NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) — As chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, Pastor Rolland Slade has long had one goal. Make the committee’s meetings boring again.
For at least one night, Slade’s dream became reality. On Monday (Feb. 21), the California pastor presided over a drama-free and harmonious meeting of the Nashville-based committee, which oversees the business of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination in between annual meetings.
The tone of the midwinter Nashville gathering was in stark contrast to that of recent Executive Committee meetings, which were marked by sharp divides over issues such as race and politics and how to proceed with an investigation into the ways Baptist leaders have responded to the issue of sexual abuse. A group of committee members had tried to control the access investigators would have during the investigation and how much would be made public. When those attempts failed, more than a dozen committee members resigned in October, as did the Executive Committee’s former president and CEO.
Monday evening’s plenary session of the committee began with a prayer for unity, led by Mike Keahbone, pastor of First Baptist Church in Lawton, Oklahoma. Before praying, Keahbone referenced a passage from the New Testament Book of Ephesians about Christians being patient and kind with each other and to make “every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
“We all have work to do,” said Keahbone.
Southern Baptist Convention President Ed Litton called on his fellow Baptists to set aside their differences and to work together to remove the stains of racism and sexual abuse from the convention. Those stains, he said, had undermined the SBC’s moral credibility and its mission. Litton, an Alabama pastor who was elected president of the SBC in June 2021, said that in order to regain credibility, the convention had to deal with issues of racism and abuse, as well as with tensions that had caused divides in the SBC.
“We cannot deny history — the history of our beginnings — or the lingering effects of racism throughout our time,” he said. “This requires us to confront the sin of racism and to seek to remove the stain from SBC life.”
He also said Southern Baptist leaders must be prepared to act when the details of the sex abuse investigation are made public and not simply “brace for impact.”
Committee members are scheduled to receive an update from Guidepost Solutions, the firm conducting the investigation, on Tuesday. The full report is supposed to be made public during the SBC’s annual meeting in June.
In recent months, said Litton, he’d seen the good work of the SBC in action — in volunteers responding to disasters and pastors refusing to give up on ministry despite the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, he said, there’s one thing he never hears about Southern Baptists.
“No one says, ‘Oh how they love one another.’”
Monday evening’s session also included an address from Willie McLaurin, the interim president and CEO of the Executive Committee. McLaurin is the first Black leader of a national SBC entity and his address was greeted with a standing ovation. In his new role, which was confirmed by committee members Monday, McLaurin promised to focus on cooperation among Southern Baptists and on building closer relationships with churches. He also gave a word of advice on how Baptist leaders could foster that cooperation.
“We must commit to pray — p-r-a-y — for each other and not prey — p-r-e-y — on each other,” he said. “If prayer is not the foundation, the foundation will fall apart. If prayer is the foundation, we can accomplish so much more for the kingdom of God.”
McLaurin also urged his fellow Baptists to care for survivors of abuse and to work to alleviate the effects of racial discrimination. And he said that God was at work in the convention, setting things to rights.
“As we await the release of the Sexual Abuse Task Force report, may we be reminded that God only blesses those with clean hands and pure hearts,” he said.
Before Monday’s meetings, a group of abuse survivors and their supporters held a rally outside the SBC’s offices in downtown Nashville, promising to keep pressing SBC leaders to address the issues of abuse, to care for survivors and to enact real reform. Several survivors were present at Monday evening’s session and Slade welcomed them in his opening remarks.
“We want to say that we see you and acknowledge your presence here,” he said.