The task before the search committee charged with finding a new president for the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention must be one of the more unenviable responsibilities in modern denominational life. Amid a terribly consequential and defining moment in the last decade or more, these men and one woman are attempting the near impossible: to find a candidate whose character is unassailable, whose management style is both principled and peaceable, and whose understanding of and appreciation for the historic framework of cooperation among Southern Baptists is self-evident.
The committee — chaired by Texas pastor Steve Swofford — was assembled under the guidance of our former professor and the pastor of Florida’s Bell Shoals Baptist Church, Stephen Rummage, who also serves on the committee. Joe Knott, an attorney from North Carolina who once ran for State Attorney General and publicly opposed the SWBTS Executive Committee’s decision to terminate Paige Patterson, serves too, as does Carol Yarber, the wife of retired Texas pastor Ronnie Yarber. Two African-American ministers — EC Vice Chairman Rolland Slade and Illinois pastor Adron Robinson — round out the committee, along with the current EC Chairman, Mike Stone. Yes, that Mike Stone.
The committee began receiving nominations on May 2. Among those nominated were: Georgia pastor and the capable trustee chairman both of New Orleans Seminary and that school’s presidential search committee, Frank Cox; Arkansas pastor and president of the National Day of Prayer, Ronnie Floyd; and the Executive Director of the Florida Baptist State Convention, Tommy Green. All three men are in their seventh decade of life. Among those nominees, only Pastor Floyd is depicted in one of Southwestern Seminary’s stained glass windows.
There were other nominees, including Kevin Smith of the Mid-Atlantic Baptist Network, though it is unclear whether the committee gave him serious consideration. Some Southern Baptists hoped Rummage might emerge as a leading contender, but that is also uncertain. Sing Oldham was regarded by many as a viable candidate; so too was current Midwestern Seminary President Jason Allen. Still others suggested to us that the current chairman of the SBC Committee on Order of Business, Adam Greenway, might have an outside shot.
If Baptists were the betting sort — which they are not — the odds are good that Ronnie Floyd will emerge as the search committee’s choice. He’s a former convention president, and he proved himself a fair and steady-handed moderator of the convention’s annual sessions — particularly during the 2016 debate on the Confederate Flag. Despite his church’s paltry contributions to the Cooperative Program going into the 2006 Greensboro convention, he had increased that giving to more than $700,000 annually in 2014 when he received 51.62 percent of the vote and became president.
Decades before, Floyd was a member of the Executive Committee search team that recommended Dr. Morris H. Chapman as president, and he later served as ExComm chairman after squeaking through a race against Virginia layman T.C. Pinkney thanks to efforts by Atlanta-area pastor James Merritt, who helped secure Floyd the vote in a late-night, last-minute push that would make Lyndon Johnson proud. Floyd later served ex-officio on the task force that recommended an overhaul of the convention structure.
Perhaps most representative of Floyd’s leadership in Southern Baptist life was his chairmanship of the 23-member Great Commission Resurgence Task Force, which passed by a 3-1 margin in 2010 and established “Great Commission Giving” as a metric of convention support alongside the Cooperative Program.
According to research by Louisiana Baptist Message editor Will Hall, a half decade after Floyd’s task force had disbanded, the convention’s reported baptisms in the United States had dropped by more than 25,000 and overseas baptisms had declined by nearly 170,000. Simultaneously, Great Commission Giving declined by $58 million and Cooperative Program giving was down more than $5 million. The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, however, ticked slightly upward.
Baptism-to-attendance ratios for new church plants held steady, though the rate of church plants did not keep pace with population growth in the United States. Funding for the Executive Committee — which Floyd could end up leading in a strange twist of irony — was slashed by $2 million as allocation for the International Mission Board increased. According to Hall, “No other national entity [had] contributed any portion of their respective CP allocation to the IMB.”
Hall concludes: “Unfortunately, despite the broad scope of recommendations by the Great Commission Task Force, as yet, these reforms have not turned around the negative trends . . . ”
Or put another way, if the 25 year-regimen of experimental medicine your doctor prescribed on three separate occasions not only failed to cure the disease, but actually intensified the severity of your symptoms, a sensible patient would seem to have at least three options: trust her doctor anyway and keep taking the medicine despite its adverse effects (something about the definition of insanity comes to mind); keep her doctor but look for a more proven remedy; or get a new doctor altogether.
Southern Baptists are notoriously stubborn about changing doctors.
Which brings us to Botox.
A few years ago we decided to try for the first time a series of subcutaneous injections of the bacterial toxin. The results were impressive. Forehead lines were softened and the harsh pinch of a congenitally furrowed brow was alleviated. We looked better, and we waited to see how long the results would last.
The first go-around, it lasted nearly 10 months. So we went back for more. The second time, the wrinkles and lines began to appear again within six to seven months. And the last time we had Botox treatments, the period of noticeable effect was further reduced. In the end, we’ve spent more than $1,200 and we aren’t one day younger. The outer man, it seems, is perishing despite our best efforts.
Like the Southern Baptist Convention and many of its churches, we are getting older every day. Our vision, less clear and our abilities to attempt a mid-life course correction more feeble. Which prompts a question.
Why keep spending our hard-earned money for deftly-marketed cosmetic improvements whose proven life cycle yields diminished returns with each new application?
Or to be blunt: a quarter century ago, Pastor Floyd was calling for a “fresh commitment” in the Southern Baptist Convention that would “depart” from the past and develop a “strategy for the future.” Soon thereafter, he was helping to lead a task force that changed the convention structure in an effort to prepare “the SBC to enter the 21st century better equipped and positioned than ever to take the gospel to the world.”
Baptisms went down. You might call it Bold Mission Bust.
And then in 2010, Floyd was at the helm of the Great Commission Task Force, whose recommendations the convention was told were necessary to “penetrate the lostness,” “make a real difference,” and “represent the beginning of a new spirit of Great Commission commitment and prioritization.”
The three reported frontrunners have had plenty of opportunity to lead, and lead they have on numerous fronts. But before Southern Baptists are asked to attempt a re-tread, the committee is well-advised to exercise great caution and more thorough examination than has been conducted in the history of the SBC.
Truth be told, we are not opposed to any single candidate’s potential election to lead the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention. In our more cynical moments, we have great sympathy for any man whose ministerial trajectory could make him into more of a denominational pathologist than an ecclesiastic obstetrician. But whomever gets the nod in Nashville, the Southern Baptist Convention desperately needs him to succeed.
To that end we make two final observations and one promise:
First, no man should be elected to the helm of a $200 million-a-year organization with more than 15 million members serving nearly 48,000 churches without answering publicly questions about his extensive record. If Floyd or Cox or Green or any other man emerges as the search committee’s choice, he will need the unfailing support not only of the Executive Committee members but of his fellow SBC entity presidents and of the state convention leaders with whom he will work across the country. That support can only occur — and should, in fact, be withheld in the absence of — a thoroughgoing and transparent self-assessment of past leadership opportunities, failures, and successes. Ronnie Floyd has never received more than 52 percent of the vote when he stood for contested election before the convention messengers. The next president of the Executive Committee will need more than that.
Second, if the ExComm search committee has done their due diligence, they will be scrupulously prepared for the many questions that will arise about any candidate they choose. Not only should they have demanded extensive medical records, financial records, tax returns, and background checks on the candidate, they better have made every effort to ensure that candidate’s public statements, publicly-available correspondence, Twitter posts, Instagram photos, YouTube videos, blogs, and every other shred of Google-able data has been tracked down, explained where possible, and retracted where necessary. The convention cannot abide another instance of “break her down” emails or “man is she built” sermons or comments about “mild, non-injurious spousal abuse” lurking in the shadows.
And finally, a promise: This is the last we will publish our thoughts on the present search for a president of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention. In the end, we are cautious yet hopeful. Though we are reminded of what Margaret Thatcher once said during a joint session of the United States Congress:
“Hope is such a precious commodity in the world today, but some attempt to buy it at too high a price.”