Published October 26, 2006
William F. “Bill” Harrell, pastor of Abilene Baptist Church in Martinez, serves in what many consider to be the most important position in Southern Baptist life. He is chairman of the SBC Executive Committee, the elected body of state convention representatives that develop policies and attend to Convention business between the annual sessions of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Morris Chapman, chief executive officer of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, stated, “Bill Harrell is a seasoned veteran in Southern Baptist leadership. Consequently, he had keen insights about the work and ministry of the Convention, which are informative and helpful to the Executive Committee. His long years as a pastor of one church speak volumes, not only about his love for people, but his faithfulness in the task to which God called him.”
Chapman added, “Bill has told me on several occasions that his heart’s desire is to provide leadership with the Lord’s will ever present in his thoughts and the best interest of the entire Southern Baptist Convention uppermost in his mind and heart. He makes it a priority to know the issues and allow the facts to guide his decisions. As a leader, he is both decisive and gracious. He has been a friend for many years and I’m grateful the Lord has led him to this critical position of leadership with the Executive Committee.”
Harrell, downplaying the importance of his role, commented, “The Southern Baptist Convention is really an inverted pyramid and the Executive Committee a service committee. In reality, the chairman of the Executive Committee is the lowest elected office in the Convention.”
Harrell and his wife, the former Carolyn Gibbs, who also serves as his personal secretary at Abilene, were born in Tifton. The notable pastor stated, “Carolyn was a majorette at Tifton High School and I was in the band. We were childhood sweethearts.”
Bill and Carolyn were united in holy wedlock on June 16, 1962, and today have three married daughters, Georgia (married to A.C. McGill), Paige (married to Steve Funk), and Amanda (married to Reagan Williams). The Harrells are also blessed with five grandchildren.
Abilene Baptist Church, originally Reed Creek Baptist Church, was founded and constituted in 1774. It was the third Baptist church to be established in the state and today holds the distinction of being the second-oldest continuously functioning Baptist church in Georgia.
The historical records of the church indicate that there were three contributing factors to the growth of Baptists in those early years: the reality of religious freedom, the steady growth of the general population, and Baptist evangelistic concern.
When Harrell arrived on the scene in Martinez in January 1981, the church had experienced a noble history of more than 200 years of ministry. Unprecedented growth has occurred in the past 25 years, however. Sunday School has more than tripled and worship attendance has essentially quadrupled. In 1981 the monthly budget requirement was $18,000. Today the weekly budget requirement is more than $47,000.
The church property was valued at less than $1 million 25 years ago, but the present church property is worth more than $12 million. Harrell expects the church to retire the current indebtedness of $1 million by April 1; and plans are under way for a new $6.5 million addition, which will include a state-of-the-art preschool and children’s building, a professional office complex, and a larger and updated choir and orchestra suite.
The Abilene church also has a 19-year-old television ministry, Strength for Today, which covers about 40 percent of Georgia and 25 percent of South Carolina.
The Abilene pastor is known as a strong, expository preacher and that has become the focus of his ministry. He observes, “I function well as a pastor, but my natural gift is preaching. God also gave me the ability to administer a church properly and I got that from my business background as well as my education at Valdosta State, where I concentrated my studies in business, personnel management, and finance.”
A visitor to the Martinez church will find a warm welcome, beautiful and accommodating facility, a spacious worship center, large choir (100 plus singers), accomplished orchestra, and congregation that still sings from the hymnbook.
Harrell explains, “The kind of people we attract are the people who want to go back to church. We sing hymns and ‘heart music.’ The music is marked by great energy and enthusiasm. In fact, a choir would have to get up mighty early in the morning to beat our choir. We haven’t changed since before contemporary music came along. People in Augusta see in our church a stable, solid, and consistent ministry that really meets their needs.
“We certainly don’t have fighting and bickering in our church. People just know who we are and they respect that,” Harrell observed.
Contemporary = casual spirituality
“I am afraid,” Harrell declared, “that the contemporary church movement gets people into a casual mindset, which can lead to a casual mindset toward spiritual things, toward God. People who have lowered the bar to attract the world, who have embraced a non-confrontational approach where sin is concerned in order to attract the world, have become so much like the world that they are losing their witness to the world.”
Turning back to his role as chairman of the Executive Committee, Harrell proclaimed, “It is one of the greatest honors of my life to be the chairman of the Executive Committee. I did not seek it, and in my wildest imagination I never dreamed it would be so. My desire is to fulfill the duties of this office in a way that will please God and merit the trust of the people called Southern Baptists.
“Our committee is made up of quality people from across this Convention, people who are really seeking to serve the Lord and our denomination. Southern Baptists can trust these folks to have the best interest of the Convention at heart. We seek to do the best we can with every issue placed before us. We also covet the prayers of Southern Baptist people.”
The SBC Executive Committee chairman expressed, “We have two important issues to solve in our Convention. First, concerning the matter of worship style, we must decide what identifies us as Southern Baptists. This will be difficult, because we are autonomous, but I believe our Convention leaders need to make a more definitive statement about how we identify ourselves in worship and who we are as Southern Baptists.”
“We are never going to be homogeneous, never have been, but there are some lines we should never cross as Southern Baptists,” Harrell added. “There must be something distinctive about us or we will lose our identity.
“Second,” Harrell continued, “we must deal with Calvinism. I have solid Christian friends, some of them pastors who are Calvinists, but I think they are wrong about the tenets of five point Calvinism. In my opinion too much of the New Testament must be ignored or radically interpreted to embrace the five points of Calvinism.”
Harrell further explained, “I think the problem of Calvinism in the SBC could be solved if we establish one ground rule. If a man wants to start a Calvinistic church, let him have at it. If a man wants to answer a call to a Calvinistic church he should have the freedom to do that, but that man should not answer a call to a church that is not Calvinistic, neglect to tell them his leanings, and then surreptitiously lead them to become a Calvinistic church. That is not to suggest that all of our Calvinistic friends do that, but when it is done it is divisive and hurtful.
“The same thing should be true of a contemporary church,” Harrell added. “Don’t try to transform a traditional church into a contemporary mindset just because it is the popular thing to do.”
Harrell continued, “As the chairman of the Executive Committee I am extremely interested in the Cooperative Program. Our church gives 10 percent of our offering plate dollar to the CP and we have shown steady increases every year. In addition, we also give to the Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong offerings, as well as to the State Missions offering. I believe those of us who are pastors need to be the leading proponents of the Cooperative Program in our churches. If we would all do that, we would have additional millions of dollars with which to do missions work.”
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