By Bill Webb
"Surprise" is not a word that one has come to expect at annual meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention. But the gathering June 13-14 in the Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum produced a few unexpected moments. And the hall discussion likely revolved around what the surprises meant — and what they didn't mean.
The biggest surprise for many people was the election of what some have called the "populist" candidate for convention president, South Carolina pastor Frank Page. What is one to make of a relative no-name pastor's stunning first-ballot victory over high-profile pastors Ronnie Floyd (First Baptist, Springdale, Ark.) and Jerry Sutton (Two Rivers, Nashville, Tenn.)?
Floyd had been publicly endorsed by two of the SBC's most visible and powerful leaders, Southwestern Seminary president Paige Patterson and Southern Seminary president Al Mohler, as well as a lesser-known seminary president, Southeastern's Danny Akin. Normally, a tap on the shoulder by someone of Patterson's stature would not have been lost on the Southern Baptist rank-and-file.
Sutton, a late entry into the presidential fray, emerged after the Cooperative Program giving record of Floyd's church had been thoroughly criticized. Floyd dug a deeper hole when he tried to defend his congregation's CP giving of less than a single percent.
The Two Rivers pastor, apparently favored by the convention's Nashville establishment, announced his run just a week before the convention, but he quickly caught the attention of the SBC's news service. Baptist Press announced his candidacy and followed up with Sutton's campaign message in a story titled "Sutton says he wants to clarify SBC's identity & strategy." But Two River's CP record was a liability, too.
At the convention, the only nominating speech that mentioned the candidate's CP support was Page's. His congregation, First Baptist Church, Taylors, S.C., gives 12.1 percent to the denomination's 80-year-old giving plan for funding missions and ministries.
Internet bloggers feasted on the presidential possibilities, and the primary beneficiary of the new technology was none other than the soft-spoken pastor from South Carolina.
His church's record of denominational support appealed to many grassroots Southern Baptists — very few of them members of anything close to a mega-church — who cut their teeth on CP.
With information so readily available and so easily disseminated these days, the disconnect between leaders who talk the Cooperative Program talk but do not walk the Cooperative program walk has not been lost on the people and churches that continue to see that the convention's program of missions and theological education are undergirded.
A good part of the cyberspace discussion centered on the appearance of constant recycling of the same people to fill committees and boards. The tent of participation has appeared to many to be shrinking, not because people are unwilling to serve but because only a relative few were being given the opportunity — over and over again.
Exclusion from meaningful participation leaves a bad taste in anyone's mouth.
So what propelled the new president to an unexpected first-ballot victory over two well-connected candidates? Was it the Cooperative Program or frustration with the powerful good-old-boy network?
Likely, a combination of factors played into the presidential victory.
Yes, the comparative Cooperative Program records of the three candidates were a factor. Grassroots Baptists have believed what they have been told by convention leaders: Without strong Cooperative Program support, missionaries and missions will suffer and the preparation of current and future pastoral leaders will be jeopardized. Many have given sacrificially through the years, and they believe they are entitled to have a president who shares their deep commitment to the purposes of the convention.
For more than a quarter of a century, the rank-and-file has been told that hard-fought theological gains could be easily lost without due diligence in the election of officers, agency heads and trustees. What some have observed after nearly three decades is that they apparently are not trusted to help safeguard the ministries they have faithfully supported with their money and their prayers.
Another factor may be at play. There is a growing concern out in the trenches that some who head the agencies they faithfully support are not only employees but people who have benefit personally and disproportionately from funds intended for ministry. Discussions and unanswered questions about lavish housing arrangements, exorbitant salaries and perks such as house servants seem to have intensified.
Once again, e-mail and blogs are fertile media for raising questions, sharing facts, passing along Baptist gossip and — if a person is so inclined — intentionally dropping falsehoods into the cyberstream of information.
Still another factor helped account for a very unusual presidential outcome in Greensboro. Many messengers began to identify with International Mission Board trustee from Oklahoma Wade Burleson, a blogger who successfully cast himself as both a challenger of insider politics among IMB trustees and a victim of the wrath of those same trustee insiders. Surprising to some, his endorsement of Frank Page as SBC president appeared to carry more influence than the endorsers of Floyd and Sutton.
What does all of this mean? Only time will tell.
The new president says he will broaden participation in convention life and that he will look for kinder, gentler Baptists who will be inerrantists but will not be mad about it. He and others seem to believe that it is time for the convention to turn a corner and move beyond some of the excesses that many have come to observe among some entrenched leaders.
The new president doesn't mince words when he says that people in the churches deserve leaders who model what they promote, or practice what they preach. That logic should be beyond argument. At least in Greensboro two weeks ago, messengers agreed.
Rev. Page seems intent on restoring cooperation within a denomination that over time has devalued the term. He is no fan of Calvinism, a theology that has become increasingly prominent in Southern Baptist life. But he says his tent can accommodate the SBC's Calvinists.
The new president will have at least a year to put feet to his stated convictions. Southern Baptists have heard talk of "broadening the tent" before, even as it appeared to shrink before their eyes. Many people in the churches would like to see it happen, and some of them would welcome a chance to serve as trustees for the causes they have long loved and supported.
Surely some who have served for many years in multiple roles will welcome a chance to step down and rest for awhile.
One thing Southern Baptists have learned well is that change in the convention is in the hands of the president. In recent days, they also have learned a bit about the power of blogging.