The Good Guys Pt. 1: Wade Burleson

A few years ago while going through some boxes of archive material that had been sitting in storage for a while, I ran across a copy of an email I had been given. The subject  of the email, in all lower case letters, was one word: prayer.

The email had been written in the spring of 2006 when much speculation swirled in the Southern Baptist stratosphere about the forthcoming annual meeting slated for Greensboro, N.C. Against the backdrop of the IMB’s now-repealed policies on private prayer languages, a growing number of concerned pastors and laymen were searching for a candidate — any candidate — behind whom the ragtag band of malcontents could unite.

As fate would have it, that candidate turned out to be South Carolina pastor Frank Page, who would later become the president of the Nashville-based Executive Committee. But among the SBC elites — the denominational powerbrokers and resurgence loyalists, there was great angst that the opposition candidate might have been a little known pastor from Oklahoma whose blog had captured the attention and threatened to mobilize the passions of a sleeping giant, namely, the small church pastors who had been fed up for some time with the network of Patterson allies who were pulling the convention’s strings.

The email, sent from an aspiring convention president and perennial candidate for every open top denominational spot, stated that “this Wade Burleson issue is really perplexing and disturbing.”  Burleson, a man we came to realize had the ferocious and unpredictable tenacity of an ovulating honey badger coupled with the impenetrable and heat resistant tensile strength of man-made kevlar, was “very questionable” and a “definite problem,” according to the megachurch pastor who wrote the email.

Stating that he “did not know” Burleson, the pastor added that all he knew of him “is divisiveness.” The email’s author stated that he was communicating at the time with the Chairman of the IMB, Arkansas pastor Tom Hatley, who is now a member of the Conservative Baptist Network Steering Council. The issue, as Wade Burleson’s critic contended was that “there is so much negative now and people are upset about so many issues that they may rally to support [Burleson].”

Responding to the email of concern about Burleson, another convention leader speculated the Oklahoma pastor might “run for one of the VP jobs.”  “Yes,” the convention leader affirmed, “he is a problem” though not an “insurmountable problem.”

“I’m not sure he could be elected to any of the offices,” the former entity president postulated.

There you have it. In a single email thread one convention leader (who is also a former convention president) is exchanging suspicions about Wade Burleson’s character with another convention leader (and an eventual convention president) and stating matter-of-factly that he is simultaneously “a definite problem,” “divisive,” “negative,” and “questionable.”

Ladies and gentlemen, behold what passes for leadership in the Southern Baptist Convention. Backroom channeling about a pastor who has upset the power structures by pulling back the curtain behind which denominational employees and those who aspire to convention employment pull the levers of slander and suspicion to manipulate the system. That Burleson was gaining both an audience and a following among younger, more independent minded pastors and laymen, was troubling to them.

The email closes:

“The word must be filtering out among some of the troops because I have gotten some mighty calls and affirmative emails from James Merritt, Danny Aiken (sic), Ergun Caner, and others.”

Flash forward fourteen years to the verdant rolling landscape of a 44 acre ranch just south of Oklahoma’s most appealing city. There, on last Friday evening, standing before a mask-wearing crowd of family and friends, Wade Burleson presided over the wedding ceremony of his third-oldest child — now 30 years old.  The last of the Burleson children to enter the sacred union of Christian marriage, Burleson’s son and now daughter-in-law were flanked by the three other Burleson children and their spouses. Standing beside Wade was his wife of 37 years, who is herself an accomplished nurse anesthetist with top honors from Vanderbilt University.

Having become friends with Wade and Rachelle, and now with each of their children and spouses, I was grateful to be a part of the wedding celebration and accompanying festivities. During the reception, I sat at a table with some long-time members of Enid’s Emmanuel Baptist Church, all of whom had been to the weddings of the previous three Burleson children.

“Wade is an operator,” one church leader and wedding guest said. “But you have to give it to the guy. He practices every thing he ever preached.”

“He’s a character,” another chimed in. “But he’s got what too many preachers lack: integrity.”

Through laughter about various Burleson antics — including an arrest in Mexico years ago — the men and women who have served alongside Emmanuel’s pastor for more than three decades testified repeatedly to the Burleson family’s reputation as God-honoring, Bible-believing, grace-loving followers of a 1st century Jewish carpenter who managed to beat death and hell in a span of 72 hours.

As I sat at the reception table listening to the men and women who are long-time members of Emmanuel Baptist Church — people who gratefully call the elder Burleson by the title “pastor” — I could not help but think about that email from fourteen years ago.

“Divisive,” they said. “A definite problem.”

I also thought about what the prophet Isaiah and the gospel writer Matthew said of Jesus: “A bruised reed he will not break.”

The problem with Wade Burleson, it seems, is that he has no problem ripping down the curtains of denominational power peddling. He almost relishes the opportunity to expose heavy-handed manipulations and the bloodsport of denominational hardball.

Likewise, he always tends to gravitate toward the outcast, the weaker brother, the ones who have been forgotten by the religious elites who email each other back and forth in almost desperate fear that such a man would gain a following in Southern Baptist life.

Yes, Wade Burleson is one of the good guys. But don’t take my word for it:

“A righteous man walks in his integrity, and his children are blessed after him.”

Proverbs 20:7

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RIP John Lewis


Twenty years ago when seminary chapel attendance was a virtue, the president of our alma mater would often conclude the service by inviting students and chapel guests to meet the day’s speaker at the bottom of the platform steps so we could “one day tell our grandchildren that we touched him.”

It was at the bottom of those steps that we shook hands with Dr. Jerry Falwell, Sr., Dr. Charles Stanley, Dr. Jerry Vines, Dr. Morris Chapman, Evangelist Bailey Smith, Dr. James Merritt, and a host of other ‘heroes of the so-called Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention. This was, of course, in the pre-COVID-19 days when you could shake hands or tell people that you had “touched” someone.

Years later while working as the senior speechwriter and investigative analyst for a powerful congressional committee chairman, we would often casually run into legendary policymakers carrying their own trays or sitting alone in the Rayburn or Longworth cafeterias. There, circling around these men unaware of the historic import of their national service, were hosts of bright-eyed interns and twenty something staffers usually discussing the whereabouts of the afternoon’s best Capitol Hill happy hour.

On more than one occasion, we took our tray to a table and sheepishly asked if we could join one of these Members of Congress. There was the day in the middle of bicameral negotiations over the conference report of Dodd-Frank that we took our seat next to one of the bill’s eponymous co-sponsors, Rep. Barney Frank, and chatted superficially about the ins and outs of parliamentary procedure in the nation’s lower chamber.

On another occasion, we enjoyed a private breakfast with former Vice President Richard Cheney, wherein we talked about the Minority Report of the Select Committee on Iran Contra, which is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand what became known as the Bush Doctrine.

And then there was the day we asked Rep. John Lewis for the privilege of sitting next to him during a quick lunch in the basement of the Longworth House Office Building. He sat alone with his lunch and some papers on one of those early weekdays when business is slow and the House staff are enjoying the final few moments before Members start arriving for the first suspension votes of the week.

We told Rep. Lewis of our own ministry background and seminary education, and we talked about Fannie Lou Hamer, whose story we had only recently studied as part of a doctoral seminar on American civil religion taught by Dr. Barry Hankins of Baylor University.

John Lewis lit up in amazement – and perhaps amusement – that before him was seated a white Southern Baptist minister whose ancestors “owned” slaves well after the Emancipation Proclamation and who wanted to talk about an oft-forgotten Civil Rights pioneer whose name is shamefully absent the history texts used in Texas public school systems.

And then we talked about the gospel and the demands of justice that a first century Jewish carpenter’s three year ministry puts on those who would carry his cross into the 21st century. Rep. Lewis asked if we’d ever been to Selma, and invited us to join the annual trip he sponsored to walk the Edmund Pettus Bridge with generations who’d never heard of Bloody Sunday.

At one point in our conversation, the reality set in: I was sitting but a few feet from a man who’d been a few feet from Martin Luther King, Jr. when he gave the “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

The irony was not lost on me.

Here was a man who’d been routinely denied a place to sit in “whites-only” lunchrooms in the South; yet he was allowing me – without hesitation – to sit with him in the basement cafeteria of one of the most powerful places on earth. And he spoke to me not as a subordinate congressional staffer, but as a brother and a friend.

John Lewis was like that.

Years later, I was working for another Member of Congress who sat on the House Committee on Ways and Means. In a flurry of legislative activity related to Chairman Dave Camp’s tax reform efforts, I stood in the back of the House Chamber near the middle aisle mere feet away from Rep. John Lewis. After a few moments, I went up to shake his hand.

“Congressman,” I said, “I’m not sure if you remember…”

He interrupted. “You’re the preacher.”

Was a preacher,” I joked.

“We never stop doing the Lord’s work,” he replied.

And he never did.

Rest in peace, Congressman.