They have been firsthand witnesses of Southern Baptist history in the making. Through their lenses, desktops, and now laptops, they have shared that witness time and time again over the past thirty-plus years.
At the 2016 Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in St. Louis, close to sixty communicators—the small Baptist Press core staff and many others partnering alongside them—served as the denomination’s official media team. Among them were seven communicators who collectively have more than 150 years of experience serving as Southern Baptists’ professional eyes and ears at the SBC annual meeting—shooting photos and multimedia as well as writing articles about every facet of the meeting.
“The value we offer as communicators is to give a larger vision of what Southern Baptists are all about,” explained veteran photographer Bill Bangham, who participated in his first annual meeting when he worked for the former Brotherhood Commission in the 1980s. He has missed few annual meetings since then, even after career transitions to both the North American Mission Board and International Mission Board, where he recently retired.
Years ago, a layperson told him, “Through your photos, you take me to places where I would never go, allow me to meet people I would never meet, help me see things I would never see,” he said. The words have kept him going, camera in hand, through the years.
Technology has changed how—but not why—the communicators do their jobs.
“What’s most important isn’t the equipment or technology; it’s the story itself—the subjects of the story, the people we meet along the way,” said seasoned photographer Jim Veneman, who this year celebrated his thirty-first year coordinating visual coverage for the SBC annual meeting.
Las Vegas in 1989—with temperatures soaring past one hundred degrees—was the first stop for photographer Morris Abernathy’s stint covering Southern Baptists’ annual meeting. His professional experience in the darkroom at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary made him a good match to travel with the media team in a van loaded with photographic equipment from Nashville to their destination in Nevada, where they would set up a darkroom in a convention hall bathroom. “We had so much fun,” he said.
Year after year, with a career that has taken him to LifeWay Christian Resources, Union University, and now as an owner of a small business in Jackson, Tennessee, Abernathy hasn’t missed an annual meeting. With each year, he said, “I’m reminded how important the job is. These photos and these articles exist to tell the story of Southern Baptists.”
Veneman, who also invested much of his career at LifeWay Christian Resources and then Union University, noted, “We tell the Southern Baptist story in a way that will reflect the very best of who we are.” Veneman now teaches photojournalism at California Baptist University.
One facet of the annual meeting story focuses on the crowds who gather and the individuals who comprise those crowds. For more than three decades, photographer and media strategy consultant Van Payne has been tasked with taking the “convention photograph,” one photo designed to give an overall snapshot of that year’s denominational gathering.
When messengers gathered in the New Orleans’ Superdome years ago, Payne snapped a photo of one messenger focused on his ballot and his vote, with a wide angle lens showing the expanse of the venue and the thousands of people behind him.
“The shape of the Superdome and the scale of the convention that year gave me the best chance I’ve ever had to portray an individual contribution in the context of a mass event,” said Payne, who served for forty years in communications with the International Mission Board.
Another facet of the annual meeting story focuses on Crossover, the SBC’s pre-convention evangelistic blitz.
Covering Crossover Houston in 1993, photojournalist Bob Carey traveled to a community park where a preacher was set to deliver the Gospel message to a sizeable crowd. There, Carey found the preacher and one little boy. With no crowd, the preacher “preached to the one,” said Carey, who noted that the preacher had a personal conversation with the young boy when he finished his sermon. “One soul matters.”
Carey’s annual Crossover assignment fits him well. “I’m an evangelist at heart,” he said. “Photos and multimedia are my evangelistic tools.”
That evangelistic heart inspired Carey, department chair and coordinator of photojournalism at North Carolina’s Gardner-Webb University, to start taking several students with him to the annual meeting.
His students participate in Crossover coverage and also help document Southern Baptist history by photographing every person who steps behind a microphone at the annual meeting. The photos later find their permanent home in the Southern Baptist archives.
“I love bringing my students,” he said, “so they can listen and learn about Baptist life.”
Writer Karen Willoughby, a national correspondent for Baptist Press, listened and learned from God as she made her way to be a part of the SBC annual meeting media team.
More than a quarter century ago, because of setbacks and frustrations, she was ready to give up on what she sensed had been God’s call on her life: “to write the stories of what God was doing through His people.”
Then, in her morning Bible reading, “Unexpectedly, I thumbed open my Bible and my eyes opened to Isaiah 30:8 on the lower right inside column: Go now, write it on a tablet before them. Inscribe it on a scroll, that it may be a witness forever.
“It continues to amaze me that God has used me like this. Who am I, that He would even notice me?” said the experienced writer who this year marked her twentieth consecutive year on the Southern Baptist media team.
For the media team, providing communications coverage of the SBC’s annual meeting can often seem like a mad dash to the finish line. Yet, the team is unwaveringly committed to excellence, said Art Toalston, Baptist Press senior editor and a twenty-five-year annual meeting veteran.
“Every comma, every semicolon, every period demonstrates a core concern for excellence. These details help readers get to key messages of each story. Every story, however grand or mundane, can and should be well-rendered,” he said.
“The impact we have as Baptist journalists is not through one single story—or even two or three stories. It’s through the consistency of our witness. It’s the ongoing witness and explanation of our faith that has a true impact. It does not come in momentary fashion,” he said.
The annual SBC media team’s commitment serves Southern Baptists well, said Shawn Hendricks, Baptist Press managing editor/director of operations, who just completed his first year as director of the media team and his tenth year covering the annual meeting for two state papers, IMB, and now Baptist Press.
“We couldn’t do it without them. Their experience and knowledge of the inner workings of the SBC are invaluable. They also seem to genuinely love what they do—and love doing quality work. Baptist Press is blessed to be able to work alongside them,” Hendricks said.
Margaret Colson is a writer and executive director of Baptist Communicators Association and is a member of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Georgia.