From the moment the gavel dropped – or actually, with the gavel that dropped – calling them to order, it was clear that messengers to the 2021 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting June 15-16 in Nashville were ready to make changes and challenge traditions in the name of advancing the gospel.
SBC President J.D. Greear had previously retired the Broadus Gavel, which was named for slaveowner John Broadus and had been used continuously at annual meetings by SBC presidents since 1872. Instead, he gaveled the convention to order with the Judson Gavel, named after Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson.
The convention’s 15,726 messengers – the most since 1995 – seemed to follow Greear’s lead, taking action to protect victims and hold leaders accountable, even when it meant overturning the decisions of convention committees – especially the Executive Committee.
Messengers called for creation of a task force, appointed by the new SBC president, to oversee an independent review of the Executive Committee over allegations of mishandling reports of sexual abuse. They overwhelmingly defeated a revision of the SBC Business and Financial Plan proposed by the EC.
Ed Litton, pastor of Redemption Church in Saraland, Ala., was elected SBC president in a runoff with a 52 percent majority over Georgia pastor Mike Stone, immediate past chairman of the SBC Executive Committee and a steering council member for the Conservative Baptist Network (CBN), a group alleging leftward drift in the convention. Litton has suggested the CBN is unnecessary because Southern Baptists are unwaveringly conservative.
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president R. Albert Mohler Jr. and Northwest Baptist Convention executive director Randy Adams also were nominated for president but failed to make the two-person runoff.
Southern Baptists “are a family, and at times we may seem dysfunctional,” Litton told reporters after his election. “But we love each other.”
Messengers presented 32 motions from the convention floor, the most since 2010.
While at times tense, the debate was punctuated with moments of unity. A day after the presidential election, Litton took a floor microphone as a messenger to commend Mohler as a “statesman” and “gift of God” to Southern Baptists during Mohler’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary report. Mohler responded by congratulating Litton publicly on his victory.
Committees face resistance
The Executive Committee (an 86-member body charged with acting on the SBC’s behalf between annual meetings) drew opposition at multiple junctures, with messengers claiming the EC had too much authority and needed to be held accountable.
Tennessee pastor Grant Gaines moved that the new SBC president appoint a task force to oversee a previously announced investigation into alleged EC mishandling of sexual abuse claims. Initially, the motion was referred to the EC by the Committee on Order of Business, but messengers overturned the ruling by a two-thirds vote and overwhelmingly adopted the motion June 16.
The EC had voted on June 14 not to even consider a similar proposal by one of its own members, Jared Wellman of Texas.
EC President Ronnie Floyd said in a statement following the convention’s action, “Today’s decision, in whose outcome we are confident, will have the ultimate blessing of removing all doubt in the minds of our community of Southern Baptists, allowing us to chart a more confident future together.”
The EC encountered an overwhelming defeat in a proposed revision to the SBC’s Business and Financial Plan. EC officer Robyn Hari said the proposal sought to strike a balance between accountability and autonomy of the SBC entities. But messenger Vance Pitman of Nevada called the proposal “an unprecedented expansion of the Executive Committee powers.” The recommendation failed on a raised-hand vote.
The convention approved Vision 2025, a five-year plan setting a series of goals for Great Commission advancement. Messengers added to the EC’s five proposed Vision 2025 goals on missions, evangelism and CP giving, with a sixth goal stating the convention’s intent to eliminate all incidents of racism and sexual abuse. They also amended a goal placing emphasis on reaching teenagers to those under age 18.
Another EC recommendation rejected by messengers was a proposed revision of Lifeway Christian Resources’ Mission and Ministry Statement. The proposal, initiated at the request of Lifeway trustees, was defeated on a ballot vote after messenger Michael Schultz of Kentucky spoke against its adoption due to a proposed deletion of Lifeway’s responsibility to assist churches with “home-school ministries.”
The EC also lost an officer when Tom Tucker, a vocational evangelist from South Carolina, was not given a second term by messengers, who voted against an attempt to overturn the Committee on Nominations, which had declined to renominate him. Tucker, a member of the CBN steering council, had been reelected as vice chairman June 14 by the EC, which acted despite the knowledge that while eligible to serve, his term was expiring and he was not among nominees to the EC for the coming year, and that he could only fulfill the post if messengers amended the 2021 Committee on Nominations report to include Tucker among nominees.
Tucker’s term was originally set to expire in 2020, but was extended a year by the cancellation of the 2020 SBC annual meeting because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tucker was then elected EC vice chairman in June 2020.
Messengers accepted EC proposals granting the second of two required approvals to an SBC constitutional amendment listing racism and mishandling sexual abuse as grounds for disfellowshipping a church.
The EC was not the only committee to have a recommendation overturned by messengers. The Resolutions Committee declined to bring to the floor a resolution submitted by Oklahoma messenger Bill Ascol that called for abolishing abortion, but messengers voted by a two-thirds majority to consider it. Then they adopted the resolution after a one-word amendment to soften its initial rejection of any “incremental approach to ending abortion.”
The SBC constitutional amendment against racism was among several ways messengers attempted to catalyze ethnic diversity in the convention.
Juan Sanchez, pastor of High Pointe Baptist Church in Austin, Texas, became the first Hispanic to be elected as convention preacher. He will deliver the convention sermon next year in Anaheim, Calif. Messengers also elected a Hispanic first vice president, Ramón Medina, lead pastor of the Spanish ministry at Champion Forest Baptist Church in Houston. Medina was elected in a runoff over another Hispanic nominated for the post, Georgia pastor Javier Chavez.
Southern Baptists tapped to serve on committees likewise were diverse. A majority (51 percent) of Greear’s presidential appointments to committees were non-Anglo, as were 30 percent of those elected to serve on boards and committees.
In his final presidential address, Greear drew a standing ovation when he addressed racial tension within the SBC and told “people of color”: “We need you.”
Critical race theory (CRT) – the subject of a 2019 SBC resolution that has sparked controversy over the past two years – drew several mentions during the convention, including messenger motions and resolution submissions calling for its denunciation as well as questions to SBC presidents during their reports. Yet no official convention action addressed CRT by name.
Instead, messengers adopted a broad resolution regarding race and racial reconciliation. The resolution repudiated “any theory or worldview that denies that racism, oppression, or discrimination is rooted, ultimately, in anything other than sin.” It also reaffirmed a resolution regarding racial reconciliation on the SBC’s 150th anniversary in 1995, in which messengers apologized to African-Americans for “condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism.”
Other resolutions adopted by messengers covered, among other topics, the Equality Act, the Hyde Amendment, and permanent disqualification from the pastorate of those who have committed sexual abuse.
In other business:
• Messengers elected Lee Brand Jr., a Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary administrator and member of the CBN’s steering council, as first vice president over California pastor Anthony Dockery. Missouri Baptist Convention Executive Director John Yeats was reelected recording secretary for the 24th time over Virginia pastor Adam Blosser.
• Don Currence, administrative pastor at First Baptist Church in Ozark, Mo., was reelected registration secretary by acclamation. He was nominated by Kathy Litton, wife of Ed Litton, who was elected registration secretary over Currence in 2019 but stepped down when her husband’s candidacy for SBC president was announced.
• Sixty-four new International Mission Board missionaries were appointed June 14 in a Sending Celebration. They will join 3,631 IMB missionaries already on the field around the world. The vast majority of the new missionaries stood behind a screen during the service, as they could not be identified due to security concerns in their locations of service.
• The North American Mission Board reported that Southern Baptists have planted more than 8,200 churches in the past decade. They comprise nearly 17 percent of all Southern Baptist churches and represent nearly 19 percent of all baptisms reported in the SBC.
• Florida pastor Willy Rice preached the convention sermon, urging Southern Baptists to avoid factions and build their testimony on the gospel.
Next year’s SBC annual meeting is slated for June 14-15, 2022, in Anaheim, Calif.
— David Roach is a writer in Mobile, Ala.