History Center

Robert Ricker 1987-2002

President of the Baptist General Conference

Robert Ricker


Robert Ricker was the son of conference pastor Sanford Ricker and his wife Grace; Bob grew up among conference Baptists, graduating from Bethel College in 1959, Bethel Seminary in 1963, and earning a D.Min. from Bethel Seminary in1976. He met his wife, Delores (Dee) Elseth at Bethel while he was in seminary and she was a college student. They were married in 1961.

Following seminary graduation, Ricker was called to be the pastor of Foothill Baptist Church in Sylmar, Calif., serving there for six years before moving to Grace Baptist Church in Santa Maria, Calif. In 1971 he was called to become the pastor of Edina Baptist Church in Edina, Minn., an independent Baptist church led by a succession of Baptist General Conference pastors. He served there for twelve years and saw the church grow from an attendance of 450 to more than 2500, one of the earliest of the large evangelical churches in the Twin Cities area.

In 1983, Ricker became pastor of a fairly new church plant in Chatsworth, Calif. Faith Evangelical Church (now called Church at Rocky Peak) was still meeting in temporary facilities but growing rapidly. During his four years there, Ricker led the church in their first building program on a new 70-acre site.

In 1987, Ricker was called to be the first President of the Baptist General Conference. A new, single board structure, with all department heads reporting to the president, was adopted at the same conference meetings in which Ricker was appointed. The conference under Ricker worked to adapt to the increasing pressures of a more diversified base of churches and pastors. Early on, national and district leaders agreed that the purpose of the conference and the districts was to assist the churches in fulfilling their ministries. This understanding led to a new level of working with districts and involving them in national and international strategic planning. It also led to a reorganization of conference ministries into two major functions: global church planting and global church enrichment. Team America was begun as a major investment in church planting that continues to energize the conference to this day.

A conference on evangelism was held at Bethel College to help refocus conference efforts in prayer and evangelism. One result of this gathering was the Commission on Evangelism. Soon after this the Prayer Commission, led by Dana Olson, became a significant and sought-after BGC resource for churches in prayer ministries. John Dickau in home missions developed the Changing the World strategic planning, to assist churches and pastors in becoming more effective. A new executive vice president position was created, held first by Cliff Anderson, then Herb Hage, then Ray Swatkowski.

International mission fields were expanded to 22 and the number of missionaries serving increased to an all-time high of 150. The focus of new field development was “To Reach the Unreached” and the conference targeted 27 unreached people groups as “our fair share” of this mission challenge. The One by One outreach to street children in Brazil began and expanded to Haiti. The Minnesota Conference had begun an aggressive sister church program with churches in the Ukraine, and the conference partnered with that program to extend it to Estonia. A full-time, short-term missions director was appointed.

Significant debt had been accumulating and now reached $1.8 million; during the early years of Ricker’s leadership this presented a strong challenge. Cutbacks began: staff at conference headquarters was trimmed by 10 percent; the Board of Church Ministries was discontinued and its duties transferred to the Church and Pastoral Ministries division; and more than a half million dollars was cut from the expense budget. Aggressive plans were made for the expansion of stewardship efforts, and those, along with the dedication of estate gifts to debt retirement, meant that the conference became debt-free a few years into Ricker’s tenure. Meanwhile, other financial resources, such as the Baptist General Conference Retirement plan and the Cornerstone Fund, grew exponentially.

Ricker was active beyond the Arlington Heights office, serving on the Board of Bethel College & Seminary. He worked on a new constitution that involved Bethel incorporating separately from the Baptist General Conference for the sake of legal, accrediting, and financial considerations, but with both entities remaining accountable to the delegates of the Baptist General Conference Churches.

Ricker was active in support and leadership in the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs and the Baptist World Alliance, where he served as chairman of Baptist World Aid, chairman of the personnel committee, and as a vice president.

Early in Ricker’s tenure, a question about the conference position on the issue of baptism as a requirement for church membership was successfully resolved through a thoughtful process. A second major theological issue addressed was a controversy over the openness of God. Bethel College Professor Greg Boyd was challenged by some conference pastors for a teaching that they believed threatened belief in the omniscience of God. The controversy was hotly debated, with many feeling the issue could split the conference. There was an attempt at the 1999 Annual Meeting to amend the Conference Statement of Faith to preclude views held by Boyd, but the motion did not receive sufficient votes. At the 2000 Annual Meeting, two motions were passed by the delegates. The first affirmed that “God’s knowledge of all past, present, and future events is exhaustive and that the ‘openness’ view of God’s foreknowledge is contrary to our fellowship’s historic understanding of God’s omniscience.” The second motion affirmed the recommendation of the Bethel Board of Trustees that “Dr. Boyd’s views did not warrant his termination and, by inference, his views fall within the accepted bounds of the evangelical faith.” It further affirmed that Bethel faculty members “must in good faith refer to this view as marginal to the mainstream of thought in the BGC” and that examination of this view in the classroom “must be done alongside presentation of the classical Calvinistic, Armenian and other evangelical views.” Though the adoption of both motions may have pleased neither faction, the controversy was laid to rest and the focus of conference attention turned in the following years to core ministries of the BGC.

At the 2001 Annual Meeting, it was announced that Bob Ricker would conclude his service to the conference at the end of his term. A search committee was established and charged to bring a nomination for a successor to the next Annual Meeting. As Ricker stepped down from 15 years of service and Jerry Sheveland took up the mantle of president, the conference was on secure footing. Over 347 new churches had been added during the Ricker years, 127 career missionaries had been sent out, the debt had been conquered, and annual giving to the conference had doubled to $14 million.