.” He believed in me. I lack the literary skill to find the words to express how much that meant to me. By God’s grace I did handle it, but not without his support.
(By the way, I also called William Still, who after hearing me describe the same circumstances was less subtle: “Terry, you must denounce them from the pulpit!”)
Dr. Baird and Miss Jane ministered to the Independent Presbyterian Church several times over the past 30 years. Each time he came without an agenda. He came only to serve. He was happy to do whatever we asked of him. He lingered long at our Sunday PM church supper. He spent hours visiting with us in our home. He attended our children’s games. He sought to encourage us any way he could.
For 33 years I have run my pastoral staff meetings exactly as did Dr. Baird. We gather at 11:30 on Tuesday, share personal prayer requests, pray on our knees, and then go to lunch. Typically Baird had no agenda. Sometimes we talked about football. Sometimes we talked about predestination. Sometimes we talked about the ministry of the church. Baird did not “disciple” me. Nothing was structured. We just talked. Yet these by far were the most important times in my relationship with him. Pastoral wisdom came in spades. Still today I share insight from Baird on a weekly basis at my pastoral staff meetings.
Young men were drawn to Dr. Baird. Another of his assistant ministers, Roland Barnes, has noted how we all wanted to be like him. He projected a strong, confident image of the minister and his work. He led, but he did not dominate. He taught me to always say to the congregation, “Your session has decided.” You didn’t decide. The elders did. Spread the credit and the blame, as the case may be.
Preaching and Praying
Whenever you are invited to preach, he urged, do so. If given only a five-minute warning, say nothing about it. Just preach. Make no excuses. Preach with passion. Sunday morning he had my number. Absolutely. I was deeply moved Sunday after Sunday. I regularly told him after the morning service, “That was a great sermon.” He always seemed surprised. He knew I was TR‘ish (truly reformed), and from his perspective, theologically rigorous. Once he said, “I’m surprised you like my preaching.” I didn’t just like it. I loved it.
He told stories in peculiar ways. “A man… older… Nevada… died… devastated.” There was no way to imitate his fragmented style. His stories may not always have been entirely accurate, yet they were incredibly effective. I envied his storytelling ability which I never have been able to duplicate.
He was for me the third and confirming model of verse-by-verse preaching. I became convinced by the ministry of John MacArthur that expository preaching was the best method. That conviction was deepened by William Still of Aberdeen, particularly his book The Way of the Pastor. Baird was an expository preacher. His ministry confirmed my determination to preach expositorily. He expressed disappointment to me that there were so few ministers in the PCA preaching verse-by-verse through the Bible.
Dr. Baird would utilize three of us in leading the Sunday services. One would take the opening prayer, another the prayer before the offering, and another the pastoral prayer. He would preach and pray the benediction. Finally one day he announced, “You are all praying the same prayer. You are praying the same prayer three times. Every prayer should not attempt to do everything. The opening prayer is a prayer of praise, the second is a prayer of thanksgiving, and the pastoral prayer is a comprehensive prayer of petition.” I had never thought of that before. This was for me the beginning of a lifetime of pondering the various prayer genres, of distinguishing them, and ensuring that each is present (e.g. praise, confession, thanksgiving, intercessions, illumination, benediction) in a healthy service of worship.
I am deeply indebted to Dr. Baird. I will miss his counsel. I will miss his encouragement. I will miss his kindness. Whenever I published a book, I sent him a copy with an inscription reminding him of my gratitude for his contribution to my life. I alone am responsible for my many flaws and deficiencies in ministry. He, humanly speaking, had much to do with whatever good I have been able to accomplish for Christ’s kingdom. I am reminded of this fact every Sunday as I conclude my sermons just as he concluded his, “as we pray together…”
Terry L. Johnson has been the senior minister of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, GA for 33 years. He is author of various books including Leading in Worship, Worshipping with Calvin, Serving with Calvin, and The Identity and Attributes of God.
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