I knew I’d met him before. He was the collegiate ministry leader for Arkansas Baptists. I’m sure I had been to an event as a college student that he’d spoken at.

On that afternoon in Fort Worth, Texas in 1991, all I could process was his tender heart. I was almost done with my master’s degree, and although the church I was serving in expected me to continue, I had sensed for a while that as much as I longed to stay in the DFW area, God had other plans. My heart was restless, and I just needed someone to talk to. Ever been there?

And so when I saw that there were representatives from the Arkansas Baptist Convention on the seminary campus that day, I dropped by, probably more out of homesickness and unrest than anything. I didn’t know I was meeting a giant.

David James became my boss a few months later. I served with Arkansas Baptists as a collegiate minister on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Monticello for eight years under his leadership.

This past August, David retired. He left a significant legacy for me and dozens of campus ministers and thousands of students over his years of service.

Credit: Arkansas Baptist State Convention

I was privileged to have David not just as a boss, but sometime over the course of my tenure, I regarded him as a friend. He never lost his mentor status with me, however.

Here are some lessons I learned from his leadership:

  • Give a man a Mac, and he’ll love you forever.
  • Genuinely smile and say “wow” as if you’re impressed when a campus minister tells you something that you really know is a really bad idea.
  • Walk through tough situations and ministry moments on the phone or in person, never via text or email.
  • Even though you can, don’t seek to be the center of attention, the featured speaker, or the pied piper.
  • Select leaders slowly, ask good questions, and listen.
  • Pray with your eyes open.
  • Ask more questions, even thought-provoking, cringe-worthy ones.
  • Identify future leaders before they’re ready to lead, keep tabs on them, and occasionally cast vision for their life.
  • Assemble a team that has greater ambitions than you and let them lead.
  • Treat your leaders differently.
  • Run interference for your leaders so that they are free to to focus on what matters.
  • Make sure that spouses are well cared for.

There’s a surreal and happy convergence of relationships in my life that David is responsible for. Darrell Cook, BCM Director at Virginia Tech and Neal Nelson, Associate Pastor on staff with me at Northstar, are both former Arkansas campus ministers. We all are now serving here in Blacksburg and members of the same church. We met because David hired us as campus ministers in Arkansas. In addition to that, I’m deeply grateful for other ministry friendships that exist because of David James:

  • Tim Smith, Senior Executive Pastor (which means he’s older than me) at Pinelake Community Church in Mississippi was the BCM Director at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock
  • Jackie Flake, Pastor at the North Fort Smith, Arkansas campus of Community Bible Church was the BCM Director at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (and one of the first campus ministers in Arkansas I met)
  • Ben Phillips, Pastor of First Baptist Church in Murphy, TX, was the BCM Director at Southern Arkansas University (and we worked at Happy Hill Children’s Home and attended seminary together)
  • Kevin Inman, BCM Director at Louisiana Tech University, was the director at Ouachita Baptist University and before that the associate director under Lynn Lloyd at the University of Arkansas
  • Lynn Lloyd, University of Arkansas
  • Arliss Dickerson, Arkansas State University
  • George Sims was in the state office and supervised campus ministry facilities (and was a great help to me when we launched our fundraising campaign at the University of Arkansas at Monticello to build a new BCM center there).
  • Diane Parker facilitated missions for Arkansas BCM in the state office
  • Mark Robinson, Lousiana Baptist BCM College Team Leader was at Henderson State University before Neal Nelson served there.
  • Steven Weathers, Director of Multicultural Ministries at the Evangelical Free Church of America was the BCM Director at UAPB after Jackie Flake
  • Bit Stephens, University of Central Arkansas
  • Doug Hunt, Groups Leader at Rockbridge Community Church. He was the associate director at UALR BCM (became Metro under Tim Smith)
  • Darrell Ray, Arkansas Tech University; currently the Community Missions Evangelism Strategist at the ABSC
  • and so many others.. and this doesn’t include the assistants and interns and other staff associated with Arkansas BCM! There were so many students who stepped up and became campus ministers: Tracy Reed, Phillip Slaughter, Jeremy Woodall, to name a few.

David didn’t just assemble a team. He built a family. The campus ministers above all liked one another (for the most part). Our kids grew up together; we played basketball together at directors’ conferences; we commiserated and brainstormed (and griped) about the role of campus ministry in relationship to the local church. And David had to moderate this mixed group and meld it into a team of spiritual leaders.

He consistently brought us back to Jesus. He was passionate about intimacy with God through simple faith in Jesus. He’d let us dream, argue and even develop separate visions for different campuses, provided that he was assured that we each were seeking Jesus in intimacy.

He is a giant. He stood tall above us all, but none of us ever noticed how tall he was in those moments because he led from behind us. He equipped and encouraged and asked amazing questions, but he insisted we each follow Jesus faithfully in the unique ways that God was calling us to serve on our own campuses.

It takes a giant to hire great leaders, remain unintimidated by strong personalities with amazing gifts and lead with a gentle, quiet spirit.

At his retirement celebration, they asked different people to write tributes, notes or send videos. Here’s the video that Darrell, Neal and I sent. But this blog is the note that I would have written.. a few months late now. 😉

Thank you, David James! I will always look up to you.

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