Members of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, will have an important decision to make at their annual meeting this week: who to elect as their next president.
The election follows a shocking report detailing how convention leaders mishandled clergy sex abuse allegations for nearly 20 years.
Among the nominees is Bart Barber, an Arkansas native who has served as pastor at First Baptist Farmersville in Collin County since 1999.
Barber, one of three presidential candidates, said he believes the convention needs new leadership to help churches “navigate our differences and resolve our conflicts in healthy ways.”
“I think we can all see that the fault lines in our country are widening,” Barber said. “If elected, I want to leave office and pass on to my children a healthier climate in our convention, in which we can discuss, solve problems and make decisions together.”
The election at the convention’s annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., is crucial, experts say, because elected local church delegates, called messengers, could have a significant influence on how the convention responds to the explosive report.
While Barber has “paid his dues” in the organization, including being a member of seven SBC churches throughout his life and currently serving on the convention’s resolutions committee, he is not necessarily a shoo -in, said Mark Wingfield, executive director and publisher of the nonprofit news service Baptist News Global.
“How people who show up to the convention actually feel about the sexual abuse report is, I think, all over the map,” Wingfield said. “There is a lot of discomfort. There is a lot of anger. They may come in and want to set the place on fire, or they may come in and want to cover it up.
Barber has openly said he wants a stronger response from the church to the sexual abuse allegations.
“In 1 Corinthians 5:2, the apostle Paul addresses a church full of members who were innocent of sexual misconduct but who were members of the church with someone who was guilty of sexual misconduct,” Barber said. “He told them – the innocent parts – not to be arrogant, to cry and to remove the offender from their midst. This is the biblical plan, and it seems right to me.
Barber said the convention should respond to the report with “mourning and lamentation” and then focus on preventing abuse and seeking justice for abusers.
“Any churches that disagree with these goals should be expelled from the Southern Baptist Convention,” he said.
The next president could also be tasked with appointing a new task force to continue the work of the current sexual abuse task force, which was tasked with overseeing the third-party review of sexual abuse allegations that culminated in the report. of last month.
There have been divisions among Southern Baptists over the transparency of the convention regarding sexual abuse investigations and the scope of the concept of local church autonomy. Such considerations are likely to be on the minds of delegates as they vote, said Barry Hankins, professor and director of history at Baylor University.
“It’s kind of a division on how the SBC should be investigated or investigated,” Hankins said.
In addition to the sexual abuse report, this year’s election is unique in that all of the candidates are pastors of small churches and are not widely known among Southern Baptists.
The convention has historically elected “megachurch pastors” or household names as presidents, Wingfield said.
“These mega-church pastors have experience managing large staffs. They are sort of CEOs,” he said. “Small church pastors have more traditional pastoral skills, and may not have media savvy and may not have the business management mentality that these other pastors have had. It could be a plus or a minus. »
Experts have said Barber’s beliefs are closer to those of incumbent President Ed Litton. His main opponent, Florida pastor Tom Ascol, supports a more fundamentalist operation of the convention, which differs from the leadership of past decades.
“The contest right now is between a faction of theological conservatives who really want to continue waging the culture wars within the Republican Party, a sort of Trumpian faction supporting Southern Baptist,” Professor Baylor Hankins said. “On the other side you have those conservative evangelicals who would like to move the denomination away from the culture war and focus on evangelism and missions, converting people to Christianity.”
Convention Presidents are elected for a one-year term and may serve up to two. It would take multiple presidents to make sweeping changes to how the convention works, making this year’s victory mostly symbolic, Hankins said.
Nearly 10,000 messengers are expected at the meeting on June 14 and 15. When it comes to electing the next president, experts say anything can happen.
“There are so many wildcards this year,” Wingfield said. “If I was a bettor, I wouldn’t bet on” any candidate.