Chuck Kelley announced his retirement today. When he relinquishes leadership of the seminary where he studied, served as a professor and ultimately became president, he will have invested nearly five decades on the campus of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. In a day when the average Southern Baptist pastor serves less than six years in any church — nearly double the average tenure of twenty years ago — Kelley’s commitment to serve for the long haul is both impressive and commendable.
When Kelley was first elected to the faculty of New Orleans, the Southern Baptist Convention was in the throes of the nascent conservative juggernaut that ruptured the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. With family ties that could have — and probably did — cause him to be viewed with jaundiced eye by tenured faculty, Kelley could have easily become an oddity on campus. A fundamentalist token chosen to appease the fundamentalist factions and consigned to a few insignificant classes and an office in an advanced state of disrepair.
But by every account, Kelley endeared himself to even the most suspicious of those early colleagues and students. His characteristic kindness gave reassurance to jittery denominational loyalists that not all fundamentalists were mean spirited, that not every Baptist hailing from Beaumont was incessantly spoiling for a fight. And while some of his cobelligerents were going for the jugulars, Chuck Kelley was winning over their hearts.
You really can’t not like Chuck Kelley. Even when you want to.
Over the years, Kelley found himself in a few fights from time to time. Like the day he decided to take on Morris Chapman, the Executive Committee, and the vast majority of Southern Baptists over the issue of sole membership. One of the more wince-inducing moments in his presidency was the day the convention’s attorney, Jim Guenther, rhetorically smacked Kelley around the 2005 annual meeting in Nashville. A close second would have to be his “Baptist Blues” sermon from August of this year or his puppeteering and ventriloquism in seminary promotional videos.
But even in defeat, Kelley has managed to keep his winsome charm.
Everyone likes to talk about Chuck Kelley’s commitment to evangelism, as if it’s a good thing that you can single out a seminary president among his peers for that. No doubt, Kelley has been a man with an irrepressible passion to seek and save the lost. His academic interests, far from keeping him in the ivory tower, managed to also keep him in the highways and hedges compelling people to saving faith in Jesus Christ.
Consistency is a mark of character. And Kelley has been consistent in this one thing, without dispute.
An aside: One of the things I appreciate so much about Kelley’s focus on evangelism is he doesn’t take to the seminary website every few days to publish a “news story” announcing some witnessing encounter with a waitress or a taxi driver. In fact, he has never gone around telling every body about every time he shared the gospel. We’ve learned to be wary of such men.
Back to the point. We have a few things we can say about Chuck Kelley that stand out to us as singularly representative of his ministry, character, compassion, and Christ-likeness.
Many years ago, Dr. Kelley’s father-in-law, the Chaplain of Bourbon Street, went through a painful wilderness experience. By his own testimony, he was running from God and hellbent on destroying his own life and the lives of everyone he loved. It must have been one of the most heartbreaking experiences of Dr. Kelley’s life as he knelt with his wife, Rhonda, through nights of exhausted prayer, pleading with God for the soul of Bob Harrington.
Through it all — every miserable 17 years of his father-in-law’s run from God — Kelley never uttered a public word of condemnation or rebuke. I’ve heard Dr. Kelley talk about those days, and I had a sense that the scars are still there. But he stood by his wife — and knelt by her side — and prayed his father-in-law back to the cross. When Bob Harrington died in July 2017, his final legacy included a scholarship fund at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. That scholarship no doubt owes to the loving, lasting relationship Kelley maintained with his father-in-law, even when sin threatened to get in the way.
Southern Baptists need more people who love sinners like Chuck Kelley does.
And finally, we have to confess something we’ve heard more than a handful of times about Chuck Kelley and his wife, Rhonda. It is no secret to the seminary community that the Kelleys did not have children of their own. To lead a Southern Baptist institution in a day when your counterparts are barking incessantly about birth-rates and full quivers and whatnot doubtlessly caused a little hurt from time to time.
But the Kelley’s have thousands of kids they’ve adopted in the ministry through the years. One of the lasting early impressions that first-year students at New Orleans seminary get is how much Chuck and Rhonda Kelley love them, minister to them, comfort them, and care for their souls like a shepherd would his sheep.
There aren’t many slick denominational executive types who I’d ever want to be my pastor. But I think Chuck Kelley would be a pretty good pastor.
And I think that’s what happens to man who spends the vast majority of his life and ministry in the poorest corners of Gentilly Boulevard just loving lost people to Jesus.