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Reflections on Dr. Jim Somerville’s 10 years of ministry at Richmond’s First Baptist Church
by Lynn Turner and Allen Cumbia

Being a successful Senior Pastor at any church is not an easy task. One has to be a visionary, a leader, a great communicator, a counselor, a teacher, an encourager, a mentor, and wear many other hats. To do this well requires an individual who is honest, bold, can listen, challenge and have a servant’s heart, just to name a few.

Many such pastors have blessed Richmond’s First Baptist Church, leading it through the years. Each one has been uniquely gifted by God to do what they did as they led the church during their ministries. As we mark the 10th anniversary of Dr. Somerville’s leadership here, it is only natural that we pause, look back on this last decade, and recognize his unique calling and how he has led and become a part of our church.

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Almost 10 years ago in the first staff calendar-planning meeting after Jim Somerville became Senior Pastor, he leaned over and softly said, “You know, Lynn, I feel like I’m a poet.”

Lynn Turner, Senior Associate Pastor, really didn’t understand exactly what he meant by that statement until she read a book by Craig Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life. From Barnes book:

“When we begin with our own identity in Christ, and the pastoral call to assist others in becoming fully alive in Him, we are freed from the drudgery of being managers and service providers to pursue something much more creative, being poets of the soul. A good poet is hard to find. …A poet is one that is blessed with a vision that allows them to explore and express the truth behind the reality.”

From the very beginning of his ministry, Jim’s mantra for ministry has been centered in this quote from Old Testament Scholar Walter Brueggemann:

“The central task of ministry is the formation of a community with an alternative, liberated imagination that has the courage and the freedom to act in a different vision and a different perception of reality.”1

10 years of ministry

In many ways Jim has been a poet of our souls, challenging us to live and lead in a different vision.

It began with the reorganization of our leadership staff from an attractional model of ministry, to one shaped around the missional model that he felt God was calling us to.2

Reflecting on this reorganization of the staff Dr. Somerville says, “When I came to First Baptist I asked the staff why we were here, that is, why First Baptist Church was here in the city of Richmond. They offered some good answers, but in the end we searched the Scriptures for the clear commands of Christ and came up with five that stood out above all others: 1) Love God; 2) Love others; 3) Love one another; 4) Make disciples by baptizing; 5) Make disciples by teaching. From those five clear commands, we came up with five ministry areas: 1) Worship; 2) Compassion; 3) Community; 4) Invitation and 5) Formation. It only made sense to organize the ministry of the church around those clear commands, and fortunately, we had good staff in place who were able to adapt their ministries to those areas. We did that in May 2009, right around his first anniversary. We’ve been doing it that way ever since, and a number of other churches across the country have adopted our ‘Missional Model.’”

These roles came out of the Creative Vision that Jim felt God was leading us to focus on as a congregation, “KOH2RVA,” bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia. Dr. Somerville explains, “At some point in those early days I began to point out the priority of the Kingdom of God in the teaching of Jesus. In one way or another, the Kingdom is mentioned some 120 times in the Gospels. Obviously, establishing God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven was His primary focus, and since it is His church, it should be the church’s focus. I began to talk about the Kingdom, and about Richmond, and about establishing God’s kingdom here, but it was Billy Burford, then Church Administrator, who first pronounced those immortal words in an offertory prayer. He said, ‘May these gifts help us bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.’ It rolled off his tongue so beautifully and I thought, “That’s it! That’s our mission!” But it was Bob Palmer and the members of the Ministry Planning Team who had the idea of reducing that mission statement to an acronym that would fit on a license plate, ‘KOH2RVA.’ In fact, that’s the license plate on my car today!”

Dr. Somerville’s vision has caused us to think about the ministry of this great church beyond the walls of this building and to reimagine how we might fulfill the commands of Christ in the Gospels, thus freeing us, each in our own way, to become our own poets of souls.

And that vision led to a church-wide process called, “2020 Vision,” to help the church understand it’s rich history, how it ministers today, but most importantly how Richmond’s First Baptist is going to fully embrace ministry here in the early years of the 21st century.

Clint Smith remarks, “Church life can be full of surprises, but maybe none so much as when your pastor calls you and says, ‘We’re putting together a team to help set a church vision for the next five years, and I’d like you to lead it.’” Mark Larson and Clint received that call from Dr. Somerville in December of 2015 and anxiously agreed to take on the challenge.

Knowing very little about what might be required of them, they decided that God would put a team of people around them who would make it possible, and that’s exactly what God did. Many people were involved in helping bring forth the 2020 Vision, but none more so than the pastor. From the facilitation team’s first meeting, Dr. Somerville was encouraging, optimistic and hopeful. Clint recalls him saying, “The church has a lot of history, let’s make some more!” And Dr. Somerville has embraced this effort wholeheartedly asking questions such as, “What is our church doing well, and not so well?”

Dr. Bill Wilson from the Center for Healthy Churches was our consultant. He provided structure and helped us to think on a grand scale, as we sought to discern the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The result?  Twelve Implementation Teams that are almost equally focused in areas within and outside of the church.  School partnerships, adult spiritual literacy, a community garden and lay led worship at times other than Sunday morning are only a few of the teams that have completed their reports and begun work in all of these areas.

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Vision is certainly one of the greatest gifts that Dr. Somerville has brought to the table, but he has offered so much more to our church and community by his involvement in a plethora of activities and interests.

Dr. Somerville has been a hands-on participant in Community Missions. Steve Blanchard, our Minister of Christian Compassion writes, “One of the first things that stood out to me was his passion for community and service. Jim thinks outside the box. He is passionate and not afraid to speak out if he believes in something wholeheartedly. Too often, the church (universal) is way too silent on social issues as it battles itself as to whether its purpose is to preach Jesus or preach about social issues.  Jim realizes there is no difference, the two are the same. I appreciate Jim and his willingness to come along beside me and others and meet people on the margins where they are, not just with his words, but with his actions as well.”

The Senior Pastor is a consultant to the Church Endowment Board. Carl Johnson reflects that, “The job of consultant can be difficult. First is the difference between consultant and advisor. Dr. Somerville has done well understanding the difference between the two. Second, I’m sure there have been times when he had a contribution that would have been helpful, but did not have an invitation for comment. He handled that well too. His involvement with numerous Richmond civic, charitable, educational, denominational, etc., entities and his insight, particularly with new entities, has been most helpful when we have received funding requests from them.”

Dr. Somerville has had a close and supportive relationship with Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, serving two three-year terms on the Board of Trustees. He has even taught two semesters of preaching there, covering for Dr. Tracy Hartman while she was on sabbatical.

The list of involvement could go on and on, but let’s focus a minute on the events that transpired in bringing him to our church in the first place.

The earliest and arguably best advice given the Senior Pastor Search Committee was from Buddy and Dickie Hamilton. Both had served on previous senior pastor search committees. They told the team that prayer had not been central to those earlier efforts, but that they should make it central to theirs, so that’s what they did.

They prayed to open and close their meetings, they prayed as they studied resumes and went on visits, but most significant were the prayer retreats, directed by Alan Jones, former staff member, and Lynn Turner, staff liaison. Those prayer times challenged them to seek God’s heart and lay aside their own agendas. A significant verse for the team was 1 Samuel 16:7; it directed them to look for “a man after God’s own heart.”

The church family also gave the team significant advice, which was used to develop a Senior Pastor Profile. Preaching was at the top of virtually all responses, and the church is grateful God led us to Jim Somerville who proclaims the Word in ways that are clear, fresh and challenging.  This was evident when the team initially visited First Baptist Church in Washington D.C., where Dr. Somerville served before he came to us.

Another critical requirement was the ability to honor FBC’s traditions while challenging the church to grow into the future. This required a prophet, another of Jim Somerville’s significant gifts. To best describe how he matched the team’s profile is his life verse: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful,” Luke 6:36. It is inscribed on the pulpit stand given to him on May 11, 2008, when he became our senior pastor.

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Every week, at the close of the leadership staff meeting on Tuesday mornings, the ministers join hands around the table and pray together,

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, in Richmond as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread…. Amen.”

That small, but intentional adaptation of the Lord’s Prayer encourages the staff and the congregation to ask, “How does this existing ministry or new initiative help bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, VA?” That simple question continues to keep our staff and membership focused on our shared ministry as cast by our pastor.

Dr. Somerville’s creative and energetic vision has both challenged and encouraged us all to join in God’s redemptive mission, as Jim would say, by “looking around and noticing what does not look like heaven, and roll up our sleeves and get to work.”

Jim’s vision is making a difference in our church and our city. Thanks be to God!

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1 The Hopeful Imagination: Walter Brueggemann

2 An attractional church model seeks to build up a church through programs and events to pull people in: If you build it they will come. A missional model, on the other hand, seeks to find out what the needs of a community are and then seeks to meet those needs as a church: Churches are not the goal of God’s mission, but the tool of God’s mission.

Editor’s note: For this article, we interviewed Dr. Somerville, and a number of individuals were asked to speak to various aspects of Dr. Somerville’s 10 years of ministry at Richmond’s First Baptist Church. What followed was more material than can appear in a single story. Their reflections have been condensed into this article, but to more fully understand the effect of Dr. Somerville’s ministry here, we have included all of their contributions in this addendum. Here is the full interview with Dr. Somerville.

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