MARIETTA — Johnson Ferry Baptist Church Senior Pastor and former Southern Baptist Convention President Bryant Wright announced from the pulpit Sunday morning that it’s time for the church to begin the search for its next pastor.
Wright made the announcement toward the end of a sermon titled “Succession of a Long-Tenured Leader,” about Moses and Joshua based out of Numbers 27:15-23.
“It will be our last great challenge in ministry together,” Wright said from the pulpit, noting later that more information would be coming in a video from him and his wife, Anne, later that day entitled “Johnson Ferry’s Next Big Challenge.”
The 66-year-old remains in good health (he finished the Thanksgiving Day Atlanta Half Marathon in 1:57). Still, in the video he focused on the need for leadership that can identify with other generations in a way he can’t.
Finding a clear vision
Wright is one of the least-likely Southern Baptist pastors to be thought as having a lack of vision. Nevertheless, he cited a need for Johnson Ferry finding a younger pastor with “a clear vision for the future.”
That pastor, he added, needs to “represent a younger generation, be it Gen X or Millennials, to better communicate with the generations to come.”
Leading up to his decision, Wright sought counsel from other pastors in similar situations who had led churches for an extended amount of time. A key finding was reaching a point where you still loved that church and preaching, but nevertheless found difficulty in gauging the church’s next step.
“As a pastor you hope that you’ve been faithful in administering the gospel, preaching the word to your generation,” he said. “But we know, in reality if we have the right outlook about the Church, every pastor is an interim pastor. God allows us to be here for a season … to hopefully lead the church … in carrying out the Great Commission of Jesus Christ.”
… we know, in reality if we have the right outlook about the Church, every pastor is an interim pastor.
In a phone call with The Index, Wright talked about “ten big things” God had given him following a 2012 sabbatical on which Johnson Ferry should focus over the next decade.
“By the beginning of this year all but one of those had been fulfilled,” he said. “I prayed and didn’t received a fresh vision for the church beyond that.
“I think every pastor needs a fresh vision for the future. It’s time for a younger man to be in this role.”
Not a ‘letting go’
In the video the Wrights each addressed the timeline for yesterday’s announcement. After that 2012 sabbatical, Bryant informed the church’s elders that they “needed to start making plans for succession.” Seeing it as a “stewardship responsibility,” he and the group met together to discuss, pray, and read books on the subject. Out of that came a set of guidelines for succession that was presented before the church and approved in late 2014.
The elders, Wright, said, told him, “Bryant, you let us know when God is leading you in this direction.”
That leading became apparent to Wright in spring of this year. His wife, however, was not so convinced.
“I just didn’t want to hear it,” Anne Wright said of when her husband first brought up the subject of stepping down from the pulpit at Johnson Ferry. “I would let the conversation die out [and] not engage him in thinking it was time to begin looking for a successor.”
She thought time spent away on vacation or sabbatical would change his mind. However, the mind that ended up changing was hers.
“God spoke in a way that I realized He really had been speaking to Bryant. … I just hadn’t been listening to the Spirit’s leading.”
Her perception, she related, had changed. “It’s not really a ‘letting go’ as much as it’s just letting God do whatever it is that He wants to do with us and with Johnson Ferry.”
The months since then, she said, have provided “affirmation after affirmation” after spending time in prayer over the matter.
No, not retiring
In August of this year, Bryant approached the elders again and communicated God’s leading with finding a successor. November 25 became the agreed-upon date for the announcement, coinciding with Wright’s message on Moses and Joshua.
A major difference, of course, is that there isn’t a successor in place just yet. Addressing rumors of retirement in the video, Wright said, “I hope not.”
“I hope not, too,” interjected his wife.
“There’s another 10-15 years of fuel in the tank and would love to serve in a ministry of some kind,” he said. “I hope the Lord provides that opportunity.”
One thing’s for sure, he said. He’ll continue with Right from the Heart, a ministry he founded in 1992 that brings devotions and the gospel through various media platforms throughout metro Atlanta and the United States, as well as other countries in English, Spanish, and Polish. Wright added he will also stay on at Johnson Ferry during a transition period, working alongside the new pastor.
Missions a priority
Born in Spartanburg, SC, Wright grew up in Atlanta and accepted Christ as a child at Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church. Following college at the University of South Carolina, where he met his future wife, he worked in the business community for two-and-a-half years before answering a call to vocational ministry.
Upon graduating from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wright became the first minister to single adults at Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. In December 1981 he became the first full-time pastor at Johnson Ferry, which at that time met in a doctor’s office with 20 families and one child. Today, the church has some 7,300 members and seven Sunday morning worship services with an average worship attendance of 4,000.
Global missions has become Johnson Ferry’s “God thing,” said Wright. Approximately 2,000 members go on short-term mission trips to 70-80 nations each year, he added, with the church covering half the costs for each missionary. In addition, around 25 percent of the church’s annual budget goes toward missions. From September 2017-October 2018 the church’s Global Ministry office reported sending $6.3 million toward missions, with 31 percent of that figure going toward Southern Baptist Great Commission Giving causes and 6.65 percent toward Mission Georgia.
Wright served as Southern Baptist Convention president from 2010-2012 and has been on the Board of Trustees for GuideStone Financial Resources, Truett McConnell University, and Shorter University. In addition, he served as president of the Pastors’ Conference preceding the 2006 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting and as chairman of the Committee on Committees at the 2003 SBC meeting. He has authored six books, including One Minute of Your Time, Seeds of Turmoil, and Right from the Heart.
Note: An earlier version of this story stated Wright as a “native” of Spartanburg, SC. While he was born there, Wright grew up in Atlanta.