The September trustees meeting of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission may be a little longer than usual, as the board prepares to hear from the search team that will recommend the next president.
The group is working through the process with an active candidate, its chairman reported in late July, according to chair Todd Howard of Pine Bluff, Ark. The selection process had narrowed down to three candidates in February. Factors such as the desire for a strong consensus among search team members brought the focus to the current candidate.
The group decided to hold off on discussions this spring in anticipation of the Guidepost Solutions report released in May and the Sexual Abuse Task Force report, which was delivered in June at the 2022 SBC Annual Meeting in Anaheim, Calif. Whenever the search team reaches a strong consensus, they will present that candidate to the ERLC’s board for a vote.
In recent years the ERLC has met with sustained criticism and calls for it to be defunded, including at the 2022 Annual Meeting in June, though Southern Baptists have voted by substantial margins several times to continue supporting the entity. A task force commissioned by the Executive Committee to study the ERLC’s impact on Cooperative Program giving was released in February 2021. Discussion at that month’s EC meeting resulted in no vote taken on the report.
Baptist Press asked Howard if the criticism had affected the search team’s progress.
“It’s definitely had an impact and made it a little more difficult because some who would otherwise aspire to this position understand the tenuous nature of the Commission itself,” he said. “There is probably a bit of hesitancy if they have a more secure job and see we’re voting on [the ERLC’s] viability every June.
“It’s made our job more challenging, for sure. Anyone with common sense can see that.”
If doors close regarding the current candidate, Howard said, the group will consider re-opening the portal for new names to be considered.
ERLC staffer Brent Leatherwood is serving as Acting President. He spoke on behalf of the ERLC at the SBC Annual Meeting for the second consecutive time, following the resignation of Russell Moore in 2021. Leatherwood deflected comments by messengers and proposed amendments which would have strengthened an all-or-none stance on abortion that would have prevented an incremental approach such as “heartbeat” bills to reduce availability in states where abortion is still legal, including Illinois.
Leatherwood also spoke in opposition to legal punishment for women who have abortions. “You’re not going to get me to say we should put mothers behind bars,” Leatherwood said off script in response to the view that women who have abortions should be treated as murderers.
In Leatherwood’s year, the ERLC has focused on pro-life issues and placement of sonogram machines in crisis pregnancy centers through its Psalm 139 Project, and less on national politics and issues such as immigration that distanced Moore from a substantial number of leading pastors. ERLC has maintained its work on the Caring Well Initiative to prevent and minister after sexual abuse. Unclear at this time is the future of a multimillion-dollar proposal related to abuse prevention that could have involved Guidepost Solutions. The SBC’s relationship with that investigating group was ended after their 288-page report was delivered, and after objections to Guidepost Solutions’ public support of gay Pride Month.
Sources tell the Illinois Baptist that the Sept. 11-14 meeting schedule means trustees may have more to handle than they usually do, although no indication has been made that the search team will be ready to present a candidate.
Howard asked that Southern Baptists continue to pray for the seven-member search team as they continue the process. “This is something God’s got to do,” he said. “He does the heavy lifting; we’re just trying to follow his will.”
– with reporting from Baptist Press and Illinois Baptist staff