Lasting Impact of Tennessee Ties on IMB President Chitwood

It’s been quite a while since Paul Chitwood left Tennessee, but his roots still run deep.

Chitwood, who became president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board in November, was born in LaFollette in 1970.

At the age of 2, his parents divorced and Thomas Chitwood and his three sons moved to Jellico to live with his grandparents for a while. Later, his dad found a nearby place for him and his sons to live.

Jellico, located on the state line of Kentucky and Tennessee, was home to Chitwood until he moved to Louisville, Ky., to attend seminary. Chitwood’s recollections of his childhood are filled with memories of First Baptist Church, Jellico. He recalled that when he was 4 years old, deacons from First Baptist came to their house, knocked on the door and invited his dad to worship services on Sunday.

“He began taking us to church and it became a way of life,” Chitwood said.

A few years later, the church’s pastor (Allen Harrod) came to visit the Chitwoods and shared the gospel with Paul’s older brother, Lynn. Paul Chitwood and his younger brother, Dana, listened in on the conversation and all three accepted Christ and were baptized at First Baptist Church. His dad is still a member of First Baptist.

The church had a major impact on Chitwood’s life. He noted his father did not remarry for several years.

“I would not be the president of the IMB today were it not for deacons of First Baptist Church, Jellico …”

“The church helped raise us,” he recalled. “We went to Sunday School, Vacation Bible School and youth group. My first opportunity for ministry took place there.”

Though he has been gone for years from First Baptist, the church’s importance in his life cannot be overstated.

“I would not be the president of the International Mission Board today were it not for deacons of First Baptist Church, Jellico, knocking on our door and inviting us to church,” he affirmed.

“First Baptist invested in my life,” Chitwood added.

Dr. Paul Chitwood, seen here during a recent press conference, was elected president of the IMB last November. Chitwood is a Tennessee native and was reared in First Baptist Church, Jellico.

It also was the place where he preached his first sermon. Shortly after he was called into the ministry, the church’s pastor was called to another congregation. Chitwood still remembers that George Duell, now deceased but was serving as chairman of the deacons at the time, invited Chitwood to preach on a Wednesday night.

An ‘Indelible impression’

Chitwood recalled several women from First Baptist who taught him in Sunday School, had him in their homes for youth group and took him to camp. “They made an indelible impression on me and my faith,” he affirmed.

And, over the years he has not forgotten the importance of his first church home. Chitwood has led revival services at First Baptist and preached there several times over the years.

“First Baptist Church in Jellico has a special place in my heart.”

Chitwood also holds a special place in the hearts of First Baptist, according to current pastor Bob Dunston. Church members were excited when they learned that one of their own was selected to lead the IMB late last year, Dunston recalled. “Everyone in the church realized what a special opportunity this was for him. They knew he was the right person for the position,” the pastor said.

Dunston noted that Chitwood still has a number of relatives who attend First Baptist as well as people who knew him as a child and teenager. “We prayed for him when he was installed as president of the IMB and we continue to remember him in prayer,” he added.

While he was never Chitwood’s pastor, Dunston knew him very well as a student at the University of the Cumberlands in nearby Williamsburg, Ky. Dunston, professor of missions and ministry at the university, taught Chitwood in several classes, including Hebrew.

“He was certainly one of the best students I ever had in my 36 years of teaching at the university,” Dunston said. “Even as a student, he was committed to serving Christ and the church and committed to carrying out the Great Commission. I knew God would use him.”

Read the related editorial, “A Church Family Makes a Difference,” by Lonnie Wilkey.

Lonnie Wilkey is editor of Baptist and Reflector, which first published the story “Tennessee Ties” here.