William R. O’Brien, former IMB executive vice president, dies at 86

William R. O’Brien often addressed groups while executive vice president of the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board). IMB Photo

William R. O’Brien, former missionary to Indonesia and retired executive vice president of the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board), died Feb. 1, 2020. He was 86.

O’Brien was a creative visionary and an out-of-the-box thinker who led others to do the same, said IMB Executive Vice President Todd Lafferty. Lafferty said he was among those influenced to find their place in missions by O’Brien.

“During Mission 90, an SBC Student Missions Conference,” Lafferty said, “Bill O’Brien spoke of the great need to reach the Muslim world with the gospel, and he also challenged students to partner together with other Great Commission Christians to finish the task.

“Taking that challenge to heart,” he said, “my wife and I landed in a Muslim mega-city in our first assignment overseas.”

Jerry Rankin, IMB president emeritus who also served in Indonesia, said it was no surprise when O’Brien was tapped to serve as executive vice president alongside FMB President R. Keith Parks.

“Bill was ahead of everyone in spinning possibilities of alternative futures and innovative marketing. Ideas and proposals that kept others off-balance were embraced due to his charismatic personality and the spiritual vision that drove him,” Rankin said.

“As new missionaries arriving in 1970, we were immediately impressed with the visionary and innovative ministry of the O’Briens,” Rankin said.

“They seemed to function in a different realm of possibilities for engaging Indonesians through music and the arts.”

While doing student work in Yogyakarta (“Jogja”), for instance, O’Brien met Indonesian choreographer Bagong Kussudiardjo and asked him to choreograph the parable of the sower and the seed as a traditional Javanese ballet. When it was performed at a Christmas concert, O’Brien said, he saw 500 students transformed from spectators into participants.

“Meanwhile Bagong invited Baptists to start a church in his living room and he and his wife and one of his dancer-daughters were baptized into the church,” wrote O’Brien in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research in 2006.

The best was yet to come. When Bagong later choreographed the life of Christ, it was presented in Jakarta to government officials and other leaders. “In a culture dominated by both traditional and folk Islam, getting someone’s undivided attention for three and a half hours nonstop to talk about Jesus is difficult. When Bagong’s dance comes to town, people flock to see the story,” O’Brien wrote.

O’Brien and his first wife, Dellanna, were appointed in 1962 as missionaries to Indonesia, where he taught music at Baptist Theological Seminary of Indonesia, directed radio‑TV programming for Indonesian Baptists and later worked with students.

After resigning from missionary service in May 1974, O’Brien was a consultant for the Anvil Foundation, a Christian foundation working with community develop­ment, and was pastor of Lake Country Baptist Church, both in Fort Worth, Texas. While in those roles, he began making connections with international Christian leaders outside Baptist circles, an experience that gave him a new perspective on the world.

O’Brien joined the FMB staff in Richmond, Virginia, in 1976 as secretary of the denominational coordination department, which related to other Southern Baptist agencies and leaders.

O’Brien served as FMB executive vice president from May 1980 to December 1989. He also played a key role in raising funds for the International Learning Center, which was completed in 1984. The center provides training for IMB personnel going overseas.

After Mrs. O’Brien became executive director of the Southern Baptist Woman’s Missionary Union in Birmingham, Alabama, O’Brien became FMB executive director of public affairs serving from January 1990 until February 1991 while living in Birmingham.

O’Brien took early retirement from the Foreign Mission Board March 1, 1992, and became founding director of the Global Center at Samford University and missions professor at its Beeson Divinity School. Bill served on the board of directors of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute for six years.

O’Brien later served as the inaugural Missions Scholar-in-Residence at Baylor’s Truett Theological Seminary, as adjunct professor at the John Leland Center for Theological Studies, and at Dallas Baptist University. He was president of the American Society of Missiology for the 2003-2004 term.

Following the tsunami that devastated Indonesia and other southern Asia regions in December 2004, the O’Briens served a year and a half in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, as volunteers providing trauma counseling, assisting women with securing small business loans and renovating buildings, among other humanitarian relief efforts. O’Brien helped assemble a community development network that continued providing aid in Indonesia.

The Texas Baptist Foundation presented O’Brien the 2015 Innovator Award for Creativity in Missions, which is presented to an individual or organization whose model for missions is an inspiration for others to adopt. O’Brien also was founding director of the Gaston Christian Center in Dallas.

Born in Fort Worth, Texas, O’Brien received the Bachelor of Science from Hardin Simmons University, Abilene, Texas, and the Bachelor and Master of Church Music from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He received an honorary doctorate from Hardin Simmons University. In 2001, Southwestern Seminary School of Church Music presented O’Brien a Distinguished Service Award.

Before missionary appointment in October 1962, O’Brien was interim Baptist Student Union director at Arlington (Texas) State University; minister of music for churches in Amarillo, Dallas, Pasadena, Childress and Pampa, Texas, and in Carlsbad, N.M.; youth director for several churches; and associate pastor in Pasadena, Texas.

O’Brien is survived by his wife of 10 years, Charmaine; children Denise O’Brien Basden (Paul); Erin O’Brien Puryear (Rick); and Ross O’Brien (Lisa); as well as six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his first wife of 56 years, Dr. Dellanna West O’Brien.

A celebration of O’Brien’s life will be held at 1:30 p.m., Monday, Feb. 10, at Wilshire Baptist Church, Dallas.