Baptists are called “numbers people” with a bit of a tongue cluck when it’s said. In this summary of significant tallies from the SBC Annual Meeting in New Orleans, the numbers tell the story. And overall, it’s a good one.
35 – Are we divided?
Before the meeting opened on Tuesday, the Executive Committee (EC) met on Monday with several important matters at hand. Electing the next set of leaders was on the list, and the announcement by David Sons that he did not wish to seek a full term as EC Chair was a surprise. Sons came into the office in April when Jared Wellman stepped down so that he could be recommended by the search committee to be the next President and CEO of the Executive Committee.
Wellman’s nomination failed in a bruising meeting in May.
Sons talked about wounds that had not healed when explaining his decision not to run. “The challenges this committee has been tasked to do have been unprecedented in Southern Baptist history,” Sons said as he nominated Russ Barksdale, who was fresh on the scene, to lead the EC.
But a vote between Barksdale and Philip Robertson, a leader in the Conservative Baptist Network produced a virtual tie, 36-35. A second vote was an actual tie, 35-35. The EC was evenly split. Then Barksdale withdrew and Robertson took the chair for next year.
“I don’t think there’s as much encampment on the EC,” winner Robertson said about the perceived division. “We need to seek to make the EC reliable again,” he said. But with big issues and a presidential election in the offing, observers questioned whether the whole convention would be split down the middle?
68—Landslide win for Barber
Messengers didn’t know the results until the end of the first day’s meeting. A lot of hallway babble was whether incumbent Bart Barber, usually afforded an uncontested second term, would be upended by Mike Stone. Previously a candidate on the CBN ticket in 2021, Stone advocated a harder line on several key issues including abuse tracking and a clearer complementarian view on women in ministry. His nominator urged those concerned about theological drift and denominational decline to “chisel” their objections “in stone.”
They went with Barber, by more than 68%. In SBC elections, that is a huge landslide. It was, what The Tennessean called a win for a “conservative mainstream faction.”
Stone tweeted his congratulations afterward. “May God continue to grace you with wisdom, discernment, and strength. That will continue to be my prayer for you as you lead.”
67—The Law Amendment
On the issue of women in pastoral roles, messengers made several clear statements. The Executive Committee did not favor an amendment to the SBC constitution proposed by Pastor Mike Law at the 2022 meeting in Anaheim. Many of them favored other ways and a longer, perhaps more intentional way of speaking to the issue through a study of the SBC doctrinal statement, the Baptist Faith & Message (2000). But both SBC presidential candidates had said they favored letting the messengers decide. And the EC agreed to allow the vote.
By raised ballots, messengers voted by more than two-thirds (67%) to amend the constitution to say that pastoring is for men only. A second vote will be required next year in Indianapolis for the constitutional change to take effect.
Perhaps the most prominent action about women as pastors, especially for outsiders, was the messengers’ vote to affirm the EC’s disfellowshipping two churches in February for having women in pastoral roles. Rick Warren’s impassioned appeal (tapped on the shoulder at three minutes, tapped out at 3:10) challenged messengers not to oust Saddleback Church because it ordained three women for teaching pastor roles. Warren said he only disagreed with one word in the BF&M— “men.”
“If you think every Baptist thinks like you, you’re mistaken,” Warren said. But this time, Warren was mistaken.
Nearly 9-in-10 (88.46%) voted to sustain the disfellowshipping of Warren’s Southern California megachurch, the second largest congregation in the SBC. The other vote on the same issue was even more pronounced.
91—Female senior pastor specifically
The vote sustaining dismissal of Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, was even higher. By a vote of 91.85%, messengers upheld the EC action, despite a fervent plea by Linda Barnes Popham, senior pastor of the church for 33 years. “We’re not here to convince any of you to let your church have women pastors; that’s not the issue here,” she said. The issues were autonomy and the size for the SBC tent, theologically speaking, Popham said.
Southern Seminary President Al Mohler was appointed by the EC to respond to each case, and likewise given three minutes each time. “The issue of a woman serving in the pastorate is an issue of fundamental biblical authority that does violate both the doctrine and the order of the Southern Baptist Convention,” Mohler said. He directed the argument to the issue of “friendly cooperation,” the constitutional term cited in the churches’ dismissal.
Messengers agreed. Both churches, and a third church that appealed dismissal for mishandling abuse claims, were not in “friendly cooperation” with the SBC.
5—Former presidents’ stand
James Merritt brought a motion, which was approved the following day, to establish a study committee to determine the meaning of “friendly cooperation.” If we are to use this as the measure for membership in the SBC, then what does it really mean—and how far does it extend? Pastor Clint Presley of North Carolina had planned to bring such a motion but declined when the EC planned to allow a vote on the Law amendment to the constitution. The two motions are related, but “friendly cooperation” is not limited to male-only pastorates in local churches.
Merritt was joined by other past presidents Steve Gaines, J.D. Greear, Ed Litton, and Bryant Wright, five in all.
The motion passed. Returning SBC President Barber will appoint a study group and a report will be delivered in Indianapolis next June.
2—years for implementation
The Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force (ARITF) asked for a second year to continue its work. The team was appointed by Barber last year as a successor to the Sexual Abuse Task Force (SATF) that first responded to reports of abuse in SBC churches and mishandling of both claims and abuse survivors by EC leaders. The ARITF flipped the switch on a website to track perpetrators, court judgments, and credible claims of abuse, but the system is not fully operational yet. It is loaded with dummy information to show how the website will work, until the actual information has been verified by a legal team.
The ARITF has recommendations for local churches (“5 things they can do”) to prevent abuse and minister to survivors. But there’s a lot more to do before the one-year extension runs out at the 2024 convention in Indianapolis.
“Here’s what I hope to see happen,” chair Marshall Blalock said. “I hope to see the database fully functioning… with credibly accused folks names on there, so that churches are safer next year than they are today. I hope to see the permanent home for sex abuse reform ready to go. I hope to see permanent funding for this work in place.”
Baptists often speak about current culture and theological issues through passage of resolutions. With some debate, the nine long statements presented by the Committee on Resolutions, were approved heartily, as messengers agreed on immigration, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and objection to transgender procedures for minors—among other things.
Along with the multiple missions reports and a pledge for greater transparency by Kevin Ezell, President of the North American Mission Board, the International Mission Board commissioned 79 missionaries to go to 33 countries. The missionaries will be “taking the good news with them, willing to leave behind comforts, friends and family, to answer God’s call upon their lives,” IMB President Paul Chitwood said. He also unveiled Project 3000 to reach the remaining 3,072 unreached people groups.
Attendance wasn’t quite as high as the 2021 Nashville meeting after the pandemic year, but it was close. And counting guests and exhibitors, some 18,901 people descended on New Orleans to do Baptist business, celebrate God’s goodness, and honor our Lord and Savior.
One faith, one baptism, one mission, one purpose. And one long and challenging week.