(RNS) — A Florida pastor who was a leading candidate for president of the Southern Baptist Convention has withdrawn from the race after a crisis involving a former deacon at his church.
“The last few days have been very difficult and I’ve found myself in an untenable position of watching people I love in a church I love done immeasurable harm simple because my name was being considered for this office,” Rev. Willy Rice, pastor of Calvary Church in Clearwater posted on social media Wednesday (April 6).
Rice was one of several candidates hoping to succeed current SBC president Ed Litton, an Alabama pastor who announced last month that he would not seek a second term as president.
The SBC president’s role is largely a bully pulpit — charged with promoting the work of the nation’s most prominent Protestant denomination, leading the SBC annual meeting, and appointing committee members. Despite having little administrative power, the SBC president often has great influence.
In recent years, the SBC has faced a number of challenges: declining membership, battles over race and politics, and the aftermath of a major newspaper investigation that found hundreds of cases of abuse. This summer, Southern Baptists will review a report on how SBC leaders have dealt with the issue of sexual abuse in recent months.
Rice became controversial after reports that his church had ordained as deacon a former schoolteacher who admitted having sex with an 18-year old student in the mid-2000s. That deacon also led a faith-based nonprofit and serves on a faith-based committee that advises Florida’s legislature and governor.
This past weekend, Rice announced the deacon was stepping down and told his church the deacon’s past conduct could be considered abusive and ordaining him had been a mistake. The pastor also said the deacon had repented of his past sins and lived an “exemplary” life since. Rice also said the church would change its leadership standards. Last year, Southern Baptists approved a resolution saying anyone with a history of abuse should be barred from being a pastor or church leader.
Robin Hadaway, a former SBC missionary, and Florida pastor Tom Ascol, who has long claimed liberals are taking over the SBC, remain as candidates for SBC president. More candidates will likely enter the race.
The denomination has faced a leadership crisis in recent years, with a number of high-profile leaders, including Ronnie Floyd, former president of the SBC’s Executive Committee, and former SBC ethicist Russell Moore, leaving amid controversy. Litton’s presidency has been largely overshadowed by “sermongate”— a controversy over sermons Litton gave in which he plagiarized other preachers. Litton has admitted he was wrong to use content from another pastor’s sermons without giving credit.