Review by Marion D. Aldridge
Daniel Vestal has done the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship movement a practical and spiritual favor with his recently published (2022) memoir, This Treasure Within. Vestal, as well as anyone I know, manages his life and his calling with remarkable balance between the tugs and pulls of a) incarnating a spiritual, pious, moral, even holy Christian life, and b) functioning within an organizational system that challenges and demands hard boundaries and complex compromises, a very human structure that pays attention to such “worldly” issues as money, deadlines, and human personality conflicts!
Furthermore, Vestal’s gifts as a dynamic preacher, a shrewd thinker, and a passionate leader, are all first rate, top drawer. With religious credentials going back to his years as a “boy evangelist” and academic credentials including a PhD, Vestal was as prepared as anyone could be for the leadership of a barely started-up religious organization from ground zero to a multimillion-dollar international mission enterprise.
My own role in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was as a colleague, Coordinator of CBF of South Carolina. In the strange world of Baptist polity, there is little or no hierarchical authority, certainly no Pope. The national CBF Coordinator was not the boss of state CBF Coordinators, any more than state Coordinators had authority over local churches and pastors. Coordinators are not bishops in the sense of having any real power. We were bishops in the sense of being “overseers,” which is what the Greek word, episkopoi/episcopal means. I paid attention to the CBF churches in South Carolina, and Vestal oversaw and had a measure of responsibility for all the CBF churches throughout the United States. I could not have respected anyone more than I did Vestal. He was the right person in the right job at the right time. His authority was not coercive, but he had my full support. We are of a similar age, so my high opinion of him is not hero worship. I genuinely admire his gifts and abilities.
I’d hoped he would put his experience prior to and with CBF in book form, and now he has. I’m pleased he included his early pilgrimage as the son of a “firebrand” evangelist (Vestal’s word), and as a young person in a church populated with seminary educated individuals. Because of my own history, I’ve always been interested in what makes a person tick. Where did they come from? What and who influenced them? Vestal gives a thorough and helpful account, including information about his early relationship with his future wife, Earlene. One of her early influences was T. B. Maston, one of my Baptist heroes. Small world!
Equally helpful is Vestal’s chapter on how he shed some of the naivete and innocence of those early years. He calls that chapter, “Doubt, Deconstruction, Formation.” One of the saddest realities in Christian testimonies is how little the beliefs of mature men and women have changed from the cartoon Bible characters they were introduced to as children. Surely the story of Noah is about more than his life as a zookeeper. The Sermon on the Mount is a lesson that goes deeper than teaching us to be nice. Taking serious and honest religion courses in college or seminary will introduce students to surprising ideas that were not part of their childhood Sunday school curriculum. I remember the first time I heard Clarence Jordan explain the parable of the Good Samaritan, I was stunned to hear him say if the parable had been set in the South, the Samaritan would be a black man. When mature students read the Bible text with mature teachers, most will discover they had much to learn. Again, Vestal tells how he moved forward in his personal and Christian growth.
In the next chapter, Vestal next covers his years as a pastor. Throughout the memoir, Vestal helpfully includes information about writers and others who were major influences on his life and ministry. He dedicates a sidebar to the impact of Eugene Peterson on his pastorates. He confesses, along with every other honest pastor, that nothing in seminary prepared him for “resolving conflict between members, working with staff, equipping laity for ministry, managing a budget, and leading a building program.”
He writes of his growth as a person of prayer: “My practice was to speak to God, verbally or mentally, believing that God listened… But there is another side of prayer. God wants me to listen. God wants to speak, commune, and communicate with me.”
The numerical growth of the churches Vestal pastored must have been phenomenal, but he never focuses on that kind of success. I have been in a congregation when Vestal preached. His giftedness as an evangelist and preacher is impressive. People respond to his charisma, kindness, genuineness, intelligence, and passion. I can only fantasize about being half as good a preacher as Daniel Vestal. Yet he tells experiences, briefly, about each of his pastorates, without a hint of braggadocio.
Amazingly, his success as a pastor came during turbulent and disruptive times denominationally. Many pastors, with less courage than Vestal, dodged the controversy, but Vestal emerged as a leader of the moderate faction (theologically) within the Southern Baptist Convention. He sat on and chaired important committees. In this memoir, he faithfully tells the story of the political machinations within the denomination. He does not waffle. He names names. It is a fascinating read for those who were insiders and those who weren’t. These chapters are worth the price of the book. Vestal objectively summarizes the events of those years (1979-1990) without apparent bitterness.
In 1990, the inevitable Southern Baptist split happened. A schism. A division. A rupture. That tale has been told many times. Vestal gives his account. As an important, articulate, and truthful voice for the minority in Southern Baptist life, he became a natural leader among the breakaway group that quickly became known as the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. It was an odd time in church life in the United States and Vestal paints many of the nuances as well as anyone. There were advantages in not being a traditional denomination with huge and expensive infrastructures, but there were disadvantages as well. Some infrastructure was required. Money was needed.
One of the slogans that seemed to fit is that CBF was “a new way to be Baptist.” Vestal invests a few chapters in outlining the tensions and challenges during his tenure as Coordinator for CBF. These include a) the increasingly important role of women in the church as well as in the seminaries and mission enterprises, b) the issue of human sexuality, and c) ministries focused on justice as well as evangelism. The birth of CBF coincided with new mission strategies in which the mission-sending organization, rather than owning or dominating all its relationships, partnered with others as equals. Churches began sending mission teams and asked CBF to help. These changes also came as the internet was establishing itself as a dominant force in the world, changing many structures from hierarchical to horizontal relationships between equals.
One of the most pleasant surprises in Vestal’s memoir is the lengthy attention he gives to ecumenical and interfaith activity. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, with a grace-based and inclusive theology, found it easier to get along with other people of faith and goodwill who did not share our precise theology. Indeed, in historic and authentic Baptist life, there is considerable room for freedom with regard to specific doctrines. Furthermore, CBF has enjoyed a role in the larger world of religion as bridgebuilders and peacemakers. Part of our creation story is reaction against Southern Baptist leadership who spoke harshly against Jews and Muslims, uttering such ill-considered bromides as, “God doesn’t hear the prayers of Jews.”
I’m pleased Vestal invested considerable time and energy in the book writing about Interfaith dialogue in which he participated. He confesses, “For much of my life I have lived too small, too provincial, too sectarian. I failed to see that God’s kingdom is so much greater than I understand, God’s creation is so much grander than I have known.” Vestal articulates his pilgrimage that led him from “boy evangelist” to Interfaith activist.
His final chapter, “Retirement and Refocus,” is a model of continuing a meaningful pilgrimage into his senior adult years. He has taught seminary classes, and discovered the challenges of young graduates pastoring old churches. He joined their ranks by accepting a call to pastor a small Baptist congregation with typical twenty-first century problems—supported by an older white membership that had been in decline for decades located in the middle of a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural community. It’s encouraging to read about his small victories and incremental changes. His early ministry had been marked by rapid numerical success. Vestal tells these new stories, honestly: “I was learning how much I simply didn’t know.”
In the midst of all the organizational and cultural realities and changes, Daniel Vestal continued to live a “spiritual, pious, moral, and even holy Christian life”. Throughout a person’s ministry, he commends we “begin with grace and ‘lean into grace.’ Scripture says that ‘the law was given through Moses: grace and truth come through Jesus Christ’” (John 1: 17).
The volume concludes with four sermons preached by Vestal at various points of his career. These might be worth the price of the book to a pastor desperate to find a preachable sermon on Saturday night!
— Marion Aldridge is a writer and blogger. He studied English at Clemson University, served as pastor in several churches, retired as the leader of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of South Carolina. He lives with his wife, Sally, in Columbia, South Carolina.