By Sara Crocker
There seems to be something poignantly ironic about the fact that at the time of this interview, which calls attention to the ending of a career, Jim Smith’s daughter-in-law is in labor with his first grandchild. An ending is marked by a new beginning. Smith retired at the end of December 2019 following a 44-year global ministry and 27-year tenure with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, most recently serving in the role of Director of Global Networks and Development for CBF Global Missions.
For many years, Smith and wife Becky served as a CBF associate coordinator for mission teams and was based in Berlin. In 2008, he returned to the United States to the new role of director of field team ministries for CBF Global Missions and in 2012 was named Interim Coordinator of CBF Global Missions.
His missionary career began in 1976 as a journeyman with the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. Smith’s first assignment—a two-year stint in Heidelberg, Germany—was as youth director of the European Baptist Convention. That assignment introduced Smith to the broader Baptist world as he worked with 44 churches in 11 different countries.
After returning to the United States in 1978, Smith enrolled in Southern Seminary in Louisville, Ky., graduating with a Master of Divinity degree with an emphasis in missions in 1981. That same year, the Foreign Mission Board appointed Smith and his wife, Becky, as missionaries to Austria. This was the beginning of a global ministry that spanned five decades initially based in Europe and eventually networking around the globe with believers, churches and networks united by a singular faith in the love of Jesus Christ for all people.
When asked to reflect on his career, Smith expounded on an early fear that he would not be able to master the German language well enough to be effective on the ground. Smith eventually became fluent and not only spoke and preached in German but, more importantly, he said, worshiped in German. Smith said the journey in becoming fluent in a different language requires being vulnerable. Being a language-learner allows people an opportunity to teach you. When it happens, they have an investment in your life and progress, he noted.
A good part of Smith’s early missionary work took place with believers behind the Iron Curtain, where they lived and worked despite numerous disadvantages and the possibility of being imprisoned for even the smallest misstep in this communist context.
“There were definitely risks involved; but I quickly learned there were real people with real lives living behind that curtain,” Smith said. “I remember sitting in the kitchens of various pastors in East Germany and watching them interact with their families and realizing that they weren’t that different from the people in West Germany. The Christians living in East Germany at the time illustrated a really deep determination to be committed followers of Christ in very tough circumstances.”
Their commitment inspired Smith, who learned to temper his tendency to complain about the small stuff in life.
Smith fondly recalled meeting, loving and working with notable and influential Baptist leaders including Keith Parks, Cecil Sherman, Karl Heinz Walter and Daniel Vestal. Sherman would later become the first CBF Executive Coordinator and select Parks to serve as first leader of CBF Global Missions. Vestal would succeed Sherman in role of CBF Executive Coordinator.
“Cecil Sherman, oh what a mind! He’d absolutely wear me out,” Smith remembered. “We would walk around Wittenberg or Berlin and he’d stop at every statue and tell me all he knew about the person and his contemporaries and ask for any additional insights I might have. More often than not, I had none.”
An astute understanding of the impact of the work of those who came before him and alongside him impacted his own mission work with humility. Two particular figures—William Carey and Johann Oncken—greatly shaped Smith’s missiology and theology. A particular quote from Carey, the “father of modern missions,” was impressed upon Smith early in his career: “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” He sees echoes of Carey’s sentiment in the formation and continued existence of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
“That we actually dared to do it was courageous,” said Smith, recalling the formation of the CBF in 1991. Two years later, in 1993, Smith and wife Becky would join CBF as one of the organization’s early Global Missions field personnel.
Another example of expecting great things from and attempting great things for God, Smith said, is CBF’s early commitment to work with the Romani people. Resistant to outside influence because of a long history of intense marginalization and persecution, Smith said that once outreach to the Romani people was initiated, they were the most receptive to the gospel message of any group he has ever seen.
“Something happens when you tell someone who has always been despised that Jesus loves them just the way they are,” Smith emphasized. “I’ve watched them hear that message and just weep. We have a hard time understanding that when we are not the oppressed or marginalized.”
In addition to his mission work, Smith became a well-known and respected advocate and mentor to others working in the field. He laments what he sees as waning support for long-term missionary presence and activity beyond the local community, citing God’s care and concern for all people and the necessity of collaboration to deliver and sustain missions.
Offering advice for today’s missionary in 2019 and beyond, Smith encourages listening first while continuously learning everything they can about the place and people to which they are commissioned. The willingness to get out of one’s comfort zone is essential, according to Smith.
“You don’t have to be a Rolls Royce-kind of missionary to be effective,” he said. “You can do a great deal of good by just being a Ford or a Chevy. The problem is most of us want to be a Ferrari in the eyes of others. A secret of success is entering one’s assignment, young and determined enough to do a good job. It takes a pioneer spirit to go to a mission setting, to be the minority with no legal standing, no flagship church and, often, very little respect. Where I was, the Europeans were not overly impressed by Americans. Becky and I had to earn trust over time.”
As his professional career comes to a close, Smith is looking forward to stepping into his newest title: grandfather. By the time this article goes to press, not one, but two grandchildren will have been born. And as one might expect of a missionary couple, Jim and Becky plan to do a lot of traveling.
“It has really been my pleasure to work for CBF,” Smith said. “We stood for our principles. We jumped off the plank with no place to land and we made it. It’s just really been my pleasure.”
CBF Executive Coordinator Paul Baxley emphasized Smith’s significant impact on CBF’s missions efforts around the world.
“Jim Smith has made a lasting and transforming impact on our Fellowship’s participation in God’s mission around the world,” Baxley said. “In their service as field personnel, Jim and Becky embodied excellence and faithfulness in sharing the love of Christ, building lasting relationships, and making it possible for Cooperative Baptists to be part of Christ’s mission in compelling ways.
“Jim has been a mentor to field personnel, both as a colleague and then as a leader in our global missions efforts. In transitional moments in our Global Missions leadership, Jim provided vision and invaluable counsel. As a result of a lifetime of ministry beyond the U.S., Jim has built valuable friendships with Baptist leaders and other Christians all over the world, and those relationships have been immensely valuable as Cooperative Baptists seek a closer partnership with the Global Church. With each year I have known Jim, I have come to respect him more and value his partnership in this holy work,” Baxley said.
CBF Global Missions Coordinator Steven Porter echoed Baxley with effusive praise for Smith.
“Jim Smith has lived a life on mission. From his early experiences as a journeyman and service with the Foreign Mission Board in Austria to his field service with CBF in Berlin as Eastern Europe opened to his leadership over our field teams in Europe and eventually all field ministries of CBF, Jim has epitomized a humble servant of the Good News of Jesus Christ,” Porter said.
“Jim’s tenure, character and humor have made him undoubtedly the most widely recognized face of the Fellowship among global Baptist leaders. Over the past few months, both the leadership council of the European Baptist Federation and the board of directors of the European Baptist Theological Seminary Centre (Amsterdam) have celebrated his leadership as one of their own. As for me, serving alongside Jim and learning from him has been one of the greatest joys of my tenure at CBF. He and Becky are pillars in the history of CBF Global Missions. Simply stated: we wouldn’t be who we are without them. Thanks be to God!”
Article with reporting from CBF Communications
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is a Christian Network that helps people put their faith to practice through ministry efforts, global missions and a broad community of support. The Fellowship’s mission is to serve Christians and churches as they discover and fulfill their God-given mission. Learn more at www.cbf.net.