PHOENIX (RNS)—The Southern Baptist Convention adopted a plan to try to boost minorities in their top leadership posts as the convention faces continuing reports of stagnant baptism rates and declining membership.
Messengers to the annual meeting backed the recommendation for intentionally including minorities as nominees for positions, speakers at the annual meeting, and staff recruited for its seminaries and mission boards.
Before the vote, Executive Committee President Frank Page acknowledged the need for “measurable information” to help Southern Baptists evaluate their progress on ethnic relations.
“I believe we are living in a day and time where there will be increased ethnic involvement and increased sensitivity to ethnic diversity within our convention,” Page pledged. “In the principle of honesty, I tell you we have not done as we ought.”
The move toward greater diversity comes as the predominantly white denomination grapples with a 2010 baptism rate that was down 5 percent from 2009 and a 0.15 percent drop in membership—the fourth consecutive year of decline.
The recommendation was the result of two years of study after a Korean pastor from Boston requested an examination of how ethnic churches and their leaders could be more actively involved.
On the convention floor, messengers defeated a move to change the language of the statement to appoint convention leaders “who are the most gospel-minded regardless of their ethnic background.”
“If we keep the gospel as the center, everything else will follow and take place,” said Channing Kilgore, the Tennessee delegate who offered the amendment.
Others countered that the intentional language was necessary.
“We cannot any longer be a convention that is basically a white convention that anybody can come to,” said Pastor Jim Goforth, who leads a multicultural church in Florissant, Mo. “We must intentionally be a convention that reaches out to everyone, and until the stage looks like we want the pew to look like, it won’t be that way. It doesn’t happen by accident.”
President Bryant Wright noted after the vote that the SBC was founded for two reasons—“one was bad, one was great”—the defense of slavery and sharing the gospel.
“It took us 150 years to come to our senses ... and seek the forgiveness of God and to apologize with our African-American friends and to ask their forgiveness for the strain of racism all through our history,” he said. “But there’s a noble reason for which we were founded, and that is for the propagation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
David Lema Jr., a native Cuban and associate director of theological education for Florida Baptists, said the Executive Committee’s support for greater inclusiveness means the issue no longer is a matter of a “voice crying in the wilderness” but a more authoritative stance.
“I believe that the Southern Baptist Convention is turning a corner, and it’s turning a corner not just of awareness, but it’s a corner now of reality, of action,” he said.