Robert Parham died March 5. I knew Robert for almost three decades. When we were first introduced, he was a staff member with the Southern Baptist Convention’s Christian Life Commission, one of that denomination’s premiere organizations. As Parham observed the shifting Baptist landscape, he left the CLC in 1991 to found the Baptist Center for Ethics, and independent voice for ethical concerns. Both in personal conversations and observing Robert’s leadership over the past 25 years, I learned much about innovation and a positive response to the emerging opportunities in our culture.
When BCE was launched, the organization adopted the pattern set by the CLC--offering conferences, newsletters, and other printed resources that addressed moral and ethical issues. Parham and his team saw that this strategy was not achieving the desired results. BCE moved toward curriculum resources, first offering them in a printed form and then moving to a digital distribution plan. BCE dived further into digital media by launching ethicsdaily.com, an online site providing resources and commentary from a progressive point of view.
In 2006 the organization started producing documentary DVDs on topics such as migration, incarceration, and interfaith relationships. Although originally intended for the faith community, several of these received wide national recognition. The success of these documentaries was based not only on the topic and quality of the productions but Parham’s networking skills.
So what did I learn from Robert Parham?
1. Parham was a true entrepreneur. Underneath a calm and articulate exterior, there was a certain restlessness, a pioneering spirit. Although his goal of engaging ethical concerns never wavered, he was open to new delivery systems and relationships to further that goal. He modeled innovation.
2. As board chairman Kevin Heifner noted at Robert’s memorial service, Robert not only embraced the center’s vision of “challenging people of faith to advance the common good,” he amended this in practice to add “people of ALL faiths” by engaging with Muslims and Jews to pursue themes of mutual concern. He practiced inclusion.
3. Robert was a persistent networker. Every few months, I would receive a call “just to check in” with me. We would talk about mutual projects and interests. In our last call several weeks again, he asked if I could set up a luncheon engagement with my pastor at some point. Unfortunately, we were not able to do that, but it is fitting that our last conversation dealt with making connections. Robert was gifted at networking and this led to many opportunities not only with other faith groups, but with secular organizations as well. I learned from Robert the value of initiating conversations and getting to know new people without knowing the outcome in advance.
Robert was a gifted communicator, an insightful ethicist, and an unapologetic prophetic voice, but he was also a leader who broke through barriers. We miss him but we learned much through his life and ministry.