Jim Sells was a larger-than-life person
It is surely irrational for someone with a modest, simple stature to make an effort to critique the life and work of a genuine spiritual giant. But I have to try.
Periodically, we have the opportunity to encounter people who seem to be larger than life. I met that kind of man in 1971 when I showed up as a student at Southwest Baptist College (SBC). I know it is a large University now, but it was a small college in 1971 with a visionary president, James Lee Sells, who laid the foundation for the University that Southwest Baptist has become.
There was a manner about the president that clearly demonstrated his genuine concern for students without disguising his authority on the campus. Sells was a true friend to the students, even the ornery ones, like me. I was an SBC student, but for all the wrong reasons. An education was the farthest thing from my mind. I went to Bolivar in 1971 to meet my future wife. By the way, I married the belle of the SBC campus.
May I insert at this point that the definition of the word “belle” is “… a woman considered to be the most conspicuously good-looking of all those living in a place or attending a social event.” I’m serious. I looked it up. But, I digress.
In 1972, I married the belle of the SBC campus. And while I did become educated, it was not until many years later and on another campus. By the time I received my undergraduate degree, I had actually attended five different institutions of higher learning. And, I can tell you that every college president I have known has been compared to Sells because, in my mind, Jim Sells is the standard by which college presidents ought to be measured.
Many years after my SBC days, I met Sells in another environment. While I had changed significantly, Sells was the same gentle, godly man he always had been. In our later meeting, I was serving on the Board of Trustees of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (MBTS). We were in terrible shape at MBTS in the area of fund raising. It was almost nonexistent at that time. Sells began to turn that around in a few months.
But, let’s get back to my reunion with Jim Sells at the MBTS Trustee meeting. Sells was introduced to the MBTS trustees. He shared his exciting testimony of living in the Spirit of God. And then the trustees began to interview the man who would save MBTS in the area of fund raising. I didn’t really have a question. But I had to speak. Remember, Jim Sells was a man whom I respected before I was respectful. I was at the same time, appalled and excited at the thought that I was going to be able to cast a vote for Jim Sells. Before we voted, I raised my hand. When I was recognized I began to speak. I said, “Dr. Sells, you probably don’t recognize or remember me … .” I was about to give a short speech about the tremendous impact this man of God had made on my life. And so I began, “Dr. Sells, you probably don’t recognize or remember me, but … .” But, in a smooth and soothing voice, Jim Sells interrupted me to say, “Oh, David, I remember you, and I knew you’d become something.” And I was speechless. Someone across the room broke the awkward silence by joking, “Yeah and we’re still trying to figure out what he’s going to become?” But I was in awe of this great man who not only remembered me – he knew my name. He knew several of my flaws. Yet he encouraged me. That was his nature.
Fast forward a few more years. Sells has been placed on contract with the MBC to raise funds for a new Convention facility. As the associate director for the Communications/Development, I had the awesome and humbling privilege to work with and to be mentored by Jim Sells on a daily basis. I can tell that I watched in awe as Jim Sells promoted, not programs, but people. Sells lifted, not just offerings, he lifted people. He raised more than money. Jim Sells raised the level of civility, peace and grace wherever he went.
And Jim Sells was a hard worker. At 79, Jim Sells could and did work circles around most men half his age. I kept up with him, almost. And it was almost more than I could do. On Sunday afternoon, Nov. 25. Myra and I were driving back from preaching at Lawson Baptist Church. I was just about to pick up the phone and call him. I would have been returning a call he had made to me. Undoubtedly, he had one more idea about how we could be more effective. But before I could call him, I received a call about him.
That Sunday, Jim Sells died. He is now reunited with his beloved wife, Joyce. More importantly, he is now living in the very real presence of his Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. I like the way it was stated in the obituary. “On the morning of Nov. 25, 2007, God considered Jim’s eternity, and he visualized something better, so he called him home. Together, they are no doubt building it.” Nov. 28, in the memorial celebration for Jim Sells, C. Pat Taylor, current president of Southwest Baptist University (SBU), reminded us that Jim Sells built at least 17 of the buildings that currently make up the expansive SBU campus in Bolivar. Yet, Jim Sells is known, not only as a builder of buildings, but as a builder of people.
Jim Sells was approximately 5-foot-6. I didn’t measure him. But he came up to my chin, which makes me a head taller than Jim Sells and I am not a tall person. In the immortal words of his son Scott Sells, Jim Sells was a “… small man who cast a big shadow.” I agree. On Nov. 28, we buried a giant of a man, Jim Sells.
Jim Sells was a devoted husband and a dedicated father and grandfather. Another son, Ben Sells, who, by the way, is an incredible reflection of his father, said that although his father was “… not a perfect person, he was simply trying to be an authentic person.” Ben, your dad was successful in that. He was true to his convictions. He was true to God’s Word and true to His Lord. Jim Sells was genuinely Christ-like.
I also agree with Billy Russell. Russell is the beloved pastor to the Bolivar First Baptist Church and he was pastor to Jim and Joyce Sells. In his remarks, Brother Russell commented about the humility that would be required of anyone the stature of Jim Sells who would allow Billy Russell to be his pastor. Now Billy Russell is a great pastor. But the point is clear and it is true. Jim Sells understood and lived the ideal of Scripture. Jim Sells exemplified the words of Jesus, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.”