(RNS) — The Southern Baptist Convention has trouble with a capital T — and that stands for trust.
The lack of trust was palpable during the SBC’s recent annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, where local church messengers often overruled Baptist leaders from the meeting floor.
“As far as trust in leadership — that is one thing that came through loud and clear,” James Pittman, pastor of New Hope Community Church in Palatine, Illinois, told Religion News Service in a phone interview after the annual meeting. “There’s no trust.”
The SBC’s leadership has gotten pushback in recent months over a statement against critical race theory made by the presidents of six SBC seminaries, costing the support of prominent Black pastors, as well as over its slowness to get a handle on sexual abuse cataloged in a 2019 Houston Chronicle report.
These controversies have been exacerbated by two high-profile departures — that of influential Bible study teacher Beth Moore, who disagreed with the SBC leaders’ attachment to former President Donald Trump, and the denomination’s chief ethicist, Russell Moore. The latter, who is not related to Beth Moore, was a champion of sexual abuse survivors, and in a letter leaked just weeks before the annual meeting he criticized the leadership for silencing him.
All of these internal pressures are playing out against the larger backdrop of decline: The SBC has lost more than 2 million members since 2006.
The person charged with helping lead the convention forward is a soft-spoken Mobile, Alabama, pastor, Ed Litton, best known for his work on racial reconciliation. Litton was elected SBC president in a hotly contested election, winning over Georgia pastor Mike Stone in a runoff.
Stone is a founder of the Conservative Baptist Network, which contends the convention has become “liberal” and “woke.” His share of the presidential vote shows that many in the rank and file share the CBN’s concern.
Litton rejects those claims but has said he wants to work with all Southern Baptists to “iron out our differences.”
“I want to be clear that my goal is to build bridges and not walls,” he said during his first news conference.
Doing that will take a lot of work.
Litton was candid about the challenges facing the SBC during an interview two days after his selection. Dressed in jeans and a sport coat, he described himself as a local church pastor who deals mostly with the real-life issues of people, rather than as a denominational influencer.