Sensitive to the need for greater diversity in leadership and increased participation of ethnics, the Southern Baptist Convention voted overwhelmingly June 14 to ask for greater accountability regarding their involvement in SBC life.
During a news conference after the vote, Paul Kim, pastor emeritus of Antioch Baptist Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said: "I want ethnic pastors and leaders to also have the opportunity to express their love for Southern Baptists in Christ. We have to work together."
It was Kim who asked messengers at the 2009 SBC annual meeting to study how ethnic churches and leaders could better partner with others to serve the SBC. After a two-year workgroup study of the motion, the SBC Executive Committee approved a ten-part recommendation for the Phoenix meeting, citing the "need to be proactive and intentional in the inclusion of individuals from all ethnic and racial identities within Southern Baptist life."
For the first time in history, the convention will ask its entities to provide "a descriptive report of participation of ethnic churches and church leaders in the life and ministry of the respective SBC entity"; the SBC president to "give special attention to appointing individuals who represent the diversity within the Convention" to committees under his purview; and a subcommittee of the EC to provide a report each February with an update on how each of the recommendations has been addressed.
Members of the Executive Committee's communications workgroup joined Kim for a news conference after the vote. They were Darrell Orman, pastor of First Baptist Church in Stuart, Florida; Robert Anderson, pastor of Colonial Baptist Church in Randallstown, Maryland; and workgroup chairman Scott Kilgore, senior pastor of Crossland Community Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
For decades, Southern Baptists have passed resolutions and motions on the inclusion of minorities and ethnics—and elected a few to various positions at the state and national level, Orman said. The action at the annual meeting, however, took things a step further.
"The real power of this report is actually that it is now inculcated into the machinery of the Southern Baptist Convention, a [new] level of accountability," Orman said.
The recommendation does not establish a practice of affirmative action, Orman said. Instead, it gives something tangible to those who say, "We have been patient."
Now people can say there is "machinery in effect," along with accountability and a "metric" for measurement, Orman said.
The move is more than symbolic, Orman said, calling it "one of the signals" Southern Baptists can send to "ethnic brothers and sisters across the nation" that they take seriously a commitment to broaden ethnic involvement.
Kim said the 16-million-member convention historically has had many ethnic fellowships that convene throughout the year—some assembling in the same city as the SBC annual meeting. He believes Southern Baptists would be stronger if they would work more closely with all groups in the denomination.
"I love Southern Baptists," Kim said, noting how the churches of the convention work together to support missions through the Cooperative Program and the emphasis on the Great Commission. However, even when ethnics speak English, "we don't invite them" to be a part of the greater work of continuing to build the Kingdom, he said.
"How can this be done if we just focus on one ethnic [group] doing what they have done all these hundred years?" Kim said. "We need to work together."
Kim urged ethnic Southern Baptists to get more involved in the convention in its "history-making moment," saying, "This is the time."
Asked about the election of Fred Luter Jr., senior pastor of Franklin Ave. Baptist Church in New Orleans—an African-American—as first vice president of the convention, Anderson said the reaction has been positive.
Luter, according to some sources, is the first African American to be elected as first vice president in the SBC. In 1974, Charles N. King, pastor of Corinthian Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky, was elected as second vice president at the annual meeting in Philadelphia after losing a run-off in 1972, the first time a black had been nominated for a top post. In 1994, Gary Frost, then pastor of Rising Star Baptist Church in Youngstown, Ohio, was elected second vice president. In 1995, Luter was elected to that same post. Several other ethnic leaders have since been elected as first or second vice president.
Luter's election "is a reflection of the very motion that was passed and accepted today," Anderson said. "Dr. Luter is loved by so many people in our denomination and it is just a time that has come.
"It reflects what people desire to see more of in our convention," Anderson said.
Asked if America would take the convention more "seriously" if it elected an ethnic as president, Orman pointed out that the immediate past president, Johnny Hunt, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Georgia, is a member of the Lumbee tribe of Native Americans.
Anderson said he believes ethnic Southern Baptists were "cautious" at first about the recommendation, but came to see the move as a "God thing" and are eager to work together in an effort he sees as "deliberately inclusive."
Moved almost to tears, Orman said he remembers when, as a young college basketball player, his church in Memphis, Tennessee, forbade him from bringing African American members of the team to church.
"It broke my heart," Orman said. "That drove into my heart a real desire for me as an individual to see the implementation of this, and with it a strong desire and prophetic desire to see more involvement but not as a quota, but as a qualified people."
Kim said the move signals a new era in the history of Southern Baptists.
"We need to move forward for the Kingdom of God," Kim said. "Let's continue to pray. It's God's work, not denominational work."
Joni B. Hannigan is a member of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, and is managing editor of Florida Baptist Witness, on the Web at www.goFBW.com.