More than 8,200 Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) pastors and lay leaders from across the United States have descended on Anaheim, California for the denomination’s annual meeting.
A convention center packed with preachers in tan slacks wielding well-worn Bibles may not seem all that newsworthy. But as the nation’s largest Protestant denomination—with more than 13.7 million members and $30 billion in assets—the SBC provides an influential example of the faithful banding together to grapple with current issues intersecting faith and culture.
“What’s happening in the SBC is probably going on in other similar denominations at a smaller level,” said Todd Benkert, pastor of Oak Creek Community Church in Mishakawa, Indiana, who has attended SBC annual meetings for years. “What we do, positive or negative, is going to have a ripple effect on other similar groups.”
This year’s meeting in Anaheim comes only weeks after the release of an explosive report that revealed shocking incidents of sexual abuse involving SBC clergy and subsequent cover-up.
“The problems we’ve seen revealed are an abomination,” said seminary teacher Mark DeVine, who is based in Birmingham, Alabama. “It puts us into the conversation that Roman Catholics have been in for so many years. My hope is that real change will happen—and I believe accountability occurs close to home.”
While Southern Baptists funded that report by an outside investigative firm, their resolution on what specific steps to implement in response is expected to generate heated debate.
One Top Issue: Selecting a New SBC President
Abuse prevention is only one among many topics at hand for Southern Baptist clergy and other leaders who attend, known as “messengers” at the convention. If trends hold from recent years, they will vote on about a dozen major resolutions on a variety of topics ranging from critical race theory to international religious freedom.
Priorities and budgets will be discussed for SBC-affiliated entities that give humanitarian aid (Send Relief), lead evangelistic missions overseas (the International Mission Board), reach underserved U.S. communities (North American Mission Board), and seek to influence public policy issues (Ethics and Religious Liberty Council based in Washington, D.C.), among others.
Importantly, messengers will also decide on a new SBC president from among three announced candidates: Tom Ascol, a Florida pastor and leader of Founders Ministries, known as a staunch conservative; Bart Barber, pastor of a church in Farmersville, Texas with past experience in SBC leadership roles; and Robin Hadaway, formerly an overseas missionary. The three candidates—like all sources quoted in this article—state that they affirm the doctrines outlined in the Baptist Faith & Message, the denomination’s statement of faith.
Serving for a one-year term, the role of SBC president is mostly a figurehead who “has no effect whatsoever directly on any Southern Baptist church,” said DeVine. But he adds that the SBC president’s power to appoint members of various SBC committees does matter in the long run.
DeVine backs his longtime friend Ascol, whom he says will “change the direction” set by recent SBC presidents Alabama pastor Ed Litton and North Carolina megachurch minister J.D. Greear. DeVine, like Ascol, contends the “seeker movement” and “blue-community universities” have “led the SBC to emphasize liberal priorities.”
By contrast, Indiana pastor Todd Benkert stated he plans to vote for Barber. “I believe we need someone who stands on the Bible and who can bring all these various factions together,” he said. “And I think this year that’s Bart. For over a decade, I’ve known him to be genuine even when we’ve disagreed.”
With Hadaway positioning himself primarily as a “message candidate” to bring attention to missions, one of the other candidates is likely to lead the SBC. How those two pastors address the pressing issue of preventing sex abuse will likely influence whom messengers select.
Debate About Steps to Prevent Sex Abuse
Richard Land, who served in SBC leadership roles for 25 years and remains a prominent voice among Southern Baptists, said he read the entire 288-page SBC Sex Abuse Task Force report shortly after it was published.
“I was nauseous by the time I finished reading it,” he said in an interview. “For those who were ignoring or downplaying or denigrating the accounts of sexual abuse, [the] controlling value of legal liability seemed to be to the exclusion of all else.”
Notably, the report emphasizes how longtime SBC legal counsel Augie Boto continually sidelined efforts at sex abuse reforms, including at the 2008 SBC annual meeting. Boto retired in 2019. (Weeks ago, the current SBC Executive Committee apologized for past statements that Boto made on the SBC’s behalf to abuse survivors.)
When the Houston Chronicle published in 2019 a statewide investigation of Texas SBC churches’ handling of sex abuse cases, it put the issue back at the forefront of Baptist life. Many pastors have since sought to become better equipped to deal with abuse allegations that come forward and not repeat past mistakes. Last year, after a resolution from two pastors to investigate sex abuse was tabled, Benkert raised a motion on the floor and resurrected it.
“This might be a new issue on my radar and a lot of Southern Baptists’ radar,” said the Indiana pastor, referring to abuse prevention. “It’s not a new issue for Christa or Debbie or any of these people who were abused decades ago. They’ve been trying to get the denomination to do anything and then they’ve hit up against leaders who don’t want to be challenged.”
Some Baptist voices are skeptical of the potential costs of proposals being floated—an estimated $3 million in one year—and whether those steps will work considering the autonomy of SBC churches. In an op-ed, Ascol responded to initial task force recommendations, claiming taking these steps “could broadly transform the polity of the SBC.”
DeVine, citing analysis from a Texas attorney, explained this reasoning. “Local churches want their relationship to the Southern Baptist Convention to be only positive,” he said. “If SBC leaders start saying, ‘We’re going to get involved with your church and use money that you give us to investigate you,’ it’s a completely different thing than helping fund missions and outreach.”
On June 8, the Sex Abuse Task Force issued revised recommendations that, they say, take into account “suggestions and requests” received following SBC clergy review of the initial report. For instance, a so-called “Ministry Check” website has been proposed. It would include a record of various SBC pastors and church staff “credibly accused of sexual abuse.” Echoing SBC response in 2008 to a similar proposal, some suggest it’s not feasible and may not provide adequate due process to those who face accusations.
Benkert, who has followed developments, called this a “legitimate concern.” He said: “Their revised proposal follows common standards for lists of this kind including a proper structure that ensures due process.” Recent text from the task force provides full definitions of terms.
How the SBC will respond comes down to thousands of messengers in Anaheim.
Hearing Each Other Despite Disagreements
For Christians who attend their local Baptist church twice a week and perhaps put kids in Vacation Bible School, all these procedures and politics may seem foreign to their SBC experience.
Multiple sources echo one key reason the SBC convention matters: one-third of all U.S. seminary graduates hail from Southern Baptist-affiliated theology schools. “For the sake of pastors who will come out of those large seminaries, we need leaders committed to the Scriptures and the confession of faith,” said DeVine.
Even with broad agreement on theology, pastors and leaders expect robust debate on the specific steps to live out their faith in the Baptist context.
Hailing from deep-red St. Joseph County in northern Indiana, Benkert recognizes some Baptist brethren view his stances as more liberal than their own. He says he prioritizes the prevention of clergy abuse “because the Bible calls us to these things—and if someone wants to call that ‘woke,’ then so be it.”
In a statement, current SBC President Ed Litton said he and leaders are committed to a “fair” process as they convene the “largest deliberative body in the world” and tally votes. He said: “Southern Baptists think it’s best when the people are heard and when people have an opportunity to speak.”