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John Sullivan, statesman, honored for serving Florida Baptists 25 years


By Barbara Denman

February 14, 2014


MT. DORA—While often saying he wanted to be known foremost as a Baptist preacher, John Sullivan was lauded as a man of vision and integrity, effective leader, lover of people, pastor to pastors and a Southern Baptist statesman during tributes in honor of his 25th anniversary as executive director-treasurer of the Florida Baptist Convention.

Sullivan is “a man sent from God,” said Tim Maynard, president of the Florida Baptist State Convention. “He came to bear witness to the Light and he has done so faithfully for 25 years.”

Maynard, pastor of Fruit Cove Baptist Church in Jacksonville, spoke at a Feb. 6 anniversary dinner in Mount Dora, held in conjunction with the State Board of Missions meeting.

He noted Sullivan’s mother called him “John,” even though his given name is “Travis Gene.”

 “I wonder if his mother from the coal fields of West Virginia might have known that her son was going to take his place in the ranks of great men of God who have preached the word faithfully through the centuries,” Maynard said, referencing John the Baptist, the Apostle John, John Calvin, John Wesley, “could have known that many great men of God have been named John?” he asked.

As was John the Baptist, Sullivan is a man of character, courage, conviction and calling, Maynard said.

“I have watched him under pressure. I have seen him under attack. He is the same man” in every situation, Maynard said.  “He is a man of character.”

“He is a man of courage, a man of conviction,” Maynard continued. “He has courage to say what he thinks. He says this from a place of integrity within himself that grows out of his conviction,” from his stand on the Bible.

“What greater gift have we received as Florida Baptists than to have this man and his wife, Nancy, walking with us for the past 25 years? The greatest gift, Dr. Sullivan, is the life you and Nancy have poured into us and pointing us and others to the Light.

“You are God’s gift to us.”

Sullivan was elected as the ninth executive director-treasurer of the Florida Convention Jan. 20, 1989 as a unanimous choice of the search committee. 

His 25 years of service is the longest of all Florida Baptist executive directors and places him among the longest tenured state execs in the Southern Baptist Convention.

In presenting a plaque to Sullivan from The Baptist College of Florida, Tom Kinchen, president, called Sullivan “a leader and statesman,” adding, “not many of those are around anymore. I have known leaders who are not statesmen, but never a statesman that wasn’t a leader.”

The 200 in attendance watched videos featuring the Sullivans and Florida Baptists across the state.

“His vision in evangelism, his vision in church growth, his vision in planting churches make all the difference in Florida,” said Silair Almeida, pastor of the First Brazilian Baptist Church of South Florida. “We are in Florida what we are because of his vision.”

Willy Rice, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Clearwater and a former president of the Florida Baptist State Convention, said, “There was this singular message that was repeated over and over again—it’s about evangelism, it’s about church planting, it’s about reaching a people far from God with the Gospel of Christ and that just flows out of the leadership and the heart of John Sullivan.”

“We would jokingly say, ‘my way or the highway,’” recalled Ted Traylor, pastor of Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola, and another former FBSC president. “But the word is firm. He’s a leader, he sets direction and he says we are going there and come with me. He’s a wonderful team builder.”

Kenric Conway, pastor of Family of God in Panama City, and chairman of the board of trustees at The Baptist College of Florida, called Sullivan “reachable and touchable. If you want your leader to embody the spirit of Christ, he does that quite well and that has been the greatest gift, just the personal touch, personal time and willingness to place his hand on our ministry.”

“Sometime we as pastors are lonely, said Ricky Powell, pastor of Fort Carolina Baptist Church in Jacksonville. “We don’t have a pastor that will be a sounding board asking the hard questions, or being there to pray with us. I found Dr. Sullivan to be a good friend and pastor to me.”

Ann Gates of Melbourne said Sullivan will be remembered “as a man of integrity, a man of faith, a man of honesty and most of all, a man of love. He said something at the Florida Baptist State Convention that stuck in my heart and ministry. He said really all he cared about being on his tombstone is to be remembered as a Baptist preacher.”

Others praised Nancy Sullivan, his wife of 58 years. 

“When you talk about Nancy, she is the mother of the pastors’ wives. She’s such a tremendous example for all of us,” said Jean Green of Miramar. “She stands by Dr. Sullivan, anywhere he is traveling, she is there with him. When you talk about Nancy, you can’t talk about her in ordinary language, you have to use superlatives: greatest, best—those are the terms you have to use.”

Lois Wenger of Orlando agreed. “She’s truly a role model not only for other pastor’s wives, for Christian women across our Convention. What a tremendous source of encouragement she is not only to him but to others. To know Nancy is to love her.”

In his remarks at the conclusion of the evening, John Sullivan expressed gratitude to his wife Nancy, his “companion” who led him to Christ in their early years of marriage. “Without her, I would have never taken this job,” he said.

“It’s an amazing thing for God to call a boy out of the coal fields of West Virginia, meet someone as wonderful as Nancy, and now have served 25 years as the leader of the Florida Baptist Convention. It’s absolutely a miracle.”

He reflected on the past 25 years, saying they had driven over one million miles and God had protected them, with only one serious accident. He has been “out there with the brethren,” speaking 5,859 times—averaging 234 times a year—in 3,067 places, including 122 locations in the state of Florida. In fact, he lived in his house for 25 years, yet only slept there for 12 years—having spent 13 years away from home.   

He has worked with two Baptist College of Florida presidents, four Florida Baptist Children’s Homes presidents, four Florida Baptist Witness editors and three Florida Baptist Financial Services presidents.    

Saying he had been “blessed by the good people of the State Board of Missions,” he thanked them for “great latitude in calling staff.”

“This is not a one man band,” Sullivan said. “I’ve had good people around me from the very beginning.”

As executive-director, Sullivan called Florida Baptists to three core principles—evangelism without apology, planting New Testament churches, and developing healthy congregations. His tenure marked significant growth for Florida Baptists and together they:

--planted 2,500 new churches and church-type missions;

--baptized 779,391 persons;

--gave $670 million through the Cooperative Program to support Southern Baptist mission and ministry causes; and $20,600,000 for Florida missions through the Maguire State Mission Offering;

--established 14 mission partnerships including 20-year commitments with Western Cuba Baptist Convention and Confraternite Missionaire Baptiste d’Haiti, which grew from a nucleus of 60 churches to nearly 1,700 churches; 

--sent 385,000 Florida Baptists in Convention-sponsored volunteer mission and ministry projects;

--responded to Hurricane Andrew in South Florida, one of the most destructive storms of its time. Sullivan and Convention staff lived in the community for nearly six weeks, sleeping on church floors and setting up a long-term rebuilding program.

--responded to every natural disaster in the state, and many in other states and nations, training nearly 40,000 disaster relief volunteers.

--established nine theological education centers in the state where 900 students are enrolled in the state’s program.

To view the videos presented at the 25th anniversary celebration go to the following links:




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