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A. Earl Potts: Former state convention exec. diescomments (2)

January 9, 2014

A. Earl Potts: Former state convention exec. dies

Alabama Baptists lost a giant Dec. 25 when A. Earl Potts, former executive director of the Alabama Baptist Convention State Board of Missions (SBOM), passed away. He was 93.

“I join the family of Alabama Baptists in mourning the passing of one of God’s great ambassadors,” said Rick Lance, current executive director of the SBOM. “His life was rich in relationships and he left an indelible impression upon us as Alabama Baptists with his legacy of leadership.” 

A Randolph County native, Potts was a graduate of Samford University in Birmingham and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. He was pastor of McElwain Baptist Church, Birmingham, before joining the ABSC as director of church ministries. Potts served as ABSC executive director from 1984 until his retirement in 1990.

Potts “brought wisdom and grace” to the position, Lance said.

“His wise leadership and his graceful servant heart were evident during those years as executive director,” Lance said. “Earl Potts was a salt and light type influence on people, pouring himself into the ministry of others in an intentional way.”

Troy L. Morrison, former SBOM executive director, agreed.

“He was one of the finest Christian gentlemen I’ve ever known. He represented graciousness, integrity and kindness in every aspect of his life,” Morrison said. “Even though his tenure (as state convention head) was short, he will be remembered as one of the greatest ever to fill that position.”

Over the course of his ministry, Potts served in various roles, including director of ministerial placement at Samford and an adjunct faculty member of Samford’s Beeson Divinity School. 

He served in recent years on the Alabama Baptist Historical Commission. 

He also wrote a book, “By the Grace of God: Memoirs and Recollections of an Alabama Baptist,” in 1997. A state convention academic scholarship also was named in his honor.

Potts is preceded in death by his wife, Louise, who died in 1984.

He is survived by a son, David, who is president of Judson College in Marion; and a daughter, Libby, who is married to Dale Peterson, minister of music at First Baptist Church, Auburn. 


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Comments (2)

    Wallace Henley 1/23/2014 3:29 PM

    Gentle strength.

    Those two words came to mind immediately when I read in The Alabama Baptist of Earl Potts passing.

    My mind recalled the way our lives and ministries were intertwined, beginning in 1978. That year I became pastor of Birminghams McElwain Baptist Church, where Earl had served many years before joining the staff of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions.

    Earl was not my immediate predecessor at McElwain, but all of us who succeeded him knew it was Earls shoes we were attempting to fill. Probably all of my colleagues who served McElwain would agree that we couldnt fill those shoes, neither individually nor collectively.

    In 1984, our paths intersected in an even more direct way when Earl was named executive director of the SBOM during my tenure as the state convention president and chairman of the administration committee.

    The memory is especially poignant.

    The administration committee meeting was lengthy, and Earls appointment came in the evening. As we met, Louise, his wife, lay gravely ill in a nearby Montgomery hospital. Louise and Earl were a power couple before 21st century culture gave us the term. She was a leader in her own right, and shared the calling and gifts of pastoral ministry. What they did, they did together.
    So that night after Earls selection as executive director, he and I drove to the hospital. Standing beside her bed, we told her of Earls appointment. Quiet laughter and a few tears followed.
    Within a month, Louise was in Heaven. Earls heart was broken, but issues were zooming at us. He knew Louise would want him serving with the same measure of sacrifice both of them had given to the cause of Christ. Despite the immense grief, Earl led with class, never backing away from anything.

    It was in that serving that Earls gentle strength became so evident. Feisty board and committee meetings, tense conversations, moments when diplomatic skills were desperately needed revealed the character of Earl Potts. I watched with admiration.

    When I think of Earl the words of Jesus spoken in the Sermon on the Mount come to mind: Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

    The Greek word translated meek signifies a mighty stallion under control. I learned to understand Earls humble spirit was not weakness of personality, but powerful discipline: gentle strength.
    Earl was a living definition of what Jesus meant in those profound words.

    He was one of my heroes.

  • Timothy George 1/23/2014 3:31 PM

    Alton Earl Potts, one of the most beloved leaders ever among Baptists in Alabama, died last month on Christmas morning at age 93. His passing leaves a vacancy on the landscape of our soul. 

    Born in rural Randolph County in 1920, Earl Potts grew up in a country home constructed by his grandfather who had been born soon after the end of the Civil War.

    It was a house with a blacksmith shop, smoke house, out house, garden plot, and syrup mill. Earl never forgot, nor was he ever embarrassed about, his rural, small town Alabama roots.
    In this context, he acquired virtues — and a worldview — that would serve him well for the rest of his life: the value of hard work, the importance of keeping one’s word, respect for all persons regardless of color or class (his nearest neighbors were African Americans), a deep love for his family, for the Bible, for Jesus Christ, and for the church.

    Earl Potts and his family were poor but they did not feel impoverished. Earl felt blessed, especially blessed by his parents and teachers, and by the pastors, mentors, and friends who encouraged him along the way. He enrolled in Howard College (now Samford University) soon after America entered World War II.

    During his latter college years, he served on the staff of Woodlawn Baptist Church working with noted pastor D. I. Purser. He also developed a special relationship with Dr. James H. Chapman, longtime Howard professor and mentor to ministerial students. He preached frequently and held part-time pastorates in small churches on Sand Mountain and Lookout Mountain. From Birmingham, he and his new bride, Louise Green, moved to Louisville where Earl continued his studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. There the newlywed couple was befriended by President and Mrs. Ellis Fuller.

    Earl studied with some of the outstanding professors of the era including Clyde Francisco, Henry Turlington, James Witherspoon, and Gaines Dobbins.

    In 1950, the Potts family returned to Birmingham when Earl began his pastoral ministry at McElwain Baptist Church, a congregation he served faithfully for twenty years. The arrival of son David and daughter Elizabeth (Libby) soon added to the joy and liveliness of the Potts household. During these years, Earl became a strong advocate for racial reconciliation and forged deep friendships with African American Baptist leaders in Birmingham. Earl had a great laugh and he loved to whistle as he walked down the hallway, according to Jody Baker, the administrator and minister of education at McElwain who grew up in the church there under Earl’s ministry.

    From 1970 until his retirement twenty years later, Earl Potts served on the staff of the Alabama Baptist State Convention. From 1984 until 1990, he was the chief executive officer (called secretary-treasurer in those days). The 1980s were a decade of ever-widening denominational conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention. This led to polarization (and eventual splits) in a number of state conventions as well. During this time of conflict Baptists in Alabama, while decidedly conservative in theology, remained remarkably united in spirit and commitment to a common mission. In no small measure this was due to the fairness, stability, and Christ-like leadership qualities of Earl Potts. In his book Alabama Baptists: Southern Baptists in the Heart of Dixie, historian Wayne Flynt declared that, during his five years at the helm of Baptist work in Alabama, Earl Potts “steered the denomination like an expert pilot through waters filled with snags and bars.” 

    It was in the Spring of 1988 that I first met Earl Potts. I had come to Birmingham at the invitation of President Thomas E. Corts to discuss with him the invitation I had received to become the founding dean of a new divinity school at Samford University. Dr. Corts said to me, “Timothy, there is someone I want you to meet.”

    Earl suggested we meet in Clanton, as the peach season was just beginning. We sat together, ate peaches, and engaged in a conversation that lasted for several hours. From the getgo, I was impressed by Earl’s humility, his conciliatory spirit, his devout Christian commitment and belief in the total truthfulness of God’s Word. I was also encouraged by his keen interest in the grand idea of a new divinity school in Alabama, one that would be explicitly evangelical, theologically conservative, interdenominational, and missions-focused. 

    Later in the Fall of 1988, after we had enrolled Beeson’s inaugural class of thirty-one students, Earl Potts invited Dr. Corts and me to a high summit meeting of Alabama Baptist pastors and leaders, several of whom had expressed strong reservations about breaking the monopoly of theological education based only in seminaries. Earl Potts moderated this discussion which was candid and constructive and which helped to quell some, if not all, of the suspicions and misperceptions that were afoot about the new divinity school.
    Later that same Fall, the Alabama Baptist Convention unanimously passed a resolution commending Samford University and Dr. Corts for their initiative in launching Beeson Divinity School. “Now in its maiden semester,” the resolution read, the Divinity School has “demonstrated a fervent love for Jesus, a burden for evangelism, and…the mainstream conservative theology of Alabama Baptists.”

    They pledged their continued prayers and support for the new Divinity School, its faculty and students.

    Soon after Earl Potts had retired from his full-time service in Montgomery, I invited him to become the inaugural James H. Chapman Fellow of Pastoral Ministry at Beeson. Named after one of his own teachers at Howard College, this new position enabled Earl Potts to pour some of the wisdom and ripe experience of his full life and ministry into the rising generation of pastors, missionaries, counselors, and teachers. In this role, he taught courses on Baptist life and polity, ministerial ethics, pastoral formation, and a special travel course to the Southern Baptist Convention. Earl loved working with the students and they in turned loved and revered him.

    For several years in retirement, Earl Potts lived near our campus and we would sometimes see him in Hodges Chapel participating in community worship or just sitting quietly in prayer and meditation. As he lived on well past the psalmist’s allotment of threescore years and ten, Earl Potts became frail in body and began to lose some of his memory. But back in 1997, when he published his memoirs By the Grace of God, Earl Potts wrote in words that provide his own epitaph:

    Oh, Lord, our God, how great is Thy faithfulness.
Lord, so long as I have strength of body
And the semblance of a mind,
I want to love you and serve you.
And when those fail me,
I will still love you, Lord.

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