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President of SBC Learned Power of Encouragement While at JSU

SBC President Bobby Welch (right) goes over the day's itinerary as the bus leaves Maine Street Baptist Church in Brunswick, Maine, heading to Christian Fellowship Baptist Church in Londonderry, N.H. On the bus with Welch are (left to right) trip coordinator Jason Leschitz; writer Allen Palmeri with the Missouri Baptist Convention's Pathway newsjournal; and Jay Johnston, director of FAITH/Evangelism & discipleship at LifeWay Christian Resources. (Photo: Kent Harville, SBC)

By Sherry Kughn
JSU News Bureau

20 September 2004 After members of the Southern Baptist Convention elected Rev. Bobby Welch president in June, he recalled a lesson he learned as a student at Jacksonville State University during the 1960s: how powerful encouragement can be.

Looking back, Rev. Welch remembers how Coach Don Salls and Coach Jim Blevins encouraged him to do his best when he played football. He remembers encouraging words from then director of dining services, James Haywood. He remembers fellow football player Joe Kines, who became coach at JSU and is currently the assistant head coach for the University of Alabama. Coach Kines was and still is one of Rev. Welch's best friends and encouragers.

So, it was no surprise that Rev. Welch chose to encourage his 16 million fellow Baptists by setting aside a month to visit many of them by bus. There are about 43,000 churches in the denomination, which makes it the largest in the nation. Of course, he could not visit every church in the Southern Baptist Convention, but he traveled for 25 days in September and October to all 50 states speaking and making a plea for them to baptize and win for Christ one million people in a year. His plea is part of his initiative called The "Everyone Can" Kingdom Challenge for Evangelism.

Ironically, it was also a road trip that brought Rev. Welch in 1961 to JSU. He drove from his hometown in Fort Payne, where he said his car "gave up the ghost" when he reached the campus parking lot. When he climbed out, he realized that without his car the only valuables he had were the sixty-five dollars in his pocket. He was broke, he said, because he had used his savings attending the University of Alabama the previous year. Rev. Welch chose to transfer to JSU because it was closer to home, and he hoped the staff could get him a job. His goal was to complete his degree in business administration.

The university staff found several jobs for Rev. Welch, such as cleaning out classrooms, working in the bookstore, and helping maintain the tennis courts. During that same time he tried out for the football team as a "walk on".

"I think I was about to get fired from my jobs when I received a football scholarship," said Rev. Welch.

Starting with almost nothing and eventually obtaining a scholarship taught Rev. Welch that a person with a "can do" spirit can do many things, he said. He has applied that same spirit to the past 30 years in his ministry by planning ahead and working hard. He and Rev. Doug Williams, then associate pastor at First Baptist Daytona, developed a ministry strategy called FAITH which has been used, with God's help, he said, to bring the First Baptist Church to 4,000 members. FAITH stands for the words "Forgiveness, Available, Impossible, Turn, and Heaven". The Sunday School strategy works with small groups within the congregation to go out and discover needs in the community.

"Sometimes we find people who need their water turned on, or they are having health problems or need their heat turned on," said Rev. Welch. "We try to meet those needs and also find and meet their spiritual needs."

The written version of the FAITH strategy is so popular that it is now in 13 countries and has been translated into four languages.

Rev. Welch's interest in religion did not begin until after he graduated from JSU. He was in the ROTC while in school and upon graduation he attended airborne school, a school for rangers and a jungle-expert school; and then he volunteered to fight in the Vietnam War. Even though he knew several fellow football players had been killed, Rev. Welch was determined to serve his country.

A transformation took place, though, the day in Vietnam that he was shot. He lay on the battlefield bleeding and thinking about heaven. He was ashamed to face God, he thought, knowing he had not been the kind of Christian he should have been. Instead of dying he was rescued and renewed a commitment to serve the Lord. He finished his military duty, ran a business for awhile in Fort Payne, and then was "called to preach."

"It was when I was shot and left for dead," said Rev. Welch, "that the Lord turned me around."

Rev. Welch also credits his high school sweetheart Maudellen, who later became his wife, with changing many of his attitudes about church. After graduation from JSU and before he served in Vietnam, they married. With her encouragement, he earned a three-year Master of Theology degree at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in New Orleans after his military service. While attending seminary he served the First Baptist Church of Norco in Louisiana. Daughter Haylee was a newborn when God called him to preach. Son Matthew was born in Nashville when Rev. Welch was out of seminary school and was serving as associate pastor of Park Avenue Baptist Church. Both children are now married and each has two children.

Rev. Welch has never forgotten the encouragement he received as JSU. In fact, when his son and a family friend, who later became his son-in-law, decided to attend college, Rev. Welch drove them both up and enrolled them as students at JSU.

Rev. Welch is looking forward to the coming year and hopes many people will come to Christ, but he also looks backward, with fondness, to his days at JSU where he remembers learning one of the great lessons of his life: "If you will just keep t rying, something good usually opens up!"

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