The following remarks were given by Erin Conaway, pastor of Seventh and James Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, in honor of the retirement of CBF executive coordinator Daniel Vestal. Conaway grew up attending First Baptist Church in Midland, Texas, when Vestal was pastor there.
The wonderful thing about this moment in our lives with Dr. Vestal is that this is not goodbye. He has been intimately involved in the life of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship long before he was leading the organization, and we trust you will continue to journey with us as we all enter this next phase in our lives.
I could tout his remarkable accomplishments during his tenure as the executive coordinator, and they are bountiful. But we all know Daniel well enough to know he would be quick to point out that those things have been God’s work and he had the pleasure of following along. And while that is true, you have followed well and faithfully and helped shape and continue this movement.
In doing so, you helped provide a place for countless Christians like us who are drawn to the Baptist flavor of faith, but who would not have a faith home if it were not for you and others like you who stood against the current and created a place for us to work together father down stream. As people who quite literally live in your wake, we want to say thank you and thanks be to God for you and the sacrifices you made to fulfill this part of your call.
I can’t imagine the volume of correspondence you’ve read and responded to over the years in your capacity as our executive coordinator. The difficult thing about leading a group of Baptists is that we often believe the priesthood of believers makes us right, especially when it comes to clergy who are frustrated about responding to those emails and letters in their own churches and whose only outlet is to get really busy with other people’s jobs. Not that any of us in this room have done that, but you all know the type.
And through it all you have been our leader and called us to greater things. You cast a vision for being the presence of Christ around the world. You called us to be missional churches and individuals. You beckoned us to put out into the deep and cast our nets in the way Christ taught us. And you pastored us, on the phone, in meetings and before and after, in the conversations at General Assemblies with a line of people waiting to see you, you listened and hugged our necks and kept us in your prayers and we knew it and it changed us and shaped us into the people we are today.
Of all of your many gifts to us, the one that stands out the most to me is the way you are filled with the Holy Spirit. You are one of our rare Baptist mystics as, we like to say, and your zeal to feel the wind of the Holy Spirit blow gently across your cheeks and then set out following in the way and calling us to do the same it requires a vulnerability of spirit and a humility of soul that people on a stage as large as this one just don’t risk. But you did. And you do.
And you have your entire ministry from the time I was a little boy sitting in the pews listening to you preach, as you plunged me deep in the waters of Baptism and raised me to walk in new life, as you walked with us through my mom’s illness and her death and the early seasons of our grief, and throughout my life as a minister your strength of spirit and depth of soul and the way you follow Jesus in your everyday life have brought so many of us to the living water and equipped us to do the same for others.
I share part of my story not because it’s any more or less significant than any others, but because it is representative of the way you have walked with so many of us.
Dr. Vestal we love you and thank you for your leadership in this movement and in our lives. May God continue to bless you as you move into this next season of life and may we have the blessing of continuing to walk with you.