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J.D. Greear’s Legacy as Southern Baptist President: Grappling with Abuse, Pushing Diversity

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It’s traditional for the Southern Baptist Convention president to serve two one-year terms. But J.D. Greear had a lengthy bonus round due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 48-year-old leader of a Durham, North Carolina, megachurch was thrust into the national limelight as the leader of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination while it faced old and new challenges related to race, sex abuse, and declining membership.

Here’s a look at his legacy as the SBC’s president from 2018 to 2021:

He grappled with sex abuse allegations in the denomination and acknowledged the need for more action.

Early in Greear’s presidency, Texas newspapers published a joint investigation of sexual misconduct allegations against about 380 current and former Southern Baptist ministers and volunteers. In the waning days of his tenure, leaked letters, including one to him from former SBC ethicist Russell Moore, leveled charges that some denominational leaders were trying to thwart efforts to address such allegations.

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“Wish we could have seen more progress on responding to abuse, and current revelations reveal we still have farther to go,” he told Religion News Service via email as he concluded his presidency.

More than a decade ago, SBC leaders rejected a proposal by abuse survivor advocates for a database of offending ministers, staffers or volunteers, citing autonomy of local churches as a factor. But Greear, who has said in the past that some type of a database could be an option, continued to include that possibility.

“Pastors I speak with everywhere want to see it addressed in a way that ensures our churches are safe from abuse and safe for the abused,” he said. “Maybe a database of sorts that tracks leaders, churches, associations, conventions, and entities that have gone through training, vetting, background checks, etc”

He is committed to racial/ethnic diversity.

“This past year 51% of our appointees were people of color and nearly 60% were women,” he said. “63% of new churches started last year were by people of color so I think our future is bright as we continue to grow in this area.”

The Rev. Rolland Slade, chair of the SBC Executive Committee and the first African American in that role, commended Greear for his intentionality about having racial and ethnic diversity among SBC leaders.

“He’s tried to make sure that folks that are appointed to various committees represent Southern Baptists,” Slade said in an interview on the eve of the annual meeting. “Our committees and, subsequently, appointments, nominations need to reflect what Southern Baptists really look like.”

He also is committed to evangelism.

One of Greear’s last acts as president was to encourage participation in a new SBC initiative that aims to get young adults involved in mission work by devoting their first two years after college to helping start new churches.

“If the Mormons can do it for a false gospel,” he preached in his final presidential address on Tuesday (June 15), “then how much more should we do it for the true gospel of Jesus Christ?”

He also urged Baptists of all ages to focus on evangelism rather than some of their current debates, which have included fights about race, gender, and politics.

“God has not called us primarily to save America politically,” he said. “He has called us to make the gospel known to all.”

He tried to keep his sense of humor.

“Three years ago when I was given the honor of being elected your president, I don’t think any of us had any idea what lay ahead,” he said in his presidential address. “It’s been a long 30 years these last three years.”

Despite the challenges, Greear said he’d been grateful to represent Southern Baptists as their president. Yet, he also seemed more than ready to return more of his focus to his North Carolina megachurch.

“And so we came together for a few days, we prayed, we trusted God, we made some decisions. And we’re going to be sent back now to our communities in order to reach our world,” he said as the annual meeting concluded Wednesday. “And then I will hand the gavel to (new SBC President) Ed Litton. And tomorrow morning I will wake up a happy pastor of a local church in Durham, North Carolina.”

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Adelle Banks

Adelle M. Banks is a senior production editor and national reporter for the Religion News Service, where she has worked since 1995. She previously served as the religion reporter at The Orlando Sentinel as well as a reporter in Providence, Binghamton, and Syracuse, and her work has appeared in USA Today, The Huffington Post, and Jet magazine. Banks won the 2014 Wilbur Award for digital communications and multimedia for her work on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and she has twice been honored by the Religion Newswriters Association.