Long before the 10,000-plus messengers show up in a massive conference hall each June, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has already begun debating the issues at stake at its annual meeting.
Southern Baptists have come to expect the online back-and-forth in the weeks leading up to the gathering, with pastors and leaders taking sides, strategizing, and detailing arguments around the issues before the convention.
This year, as the denomination readies to meet in New Orleans June 11–14, the biggest disagreements aren’t over what they believe but what the SBC should do to uphold those convictions across 47,000 autonomous churches.
“There are serious disagreements, and we’re dealing with some very sophisticated and complex things in many ways … but the heart is really right,” said Jed Coppenger, a Tennessee pastor and the cofounder of a group called Baptist 21, on a recent podcast. “We got Bible-believing complementarian people who are disagreeing about bylaws and stuff like that, so it’s a tension, but don’t let it turn you off. The mission’s too important.”
The SBC will vote on whether to overturn a decision to disfellowship Saddleback Church (and one other congregation) for involving women as pastors and, in turn, will consider proposals around specifying appointing female pastors as grounds for removal from the convention.
Messengers will hear updates on the ongoing response to a 2022 investigation into the SBC’s handling of abuse, including the upcoming launch of a website database of abusive pastors. They’ll consider the financial state of the denomination’s entities, such as the Executive Committee (which handles SBC business outside the meeting) and its seminaries.
The discussions ahead of time—playing out on Twitter threads, blog posts, podcasts, and interviews—can be helpful preparation for a two-day business meeting where questions and answers are constrained by Robert’s Rules of Order. But some are disappointed with how the rhetoric can turn harsh and heated online in a way it might not face-to-face.
“As we draw closer to the SBC Annual meeting, please pray for our time together. There are the typical lines being drawn, strategies tweaked, politicking meetings, and gossip bombs being dropped,” tweeted Mike Keahbone, an Oklahoma pastor and Executive Committee trustee. “However, the best of who we are as Baptists are our churches and our messengers. … Despite our bickering and power struggles, you have been the constant.”
A buzzword that comes up throughout these debates is cooperation. Southern Baptist leaders see much of the business before them as directly related to how the SBC functions and defines itself.
Their arguments often appeal to SBC principles of wanting to maintain biblical and gospel fidelity at the center but also preserve the autonomy of local churches.
Unlike other denominations, the SBC is not hierarchical and doesn’t hold authority over member churches and their pastors. Instead, Southern Baptist churches affiliate by giving to the Cooperative Program (which goes toward SBC entities) and having a faith and practice that “closely identifies” with its statement of faith, the Baptist Faith & Message.
The language of “closely identifies” is one of the discussion points over how to address churches that violate the SBC’s stated position against female pastors. This year marks the first time that churches were expelled for that reason; two of the five churches deemed “no longer in friendly cooperation” for their women pastors back in February are appealing this month.
“Southern Baptists have been having an intramural debate about how to ensure that our complementarian convictions remain a firm part of our cooperative effort together,” wrote Denny Burk, biblical studies professor at Southern Seminary’s Boyce College.
“Thankfully, there seems to be broad agreement with what the Baptist Faith & Message says. … Nevertheless, there is still some disagreement about other measures that we might take to make sure our complementarian commitments are clear.”
Some Southern Baptists, like leaders with Baptist 21, are calling for more clarity around what it means to “closely identify” and which beliefs and practices churches are expected to align with.
Others, like those affiliated with the Conservative Baptist Network, want to see a constitutional amendment explicitly stating that member churches do not “affirm, appoint, or employ a woman as a pastor of any kind.”
That amendment, proposed by Virginia pastor Mike Law at the annual meeting in 2022, was referred to the Executive Committee at the time. In New Orleans, the EC will follow up and possibly offer the matter to the messengers for a vote.
He frames the biblical criteria for the pastorate as a missional concern, saying, “Keeping our Convention’s unity on this issue, and thus our unity in the authority, clarity, and sufficiency of Scripture, cultivates a healthy soil in which our seminarians, church planters, and missionaries grow.”
Saddleback founder Rick Warren has launched an online campaign ahead of the annual meeting, posting an open letter and videos that do not argue the complementarian stance but make a case that it isn’t “Baptist” to enforce the faith statement on the issue. He will have three minutes to present at the meeting.
“From the start, our unity has always been based on a common mission, not a common confession,” Warren wrote. “This is a vote to affirm the God-given freedom of every Baptist to interpret Scripture AS A BAPTIST—by saying NO to those who deny that freedom.”
The debates around polity have also affected the SBC’s abuse response. Its Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force has struggled to push forward the measures approved by the convention last year. Southern Baptists want protect churches from abuse but disagree over how much the convention can direct what happens on the local level.
The task force’s priority was to launch a website database of known abusers, so predatory pastors couldn’t sneak from church to church. It has spent the past year navigating the legal liabilities around hosting a list, especially one that extends beyond those who have confessed or been convicted, as well as addressing skepticism from some Southern Baptists.
A segment of SBC pastors objected to contracting with Guidepost Solutions to manage the site, since it is a secular company that supports LGBT rights, so the task force announced last month it had cut ties with them.
Though the idea of the site was approved at the last annual meeting, some remain concerned names of the wrongly accused could end up on it. The pace and scope of the project, which still relies on churches’ voluntary investigations and reporting, has fallen short of what survivors envisioned, said advocate Christa Brown, who characterized the response as “a proposal for ‘the bare minimum’ & then the doing of not even that.”
“It hasn’t been done before in a church setting, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. But it has to be done right,” said Marshall Blalock, the chair of the task force and a pastor in South Carolina. “Am I disappointed in some of the time it’s taken? Yes. Am I discouraged? No. We are moving forward.”
The site will launch Tuesday with the names of abusers who have confessed, been convicted, or had a civil judgment (such as a lawsuit settlement) issued against them. The site will not yet list those uncovered through an independent investigation, as a legal team is continuing to decide how to vet those cases. The messengers will have a chance to vote that the task force’s work continue another year.
Leaders with the Conservative Baptist Network, many of whom say the abuse crisis in the SBC has been overblown, have raised concerns about the Executive Committee spending on last year’s Guidepost investigation, which auditors deemed “unsustainable” after a $6.7 million loss in net assets during the fiscal year.
Former Executive Committee chair and Conservative Baptist Network trustee Mike Stone bucked tradition to enter the race against the incumbent president Bart Barber after the Executive Committee meeting in February “showed me some deep concerns I have with some of the direction of our convention,” he told Baptist Press.
David Sons, chair of the Executive Committee, told CT that he sees the spending during the investigation year as an exception: “We’re beginning to see a steadying.”
Scott Colter, who belongs to the Conservative Baptist Network steering committee, named “widespread financial stewardship concerns currently facing SBC entities” as among the most significant pieces of business before the convention, along with the debates around the office of pastor and “preserving the sustainability of our cooperative mission efforts.”
“The SBC Annual Meeting is a meeting of tremendous consequence. The decisions that are made affect millions of dollars that Southern Baptists across the nation entrust to our entities, mission work across the country, and thousands of missionaries around the world,” said Colter, director of strategic initiatives at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary and a former chief of staff at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Days before the annual meeting, trustees at Southwestern released reports of overspending dating back 20 years, running up a $140 million deficit.
The SBC will also consider several resolutions—statements to represent Baptist sentiments and positions on issues, rather than actions taken—which will be announced during the meeting itself. This year, the convention is also expected to vote on possibly moving up their release to allow more time to consider and discuss resolutions before the meeting. One possible resolution proposed opposes youth “gender transition” procedures.
On Monday, the EC meets for the first time since it voted down its former chair, Jared Wellman, as a presidential nominee. In New Orleans, EC trustees will regroup to start the search process over again and prepare for the business going before the messengers in the following days.
“The hopefulness that I have is everything feels very fraught leading up to it and then the messengers make the right decisions,” Sons said.
It’s that kind of attitude that makes cooperation among the country’s largest Protestant denomination seem doable despite the hangups. When they get together, Georgia pastor Brad Whitt predicted, “Those who swing at each other from their keyboards will smile, shake hands, and be way nicer to each other when they meet face-to-face in the hallways.”