By John D. Pierce
William T. Neal III is retiring this week as president and CEO of the Atlanta-based but widely effective Developmental Disabilities Ministries (DDM). He’ll hang around a bit as his capable successor Greg DeLoach, who just left the pastorate of First Baptist Church of Augusta, Ga., takes the reins.
However, I want to pay tribute to Bill upon his retirement for his friendship, many gifts and genuine Christian commitments. Our relationship goes back several decades and has taken many forms.
First, we were campus ministry colleagues beginning in the early ’80s. Bill’s creative programming was often a model for my own approach to ministry with students.
Then, for a brief time, Bill was my supervisor. He urged me to take the campus ministry position at Georgia Tech in the early ’90s.
Bill’s background in communications led him to assume roles in that field as well — including the editorship of the historic Baptist newspaper, The Christian Index.
For me, writing was simply a creative outlet — sometimes fueled by Bill’s initiatives. I’d written a couple of magazine features but never considered journalism as a career.
Atlanta hosted the Super Bowl in January 1994. Bill asked me to do a story on a Habitat for Humanity build not far from the Tech campus. The NFL Players Association and the cast of the TV show, Home Improvement, were bending the nails.
So I drove over to interview the muscular players and chain-smoking actor Tim Allen, and then wrote up the story for Bill. He was always instructive and affirming.
A few months later he asked me to join his staff as managing editor. So he gets the credit or blame for my second career. Those five-plus years together were very much an apprenticeship that would prepare me for my later publishing ventures.
I felt very unprepared for the job. But Bill was persuasive, saying that it’s easier to teach the technical aspects than creativity. Certainly, he and other Index staff patiently taught the processes to me as well as nourished my creativity.
Bill is both a creative thinker and a faithful doer. He not only dreams big but he carries through on the implementation.
There are many examples, including a magazine we launched during the 1996 Olympics. But none more so than his fulfilled dream of acquiring and restoring a historic mansion in Atlanta’s Druid Hills that became our publishing base.
The least selfish person I’ve ever known, Bill shared his editorial page with me and gave me assignments he should have kept for himself (like a nice writing adventure in Alaska).
Together, we traveled coast to coast and always enjoyed those memorable times. Bill’s deep appreciation for history increased my own.
We also led group travel experiences for readers to New England and to Washington, D.C. This approach helped shape the current Nurturing Faith Experiences we conduct each year.
When the early waves of Fundamentalism washed upon the Georgia Baptist shore, I moved on though it was hard to leave working with Bill and other good people. Soon the rising sea of Fundamentalism washed Bill out of the editorship despite remarkable success.
One critic said Bill was “too fair.” It was the only honest assessment I heard.
Bill was mistreated and misrepresented yet always took the high road. The only times I’ve ever been frustrated with Bill were when, in my mind, he should have fought back but instead was gracious.
It can be hard at times to have a close friend who is an authentic Christian.
With much to offer, Bill bounced back from that sad episode and worked effectively with older adults at First Baptist Church of Decatur, Ga., where he is still a member and valued volunteer leader. Part-time work with DDM eventually led to his heading this important ministry that provides safe and supportive homes for persons with disabilities.
It means much to me that Bill serves effectively and helpfully on the Board of Directors of Baptists Today/Nurturing Faith. He recently chaired an important effort to envision a new direction for our publishing efforts.
Thanks, Bill. I look forward to seeing all the good things you will do during retirement. Slow down, and enjoy. I’m sure there are four grandchildren excited about your increased availability.