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When Southern Baptists Meet This Week, Anything Could Happen

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Ed Litton, the outgoing president of the Southern Baptist Convention, has a few words of advice for his successor.

Buckle up.

“The thing about the Southern Baptist Convention—and I’ve been doing this a long time—you never know what’s going to come up,” he said.

Starting on Tuesday (June 14), Litton, a longtime Alabama pastor, will preside over the annual two-day meeting of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. More than 8,200 local church delegates, known as messengers, will gather at California’s Anaheim Convention Center—about 10 minutes from Disneyland—to pray, worship, and deliberate.

Likely there will be a few fights along the way.

The 13.7 million-member denomination has been rocked in recent weeks over a report that found SBC leaders had worked for decades to downplay the problem of sexual abuse and protect the denomination while demonizing abuse survivors, treating them as enemies of the church. Southern Baptists have also been divided by the polarization affecting the broader culture, with a group of self-styled conservative pirates hoping to change the direction of the SBC, claiming it has been invaded by liberals, critical race theory, and female preachers who are steering the denomination away from the Bible.

In Anaheim, messengers will elect a new president and decide whether to enact a series of reforms aimed at addressing sexual abuse. A task force has recommended spending $3 million to set up a website to track abusive pastors and church workers, provide more training and hire staff to help survivors find help, along with other potential reforms. Messengers may decide to cut ties with one of the largest churches in the denomination, which recently announced plans to hire a female teaching pastor. 

Those two days in Anaheim will likely have a profound effect on the future direction of the SBC.

A look at some of the key issues at stake:

Will messengers approve abuse reforms?

Last summer, angered at reports that SBC leaders had long mistreated abuse survivors, the messengers approved a task force to oversee an investigation into how leaders at the SBC’s Nashville-based Executive Committee had responded to the issue of abuse. Along with releasing a report from Guidepost Solutions, the investigating firm, the abuse task force has made a series of recommendations, including setting up a “Ministry Check” website to track abusers.

If approved, initial funding for the abuse reforms is already in place. On Wednesday, Send Relief, a partnership between the SBC’s International Mission Board and North American Mission Board that does compassion ministry, announced plans to provide $4 million in initial funding for abuse reforms. An earlier plan had called for reforms to be paid for out of SBC’s Cooperative Program, which pools money from local churches for national and international missions.

But complicating matters, Guidepost Solutions, the investigating firm, posted a note on social media in support of Pride Month, prompting claims that Guidepost is a liberal group that should not be trusted. This week, Baptist leaders in Tennessee and Alabama called for Southern Baptists to cut ties with Guidepost, while an abuse task force in Kentucky ceased working with the firm. Along with its work with the task force, Guidepost is overseeing a hotline where SBC abuse survivors can report allegations.

Some Baptist leaders object to the reforms, saying they are unbiblical or warning that they will destroy the SBC by opening the denomination to lawsuits.

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Will the messengers run the meeting?

During the 2021 annual meeting, where attendance topped 21,000, messengers took an active role in shaping the agenda, twice overturning rulings from then-SBC President J.D. Greear, forcing floor votes on a resolution on abolishing abortion and on a motion authorizing the abuse investigation. Both moves caught leaders by surprise.

An active messenger body could cause chaos at the annual meeting, which typically has a tightly packed agenda and little wiggle room. That’s happened before, most notably at the 1985 annual meeting, which drew 45,000 messengers at the height of the so-called Conservative Resurgence, in which conservatives took control of the denomination from moderate leaders. That led to a controversial ruling from then-SBC president Charles Stanley—who ruled a motion from moderates out of order, despite attempts to overrule him from the floor. The fallout from the controversy led to a federal lawsuit and led the SBC to begin using a professional parliamentarian.

Litton said he and other leaders will work to make this year’s meeting as fair as possible.

“We’re going to do our best to make sure that it’s fair and that this largest deliberative body in the world for two days can do its business in a way that reflects the character of who Southern Baptists really are,” he said. “Southern Baptists think it’s best when the people are heard and when people have an opportunity to speak.”

Who will be elected president?

This year’s presidential race includes Florida pastor Tom Ascol, head of Founders Ministries, a Calvinist group with ties to the Conservative Baptist Network, and Bart Barber, a Texas pastor and chair of the resolutions committee for this year’s annual meeting. Ascol is perhaps best known for his opposition to critical race theory and female preachers and for his past claims that many of the people who are members of SBC churches are not really Christian and many SBC congregations are “no longer churches.”

Barber is known for his tweets about SBC governance, his folksy social media videos and his role in the firing of Southern Baptist legend Paige Patterson in 2018 after Patterson was accused of mistreating a rape victim in a previous job. 

The new SBC president will likely be charged with appointing an ongoing task force to deal with abuse and can nominate candidates to serve on key denominational committees.

One thing to watch: Today (June 13), attendees at the annual SBC Pastors’ Conference will elect a president for next year’s event. The election for the conference—held before the annual meeting—is usually low-key. This year, however, the election could spark fireworks, as one of the leading candidates is missionary Voddie Baucham, an Ascol ally and author of a bestselling book warning of the dangers of CRT and social justice. A Baucham win could foreshadow what happens in the SBC presidential race. 

Baucham’s candidacy could be an issue, as currently he is neither a pastor nor, by his own admission, a Southern Baptist. According to Matt Henslee, current Pastors’ Conference president, all previous conference presidents have been SBC pastors. But the conference has no official rules for the election, leaving the decision in his hands.

“As president, I think it is best left up to Southern Baptist pastors to decide who will lead them next year,” he said. 

What happens to Saddleback?

In May, Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life and pastor of one of the largest churches in the SBC, announced plans to retire this fall. Andy Wood, a San Francisco pastor, has been named his successor. Wood’s wife, Stacie, would also become a teaching pastor at Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, joining three other female pastors who were ordained last year. That puts the church at odds with the SBC’s statement of faith, which states that only men can be pastors.

At the 2021 SBC annual meeting, a Louisiana pastor made a motion for the SBC to “break fellowship with Saddleback Baptist Church, as they have ordained three ladies as pastors, and all other churches that would choose to follow this path.” The motion is being considered by the SBC Credentials Committee, which can recommend expelling churches that are not in “friendly cooperation” with the denomination. The committee plans to meet just prior to the annual meeting.

“The committee will report specifically on Saddleback as the motion requires however the committee has not finalized its recommendation and has no comment at this time,” the committee chair told Religion News Service in an emailed statement.

What role will survivors play? 

For years, a group of abuse survivors has had a vocal presence at SBC meetings, calling attention to the issue of abuse and pressing for reforms. In 2007, advocates such as Christa Brown pushed for the SBC to set up a database to track abusive pastors—an idea convention leaders rejected, despite being told by their lawyers that the idea was possible. After the Guidepost report was released, survivors called for a series of reforms. Among them:

  • Establishing an independent commission, staffed with trauma-trained professionals, to receive reports of abuse and commission independent inquiries into abuse allegations.
  • Setting up an independent version of the proposed Ministry Check website.
  • Creating a survivor restoration fund.
  • Setting up an independent task force to deal with abuse.
  • Creating a monument to abuse survivors outside the SBC offices in Nashville.

What will be this year’s wild card?

While not binding, resolutions at the SBC meeting often produce fireworks. In 2021, the convention passed a resolution on abortion abolition—calling for an end to abortion with no exceptions. Proposed by an Oklahoma pastor, the motion foreshadowed recently proposed legislation in conservative states to tightly restrict abortion, including in cases of rape or incest. In past years, there have been fiery debates over the Confederate flag, CRT, and the alt-right that dominated headlines. 

During this year’s meeting, Litton plans to submit a grassroots plan to advance racial reconciliation in the SBC and in the communities where SBC churches worship. It’s based on work he has done in Mobile, Alabama, where he is a pastor.

Litton said he is grateful for the Southern Baptists he has met in the past year, often while they were volunteering at disasters, and gave parting words to the next president.

“These people are serious and they deserve good leaders. They don’t deserve people who have some ax to grind or point to prove. They just need people who are trusting the Lord like they do,” Litton said.

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Bob Smietana

Bob has served as a senior writer for Facts & Trends, senior editor of Christianity Today, religion writer at The Tennessean, correspondent for RNS and contributor to OnFaith, USA Today and The Washington Post.