(AP) — A powerful Southern Baptist committee was looking to appoint a new leader Monday (May 1) who could navigate controversies over its handling of sexual-abuse reforms and the ousting of churches with women serving as pastors. Instead, the Executive Committee found itself tangled in yet another dispute, voting down a recommendation to make its own former chairman its president in what had become a racially fraught decision.
That 50-31 vote came after some of the denomination’s prominent Black clergy questioned the selection process, which they saw as bypassing an African American pastor who has led the committee as interim president for more than a year.
The selection process hit a nerve in a denomination that has lost some Black clergy in recent years over what they have seen as a failure of the mostly white-led denomination to make good on its pledges to reform after its history of supporting slavery and segregation. While the SBC elected its first Black president in 2012, no African Americans have led any of the denomination’s powerful agencies or seminaries.
The Executive Committee, meeting in private session in Dallas on Monday, voted down a recommendation from its search committee to choose a white pastor, Jared Wellman of Arlington, Texas, to be its next president. Wellman himself had been chair of the Executive Committee’s board until resigning last month.
Under committee bylaws, the presidential selection process will begin anew under a new search committee, which was created on Monday.
Bishop A.B. Vines — a former SBC vice president and former president of the National African American Fellowship within the SBC — challenged the selection process last week in an open letter to the Executive Committee. He noted that Black pastor Willie McLaurin, with experience as a Tennessee Baptist Mission Board staff member, has served as the committee’s interim president since early 2022. Two other SBC agencies recently hired interim leaders to permanent positions. Vines didn’t take issue with Wellman but said the process was secretive and didn’t “pass the smell test.”
The denomination “always seems to have issues with hiring a person of color for a senior leadership position,” wrote Vines, pastor of New Seasons Church in Spring Valley, California. “We have made resolution after resolution, from apologies on slavery to Confederate flags,” but they won’t be effective “if the heart of the convention does not change.”
After the vote, Vines told the Associated Press: “Today’s vote was about process and integrity. Today we showed the watching world that we honor both.”
Dwight McKissic, a Black pastor also from Arlington, Texas, said he respected Wellman but didn’t understand why the committee appeared ready to bypass McLaurin. “I’ve lost confidence that an (African-American) man will ever be elected as an entity head,” he tweeted Sunday before the vote. “It’s simply counter culture to SBC DNA.”
The Executive Committee coordinates much of the business of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination outside of its annual meeting, recommending budgets, receiving and distributing funds, handling public relations and ousting churches from the convention, as it voted to do earlier this year with five congregations with women pastors.
One of the Executive Committee members, Oklahoma pastor Mike Keahbone, tweeted he was “grieved” by the vote.
“I believe we made a mistake today,” he said.
David Sons, chairman of the Executive Committee, said in a news conference after the vote that trustees’ concerns “were not about Jared personally. …. It was more so about the process, of how things came to be.”
Sons, also a search team member, said it nominated Wellman after being tasked by trustees “to bring the best candidate forward that we felt the Lord leading us to bring.” Asked about the concerns raised by Black pastors, he said: “Our hope again is that we would one day soon not only see more diversity in the first seat but we would see more diversity in every seat on our trustee boards, at our seminaries.” He cited internal research showing a growing number of ethnically diverse SBC congregations.
“The hope of the search team is not to set any of that back,” he said.
Wellman wished the committee well in a tweet after the vote: “Our lives are in the hands of a sovereign God. We’re called simply to be faithful and put our ‘yes’ on the table.”
The Executive Committee has had a major turnover of members and leadership since it was subject of a scathing independent report in 2022 that said it stonewalled and denigrated survivors of sexual abuse. Southern Baptist agencies later acknowledged an ongoing Department of Justice investigation into their handling of abuse.