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Southern Baptists Put On A Show, But Emerge Remarkably Unified

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Editor’s Note:  Most Saturdays we will feature this “Editor’s Notebook” column. MinistryWatch President Warren Smith will comment on one or more stories in the week’s news, adding an additional perspective or, sometimes, a behind-the-scenes look at how the story came to be. 

The Southern Baptist Convention had its annual meeting this week in New Orleans. More than 13,000 representatives, known as messengers, attended the meeting. The headlines have been well reported by both Christian and secular media (including MinistryWatch). On Tuesday, the messengers re-elected Texas pastor Bart Barber to a second year in office. Saddleback Church was officially kicked out of the SBC, despite a media campaign by its former pastor Rick Warren. Progress was made toward sexual abuse reform.

It’s worth pausing, though, to note a couple of “behind the headlines” moments from the SBC. Here they are, in no particular order:

The Vote for President Wasn’t Close

Much was made of the fact that Bart Barber, the sitting SBC president, was facing a challenger for reelection. It was the first time in a decade that had happened, and only the second time in the past 35 years.

But it’s important to note that Barber got 68 percent of the votes. Most people would call that margin of victory a landslide and a mandate.

And if you’re wondering:  Mandate for…what?  Remember that Barber played a key role in the sacking of SBC legend Paige Patterson as the president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas. He has also been outspoken in his support of reforms related to sexual abuse in the SBC. Look for those reforms to continue and even accelerate in the Barber presidency. (Read or listen to my 2022 interview with Bart Barber here.)

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The Vote to Disfellowship Saddleback Wasn’t Close Either

Rick Warren has the skill and resources to make himself heard, and he did. Prior to the annual meeting he released a series of videos, inundated the media with press releases, took to social media with force, and spoke from the convention floor. His position was clearly heard by the SBC messengers. (As he did to me, in an exclusive interview, here.)

It was also overwhelmingly rejected. The vote to disfellowship Saddleback from the SBC was lopsided: 9,432 to 1,212. It’s worth noting, too, that when the vote was announced on Wednesday, it was met with a few boos and a few cheers, but mostly silence. Most people there realized this decision was a weighty one, and not a cause for celebration. They also likely realized, in the moment, that the overwhelming consensus spoke far more loudly than any public demonstration.

One consequence of the Saddleback situation was a clarification of the SBC’s constitution regarding women pastors. A revision to the constitution, also passed overwhelmingly, will reserve the pastor and elder role in the SBC to men only. It must also pass next year to become official.

A New Sex Abuse Database 

Another important step taken at the meeting, a step overshadowed by the votes mentioned above, was the unveiling of a “Ministry Check” website that will allow churches to see if a candidate for pastoral or other positions has been convicted, has admitted to, or been credibly accused of sexual abuse.

Getting that website off the ground was a historic moment, said Heather Evans, a social worker and a member of the task force charged with implementing those reforms. “They had been told for years and years this could never be done,” she said during a press conference on Wednesday.

The website is still a work in progress. It works, but names to be added to the site are still being vetted.

Wasteful Spending at SWBTS 

According to an overview of the finances at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, released June 7, Southwestern ran an average deficit of $6.67 million per year from 2002 to 2022. During that time, the number of full-time Southern Baptist students at the school dropped by two-thirds while expenses went up by 35 percent.

Much of the overspending occurred during the tenure of Paige Patterson, who was president of Southwestern from 2003 to 2018, when he was fired for allegedly mishandling sexual abuse.

The report, however, does not detail any of the spending patterns during Patterson’s tenure. Instead, the report included a few select details about former President Adam Greenway, who resigned in 2022, less than four years after taking office.

According to the report, as MinistryWatch reported last week, Greenway spent more than $1.5 million on the on-campus presidential home, including renovations and furnishings. That included an espresso machine costing more than $11,000, about $60,000 for Christmas decorations and more than $25,000 for artwork.

The report also found that Greenway spent nearly $10,000 on first-class tickets to fly him and his family to last year’s SBC annual meeting and spent $920 on a Florida Gator head decoration.  (Greenway is a fan of the Gators football team.)

The decision to release this report immediately prior to the annual meeting, and the reelection of Bart Barber, signals plainly that the SBC is committed to continued reforms.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line on all this is pretty clear: If you think there is deep division in the Southern Baptist Convention, you have to ignore a lot of hard data that suggest a strong consensus – on abuse reform, on women pastors, and on cleaning up decades of financial profligacy.

Many problems remain. The SBC was almost completely silent this year, at least publicly, about what it plans to do to stem the decades long decline in membership. But we should not forget that even with after these declines, the SBC remains by far the largest Protestant denomination in the nation, and is what most people think of when they hear the word “evangelical.”

So even though I am no longer a Southern Baptist (and you can read why here), I pray for my brothers and sisters in that denomination, for as the SBC goes, so goes American Evangelicalism.

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Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine, and Vice President of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 25 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.