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stratosphere about the forthcoming annual meeting slated for Greensboro, N.C. Against the backdrop of the IMB’s now-repealed policies on private prayer languages, a growing number of concerned pastors and laymen were searching for a candidate — any candidate — behind whom the ragtag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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2 thoughts on “The Good Guys Pt. 1: Wade Burleson

  1. Thank you, Ben, for the walk down memory lane. I have only met you one time. It was when Wade invited me to have dinner with you and Wade and a former member of his church during the SBC Convention in Baltimore.
    I first became acquainted with Wade around the time of the 2006 email when I would take part in his blog discussions. I still have some of the comments saved. Blogs were just becoming popular then and were a threat to those who like to control information about what is happening behind the scenes in the SBC.

    I was serving with the IMB at the time. Wade was the first trustee I knew of with the courage to shine the light of truth on the secret meetings and back room deals among the trustees of the IMB. Other trustees would tell us privately they did not like what was happening but were afraid to speak up because they were afraid they would be attacked and slandered in the same manner that Wade was. Wade may have saved Jerry Rankin’s job by turning the focus of the hatred on him instead of Jerry.

    It is interesting how the landscape in the SBC in many ways is different now with names like Ergun Caner and Paige Patterson but some of the leaders you mentioned are still the same ones who took part in the carnal political activity of those days. Tom Hatley was practically a neighbor to one of the leaders you mentioned discussing Wade with him. He made the motion to restore Paige Patterson to the presidency of Southwestern that was overwhelming defeated. Arkansas Baptist would never elect him to any position of authority, but the leaders of the conservative resurgence felt he was just the type of person they needed fulfill their purposes as an IMB trustee.

    Wade is still a hero to many of us who remember his stand for integrity and truth at the IMB when there was very little of it among the trustees.

  2. I appreciate Wade because he is not too big to respond to the pastors of a small church. He has always replied to my emails in a timely fashion even before we met. He even accepted a breakfast invitation and let me ask him tons of questions. He is a trusted partner in ministry.

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