Warren Magnuson, like Lloyd Dahlquist before him, had been a well-recognized conference pastor with considerable experience in leadership of conference boards before being asked to assume the role of General Secretary of the Conference.
Magnuson was born in Minneapolis, Minn., in 1921, and as he grew up, was strongly influenced by the ministry of Bethlehem Baptist Church, particularly Anton Sjolund, Ewald Chalberg, and Odette McAviney. Magnuson attended Bethel Junior College and received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota; he graduated from Bethel Seminary in 1946. He was a student pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church of St. Paul, Minn., and after seminary, he and his wife Margaret moved to Ludington, Mich., where he became pastor of the Washington Avenue Baptist Church (1947-50). He next served as pastor of First Baptist Church in Willmar, Minn., from 1950 to 1954, then became pastor of Central Baptist in St. Paul, serving there until the conference called him as General Secretary in 1969. Before taking that role, Magnuson had served on the Board of Education, the Board of Foreign Missions and the Trustee Board of the conference and was chair of both the Foreign Mission Board and the Board of Trustees. He also served actively in the work of the Minnesota Baptist Conference and was chosen as moderator of the Baptist General Conference Annual Meeting in 1965.
During the 18 years of Magnuson’s leadership as General Secretary, in part through an ambitious program labeled Double in a Decade, the conference grew by 276 churches, 96 new missionaries were appointed, and giving grew from two million dollars to more than four million. In addition, the conference center relocated from Chicago to Evanston, Ill., and then to the present headquarters in Arlington Heights, Ill. Both a health and accident insurance program and a pastors retirement fund were established for conference pastors, and the Baptist General Conference Mission Endowment Fund was begun.
Conference work during these years was marked by unity and an irenic spirit with one goal: to extend the work of the Kingdom. District and lay leadership were involved in a new way in the decision-making process, thereby developing a deeper sense of belonging. Annual meeting attendance was often between 2000 and 3000 individuals.
The conference goal was supported by a United Mission for Christ program in which mission giving to the conference was divided between each of the ministries according to a percentage formula, thus giving each church member a sense of ownership of the total ministry. However, funding issues were a challenge. Two capital fund campaigns, Mission Share and Decade Growth Fund, were completed in cooperation with local churches and districts to supplement the conference budget.
These were years of expansion for Bethel College & Seminary as well. Bethel College moved from its former Snell-ing Avenue campus to new facilities in Arden Hills to join the seminary. An extension of Bethel Seminary was begun in San Diego and the number of students served by Bethel doubled, but the Vancouver Bible Institute was closed due to dwindling enrollment. As part of the church-planting strategy, the Hispanic Bible School in Chicago was begun to prepare pastors for burgeoning growth of the Spanish-speaking community.
In part because of the irenic spirit of the BGC, Magnuson was able to partner with many other Christian organizations. He was the first BGC General Secretary to be active in representing the BGC at the Baptist World Alliance (BWA), serving as vice president and as program chair for the 1980 BWA meetings in Toronto, Canada. He also served on the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs and the National Association of Evangelicals and was one of the founders of the U.S. Churchmen. In each of these organizations, he served on the Executive Committee, often as chair.
During Magnuson’s tenure, the Canadian members of the Baptist General Conference asked to be released to establish their own Canadian conference. A procedure for dis-engagement was approved by the delegates in 1981, and in 1985, the separation of the two bodies was completed. Delegates then welcomed and affirmed Abe Funk as the new Executive Secretary of the Baptist General Conference of Canada.
In 1982, a new conference structure began to be debated and constructed under the banner of the Committee on Organizational Planning (COOP). In 1986, numerous task force recommendations were presented to the conference and adopted. The task force recommended major changes in the ministry of the conference: ending the United Mission for Christ stewardship structure and initiating a structure that encouraged designated giving to specific boards; changing the title of Executive Secretary of the Conference to President of the Baptist General Conference; and merging the boards of church ministries and public affairs into one new board, Church and Pastoral Service.
After 18 years of leadership, Warren Magnuson retired in 1987, to be succeeded by Robert Ricker. Major changes in structure in the last years of Magnuson’s tenure meant that Ricker would be leading a quite different conference than Magnuson had. The ongoing concerns for the new leadership were a $400,000 deficit, the need for church growth, and adjustment to the new structures and the changing nature of the Baptist General Conference.