NASHVILLE — Approximately five years ago, Rusty Sumrall knew his tenure as executive director of Nashville Baptist Association was nearing an end.
He had recently turned 65 years old so he went to his board and asked if they wanted him to retire. Sumrall noted they told him he could remain as long as he wanted.
“I asked them if we could put some money aside in our upcoming budget to do a strategy plan leading to my retirement when I turned 70,” he recalled.
The association’s leadership agreed and they formed a 2020 Vision Team which hired a consultant to work with the association, leading to the creation of a five-year plan which culminated with a new director of missions in September.
Michael Kelley, a former employee with Lifeway Christian Resources, was chosen to succeed Sumrall. He joined the staff as executive director-elect on May 1 of last year and served alongside Sumrall until their annual meeting in September when he took over the reins of the association.
Sumrall stayed on with the association as a lead coach/consultant to help complete the transition. He will retire from the association in March after 30-plus years of service.
Sumrall noted that having a plan in place enabled Kelley to already have some key priorities when he arrived, but was flexible enough to make changes as needed.
Though new to associational work, Kelley said it did not take him long to learn that “relationships are the tracks on which this (the association) runs.”
Kelley said he and Sumrall made about 30 visits to pastors and churches in the first two months after he arrived. “If you do not have strong personal relationships with pastors and church leaders, then what you do is going to be largely ineffective,” he said.
The trips he made to visit pastors will be “vital going forward,” Kelley affirmed.
In addition to the relationships, the transition allowed Kelley to see how the association operates, he said. “When I was with Lifeway, we spoke the language of the church like we do at the association, but it is different,” Kelley acknowledged.
The transition time helped the new DOM to see and understand the differences. Establishing a transition period showed a lot of foresight from both Rusty and the board in knowing that it could not be “a plug and play” for someone without the knowledge of how an association works,” he said.
Both men agreed that another reason their transition has gone smoothly is that they have a mutual respect for each other and though their personalities are different, the personalities do not clash.
Kelley, a member of Grace Community Church, Brentwood, noted that transition is synonymous with change. “So, from my perspective, one of the hard parts is trying to diagnose what are the things that are really okay to change and what does not need to be changed,” he said.
Sumrall has been pleased with how the transition has gone. “It’s been a blessing for me to be here during this period and to see the beginnings of the new ministry,” he said, adding that Kelley “has taken the ball and ran with it” and is off to a good start.
The men agreed that such a transition does not happen in a short time. “This was something the association had to plan for,” Kelley said. Sumrall agreed. “It needs to be at least two years out,” he affirmed.
The association needed time to financially plan for the transition because, in effect, the association paid the salaries of two directors of missions for about six months or more, Sumrall said.
Sumrall has seen different sides of a transition.
He was on staff when former DOM Jim Freedman retired and served as interim DOM while a search was conducted, a search that ultimately led to Sumrall.
“I think for the long-term future of the association, this is the most effective process. We had the full support and encouragement of the board,” he said.
Kelley added that the board did a good job of being involved while trusting him and Sumrall to work out the details of the transition. “I did not feel micromanaged,” Kelley said.
“We believe in the work of the association, so we are grateful that Rusty Sumrall had the vision and humility to plan for his retirement in a way that was best for the churches of Nashville,” affirmed Scott Patty, pastor of Grace Community Church, Nashville, and chairman of the NBA’s board of directors.
“He wanted to help get the association in a position to be led by another director for greater effectiveness in the next generation. We are also grateful that Michael Kelley shares the vision for healthy churches in our city and region of the state,” Patty continued.
“He is an able leader who loves pastors and church staff members. Rusty and Michael have shown great care and cooperation in this transition,” he added.
Steve Holt, church services director for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, also praised the association for its advanced planning for the transition.
“NBA was very forward thinking in their process. I believe Rusty was wise in announcing his retirement plans in advance. This gave the association the opportunity to be deliberate in their search for a replacement and still have someone in place well in advance of Rusty’s actual retirement,” Holt said.
As the clock ticks down on his impending departure from the association, Sumrall has continued to help Kelley with the transition, compiling a list of the association’s assets, where they are located (such as the disaster relief equipment) and a list of churches that have closed and left assets for the association to administer.
In addition, Sumrall is compiling a page on each church so Kelley will have a handy reference.
Sumrall has enjoyed his ministry with Nashville Baptist Association and as he leaves he is confident the association “is going to be in the good hands” of his successor.
As for Kelley, he is looking forward to the future for the association.
“We continue to believe that there is a tremendous amount of good that can be done through the cooperation of the churches of the Nashville area and are trusting that the Lord will give us good wisdom and direction about how to help make that happen,” he said. B&R