James Baird: A Personal Remembrance

James MacKenzie Baird, Jr.
August 11, 1928 – January 31, 2020

 James M. Baird, Jr. was among the most consequential Presbyterian pastors of the mid to late 20th and early 21st centuries. He was one of a dozen or so men who rightly could claim to be a founding father of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). He was a churchman, guiding the denomination over its first four decades, while pastoring churches in Clinton, Mississippi, Gadsden, Alabama, Macon, Georgia, Coral Gables, Florida, and Jackson, Mississippi. I will leave it to others to elaborate the exceptional breadth of his influence and many accomplishments.

Mine is a personal remembrance. In the course of three short years at the Granada Presbyterian Church in Coral Gables, Florida (1980-1983), Jim Baird invited me to be his intern (where I met and married my wife, Emily Billings), he officiated the weddings of both of Emily’s sisters, Anne and Claudia, buried Emily’s father, James S. Billings, and baptized the first Billings’ grandchild, Maggie McDougall (now Mrs. Jonathan Iverson). “Dr. Baird,” which is what I always called him (never “Jim”!) played a crucial role in our family during those crucial years and until his death remained my most important pastoral mentor on this side of the Atlantic.

I first encountered Dr. Baird when upon graduation, a group of us Gordon-Conwell students drove down from Boston to Ft. Lauderdale to attend the PCA’s General Assembly in June of 1981. My goal was to secure an internship. I had begun my theological education as a Baptist sent by a congregational church (Lake Avenue in Pasadena, California) to an Anglican theological college (Trinity, in Bristol, England) and emerged a convinced Presbyterian. Two subsequent years at Gordon-Conwell solidified my Reformed convictions. I joined the Presbyterian Church in America, but literally knew no one in the entire denomination.

In the course of what seemed like interminable debates, points of order, and calls for the question, Dr. Baird went to the microphone in order to address the question of whether or not the PCA should unite with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He spoke in favor. I was impressed. He was humble, clear-headed, and sensible. He had “presence.” He was a no-nonsense sort of man, and I thought to myself, "I could work for him." During the next break I introduced myself, handed him my resume and asked if he had any internship opportunities. He said he had just hired two interns and his session would never go for taking on a third. My heart sank. Yet we continued to talk. He asked where I was staying. I said I had parked my yacht at a dock in Ft. Lauderdale. He was amused as we continued to parley back and forth. The next day he found me and said he’s read the resume and found it “impressive.” “Maybe we can work something out,” he continued. “Can you meet me outside these doors at noon today?” Of course I could. He proceeded to a meeting of the Mission to the United States (as the MNA committee was then called). He and another leading pastor emerged with a couple of additional internships for the Gordon-Conwell boys. Who would intern with which pastor? I couldn’t contemplate interning with the other pastor. So I went with Baird.

That is how it all started. What did I learn from him?

Four months into my internship, Dr. Baird convinced the session to make the time of the Sunday evening service to accommodate the Super Bowl. I had come out of broad antinomian evangelicalism and thought, in joining the PCA, I had reached the New Geneva. I was distraught by this decision and took it upon myself to write a note bitterly denouncing the decision, photocopied it, put it in envelopes, and distributed it to the pastoral staff. I don’t remember what I said except one word: “travesty.”

Baird summoned me to his office and read me the riot act. One remark remains fixed in my memory: “Terry, there are enough people who call a spade a shovel.” His point was, you think you are calling a spade a spade, but you are not. You are mischaracterizing the session’s desires and using intemperate language. I left thinking I was being fired, and he later told me he thought I was quitting. Instead I went to the men’s room and cried. My future mother-in-law responded characteristically by throwing a Super Bowl party (!) after the mid-afternoon Super Bowl Sunday “evening” service. I attended, but refused to watch the game.

Yet restoration to Baird’s good favor came quickly. He didn’t hold a grudge. He didn’t burn the bridge. He let me make mistakes and forgave me, and yet let me continue to serve, my convictions intact. When the Baird boys were home, I would join them on Saturday afternoons to watch college football games. I was astonished to find Baird scratching out a sermon on the back of an envelope. I spent hours and hours working on mine, but his seemed to flow effortlessly.

Dr. Baird taught me the importance of relevance. He said that if I wasn’t answering the question “so what?” every five minutes, I was going to lose the average person. He urged me to constantly demonstrate the relevance of what I was preaching. That person in the third pew is tempted to pull out his Day-Timer. Don’t let him do it. Show him why he must continue to listen.
At the General Assembly, a table full of his former interns and assistants were eating lunch and laughing. Baird walked by, gazed over at us and asked, “What are you guys laughing about?” I answered, “We were just saying, if it wasn’t for us you wouldn’t even be reformed.” Without missing a beat, he shot back, “If it wasn’t for me you wouldn’t be relevant.” We roared with laughter, and so did he. This is why we loved Baird. We didn’t always agree with him nor he with us; but he loved and appreciated us, as we did him. Dr. Baird taught me there is a broken heart in every pew, and even in the wealthiest neighborhoods, a broken heart behind every door. Preach to them. Comfort the afflicted, even as you afflict the comfortable.

 “Always wear a dark suit on Sunday morning,” Dr. Baird advised me. I’ll never forget the look on his face when I told him not only didn’t I have a dark suit, but I didn’t own a pair of dark shoes. Young Californians didn’t wear dark shoes back then. His point was not so much the dark, or the suit, or the shoes, but the decorum. His point was humility. His point was, don’t draw attention to yourself. You are leading, but don’t ever think the service is about you. It’s not. He never attempted to be hip. Or cool. Or charming. What he projected was gravitas. Worship was serious business. He led and preached with solemnity, somehow taking God with utmost seriousness, yet himself, not so much.

Whenever I was in a crisis in Savannah—not uncommon during my first seven years in Savannah (what I refer to as  “the Seven Years War”)—I called Dr. Baird. At the low point of all low points I called, and as I began to describe the crisis, I couldn’t speak. I was only 32 years old at an old downtown church. Thirteen of the 18 elders were against me. I was in way over my head. After a moment of silence, he said, “Terry, you can do this.” He repeated himself. “You can do this. You can handle this. You will be all right.” He believed in me. I lack the literary skill to find the words to express how much that meant to me. By God’s grace I did handle it, but not without his support.
(By the way, I also called William Still, who after hearing me describe the same circumstances was less subtle: “Terry, you must denounce them from the pulpit!”)

Dr. Baird and Miss Jane ministered to the Independent Presbyterian Church several times over the past 30 years. Each time he came without an agenda. He came only to serve. He was happy to do whatever we asked of him. He lingered long at our Sunday PM church supper. He spent hours visiting with us in our home. He attended our children’s games. He sought to encourage us any way he could.
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