This article appeared in the Western Recorder’s special June 23, 2009 edition marking the 152nd annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention at Louisville’s Kentucky Exposition Center.
Retired now for more than three years after 28 years as pastor of First Baptist Church of Orlando, the Rev. Jim Henry is busier than ever…mentoring, speaking and listening. He’s also in his third interim position since – First Baptist of Ocala, FL, having the distinction. “I am not retiring,” said the former SBC president with a laugh from the Henry summer home near Asheville, NC. “I am re-deploying!”
Now that he doesn’t have the full-time church duties, Henry said “things I enjoyed as pastor I’m getting to do more of now.” That would include deacon/pastor retreats, wives retreats, pastor conferences, church dedications and pastor anniversary speaking engagements.
Recently, he had the pleasure of delivering the high school commencement address at Nashville’s Donelson Christian Academy with grandson “Trey” (Jim Henry, III) among the graduates. And, he’s especially looking forward to co-teaching a pastor/staff retreat in August with Bob Russell, the retired, longtime pastor of Louisville’s Southeast Christian Church, at Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove (Asheville).
“I really enjoy mentoring the younger guys,” Henry said. “Sometimes I will just listen to their challenges on the phone.”
He encouraged just that when he spoke at the Georgetown College Ministry Reunion in 2006, a first for his alma mater. The ’59 graduate enjoyed seeing Ken Mahanes, the Vice President of Religious Life at Palm Beach Atlantic University – a ’65 graduate he got to know after College. And, he got to reconnect with a number of alumni who are “special in God’s work” such as retired foreign missionaries Bill and Alice Marshall, who retired to Louisville and co-founded the Marshall Center for Christian Ministry at Georgetown College.
In a 2007 interview for Georgetown’s alumni magazine, Henry said he was “still digesting” the institution’s new, working relationship with the Kentucky Baptist Convention. He said at the time, “The way it was handled was as well as it could be. I pray that it will play out in the future, but history will tell.” This is especially important to Jim because Georgetown is also where he met his wife, Jeannette Sturgeon Henry, Class of ’60.
Asked how he feels about Georgetown’s direction these days, Henry said earlier this month, “I haven’t heard a lot – and that’s good news. My take on it is President (Bill) Crouch is keeping the College’s Christian heritage strong.”
Henry is well known for preaching Christian unity. After giving the keynote speech at the Kentucky Baptist Convention’s Pastor/Deacon/Spouse Retreat in Bowling Green in February ’07, he told the Western Recorder, “Unity is the highest expression of Christian faith. When they see unity in a world that is disunified, it’s like a magnet drawing people to Christ.”
In a large retirement feature in the Orlando Sentinel in 2006 celebrating the career of Henry, Mark Pinsky wrote: “A key to his success and longevity, experts and congregation members agree, has been his uncanny ability to clothe conservative Baptist theology – with its rural and small-town roots, and straight-laced values – in the more casual attire of the modern Sunbelt.”
During his tenure, FBC Orlando added a contemporary service featuring a rock band, and Henry welcomed gays into his congregation even though he had earlier campaigned against the gay rights ordinance passed by City Council. In the late ‘70s, Henry nominated a female member to represent the state on the SBC’s national executive committee. And, while SBC president for two terms (1994-96), he got to introduce Rev. Billy Graham at the sesquicentennial anniversary; he also opposed the Baptist boycott of the Walt Disney Co. (over family values issues) because he feared foremost that Disney employees in his congregation would be negatively affected.
Did he enjoy being a bit unpredictable for the betterment of society as he saw it? In ’07 he answered, “That’s who we are as God’s children. I asked the Holy Spirit what to do and I tried to do the right thing.”
Today, he looks back at the aftermath of the Disney World resolution the SBC passed as a difficult time. “But it was also a challenging opportunity,” he recalled. “God opened some doors…and that turned out to be good.”
Another challenge as president that gives him reason to be proud today was leading the SBC in a resolution of racial reconciliation acknowledging the complicity in slavery and lack of support for civil rights for African Americans. “I go places now and have African American preachers talk about that and thank me still,” Henry said.
Bill Marshall, who served on the Foreign Mission Board 1964-83 and as KBC Executive Secretary, 1983-97, is grateful for Henry’s friendship even though the two haven’t always seen eye-to-eye. “Jim and I became friends at Georgetown in the 1950s and have remained such through our mutual interests and participation in foreign missions, the Baptist World Alliance, SBC committees and meetings,” he said. “Though we both knew we differed on some of the denomination’s politics, it was never a source of fracturing our relationship. He is a well-known and multi-gifted pastor whose warm heart and outgoing personality accompanied his genuine passion for ‘lost or wandering sheep’.”
Said President Crouch, “I am so proud to call this true man of God and integrity – Jim Henry – a Georgetown College graduate.”