Heartbreaking. Encouraging. Inspiring. Compelling.
The 2019 Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Annual Meeting was all this – and more.
More than 8,000 messengers, including close to 250 Arkansas Baptist messengers, gathered in Birmingham, Ala., June 11-12, for Southern Baptists’ annual business meeting. For many, the event is akin to a family reunion. For me, I loved walking into and working in the convention press room as well as attending a dessert fellowship for Baptist Communicators Association and a dinner for
Association of State Baptist Publications. Relationships with my colleagues and friends who serve alongside me in denominational communications are nurtured through these connections at Southern Baptists’ annual family reunion.
At this year’s reunion, our family of Southern Baptists brought more than fried chicken to the potluck supper. (Yes, fried chicken was on the menu at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s dinner bidding farewell to retiring seminary president Chuck Kelley and his wife, Rhonda.) In addition to the fried chicken, our family put some tough issues – issues like sexual abuse, racism and abortion – on this year’s reunion table.
The reunion was heartbreaking as family members shared their stories of sexual abuse in our churches. In a panel discussion on the evening preceding the annual meeting, Susan Codone, senior associate dean of academic affairs at Mercer University School of Medicine, shared her personal story of being abused 35 years ago by both her pastor and youth pastor as a teenager in a Birmingham-area church. She lamented what she described as “the catch-and-release policy” in which pastors are caught in sexual abuse but are quietly removed by their churches and able to go to other congregations without disclosure of their crimes. Hers was one of many such heartrending stories shared in recent weeks of not only sins, but also crimes committed in our ranks.
The reunion was encouraging as messengers passed 13 resolutions, including those advocating against abortion, sexual abuse and religious persecution. Messengers also affirmed amendments to the SBC constitution to specifically state that sexual abuse and discrimination based on ethnicity are grounds for a church to be deemed as “not in friendly cooperation” with the convention. “May this world know that the Southern Baptist Convention stands against all forms of sexual abuse,” said Ronnie Floyd, president and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee. “May this world know that … we also stand against all ethnic discrimination in the United States and around the world.”
Another encouraging aspect of the reunion was the diverse slate of officers elected to serve Southern Baptists, including a African American pastor, a Hispanic pastor, and Kathy Litton, the first woman to serve as SBC registration secretary. Throughout denominational history, one woman has served as SBC first vice president (1982), and two women have served as SBC second vice president (1963, 1976). A woman has never served as SBC president, but there are no rules forbidding such, acknowledged Donna Gaines, wife of former SBC president and pastor Steve Gaines of Bellevue Baptist Church in the Memphis, Tenn., area, in a panel discussion at the meeting. In fact, a woman was nominated as SBC president in 1972. There is also no requirement that a pastor serve as SBC president. Brooks Hays, former member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Arkansas’ 5th district, served as a layperson SBC president in 1957-58. The last time a layperson was elected to that position was in the early 1970s. Gaines stated that she prefers to see a pastor serve as SBC president.
The reunion was inspiring as North Carolina pastor J.D. Greear, elected to a second term as SBC president, gave three defining values he believes should shape the future of the SBC: prioritize the gospel above all, be willing to do whatever it takes to reach all people and commit to sending every member. Also inspiring was the commissioning of 26 new international missionaries who are willing to give their all so that others may know Christ and the report that the annual Crossover evangelism outreach effort yielded a reported 364 professions of faith in Jesus. Heaven is rejoicing.
The reunion was compelling as, near the meeting’s conclusion, Greear reminded attendees, “Bold resolutions and sweeping statements are not sufficient,” speaking specifically to the issue of sex abuse in Southern Baptist churches. Yet, his admonition is broader than one issue.
Words are not enough. Words are never enough. Now that this year’s family reunion is in the rearview mirror, may we, as Southern Baptists, look toward a future of actively being His Light in a dark, but watching, world (Matt. 5:16).
Margaret Colson is writer/copy editor for the Arkansas Baptist News.
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