Planners for the 2023 Southern Baptist Convention expected this would be among the better attended annual meetings in the past decade. With 15,726 messengers registered in Nashville in 2021 and 8,133 messengers in Anaheim in 2022, organizers chose to move the convention from Charlotte, North Carolina to New Orleans which offered more meeting space and hotel rooms.
So far, more than 7,000 messengers have registered. The Baptist Press announcement pointed out “Giant Calf, which is our preschool childcare provider, is now full, and so is Youth on Mission…. The only childcare with openings right now is Giant Cow for kids ages 5-12. Those openings are limited and will likely close soon.”
So many reservations for childcare are another sign that attendance at the annual meeting, once a sea of gray hair, is trending younger. After the Covid pandemic break, interest in the SBC’s handling of sexual abuse allegations drove attendance. The question now is whether implementation of reforms and debate over reasons for disfellowshipping churches will sustain interest.
The 2023 SBC Annual Meeting will likely handle several key issues:
Leaders and elections
The SBC presidency was a four-man race last year, with the Conservative Baptist Network and its slate in all races driving much of the discussion. CBN’s presence was felt, but most of their candidates lost. Bart Barber, pastor of a relatively small church when compared to the recent megachurch pastor presidents, won the election. This year he faces one opponent, as of press time. And tracking abuse claims going forward with respect to local churches and their autonomy appears to be an issue, after the second candidate, Mike Stone, entered the race.
Leadership as an SBC issue will be made obvious by the absence of empty chairs on the platform in New Orleans. For the first time since 2018, nearly all the vacancies at the tops of SBC entities will be filled (short of an unexpected resignation in the next five weeks). Just this year, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) has a new president in Brent Leatherwood. Southwestern Seminary has a new president in David Dockery. And it had been expected that the SBC Executive Committee would have a new president and CEO after its May 1 special-called meeting. However, trustees declined the recommendation of Jared Wellman by a vote of 51-30 with 81 present at the meeting. Following EC bylaws a new search committee was immediately formed.
In the past five years, there has been significant change at the denominational summit: Paul Chitwood at International Mission Board (2018), Ben Mandrell at Lifeway (2019), Jamie Dew at New Orleans Seminary (2019), and Hance Dilbeck at Guidestone (2022).
Since Ronnie Floyd resigned in 2021, interim EC President Willie McLaurin has worked to rebuild relationships with church leaders and less in a megachurch pastor style.
The EC acted on behalf of the Convention in the period between its two-days-a-year existence and ousted six churches, including the SBC’s second largest, Saddleback Church. Five of the six were removed from the rolls because they had women as pastors. One church was removed for inadequate response to a claim of sexual abuse, a charge the congregation later denied.
When Saddleback’s “friendly cooperation” was called into question in 2022 because the church had ordained three women with the title pastor, the Credentials Committee brought a motion to study the use of the word “pastor” as described in the Baptist Faith and Message (2000). After extended floor debate and a surprise appearance by Saddleback founding pastor Rick Warren, who would retire soon after, the motion was withdrawn. President Ed Litton said the issue of a word study would reside with the Credentials Committee until they chose to report it to the floor.
Saddleback may not object to their dismissal, but leaders of at least one of the churches said they will appeal their ouster. In that case, messengers will vote whether to sustain the action by the EC.
The EC is expected to bring a recommendation for a company to operate a new Ministry Check database to track “credible accusations” of abuse within SBC churches. How the database will work, who can add to it, and who will operate it are all questions being handled by the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force, successor to the Sexual Abuse Task Force (SATF) which recommended reforms that were adopted by SBC messengers last year.
A report that Guidepost Solutions, the company hired by the SATF to conduct an independent investigation into the EC’s handling of abuse claims in SBC churches and entities, would create an organization to operate the database drew questions. At the time the Guidepost Solutions’ 288-page report was released last year, some leaders objected because Guidepost staff had expressed support for LGBTQ issues. That objection was raised again in February. Messengers may hear more on that subject.
And there’s the question of the EC audit which will be released in time for the annual meeting. At the EC’s February trustees meeting, it was reported that $6 million of the EC’s $12.2 million in assets had been spent in the preceding year. “It doesn’t look good,” Missouri trustee Monte Shinkle said of the 50% loss. Discussion about cost-cutting measures and the possible sale of properties followed.
The EC chair or interim president will likely be charged with giving a report to the messengers, and the audit will answer whether the expenditures were related to the sexual abuse investigation.
In February, the EC did not report on the ongoing investigation by the federal Department of Justice into the sexual abuse claims, beyond their original statement that the EC was cooperating with DOJ subpoenas for records. DOJ does not comment on its probes, unless indictments are returned. No action has been reported.
Watch for resolutions
The SBC’s most newsworthy actions sometimes come in the passage of resolutions. EC Chair David Sons is chairing the Resolutions Committee. The content of possible resolutions has not been released yet. Sons was vice-chair, but replaced Wellman when he stepped down in order to be considered for the EC president position.
While the SBC generally does not speak on the issue of gun control, it is worth noting that ERLC President Brent Leatherwood and 12 other Baptist pastors and leaders are supporting an “Order of Protection” law in Tennessee which would make it harder for mentally unstable people to purchase firearms. Leatherwood’s three children attend Covenant Christian School in Nashville where a shooter killed three children and three adults in March.
For more information about the SBC Annual Meeting, including how to register, visit SBCAnnualMeeting.net.