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The SBC Was a Train Wreck 100 Years Ago and Found a Way Through. Can It Do so Again?

The Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention meets Sept. 18, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. RNS photo by Bob Smietana

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) — The fall meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee began with prayer, some hard news and calls for unity after years of turmoil and change.

Those attending also got a history lesson about how the denomination overcame a crisis a century ago, with the hope that lessons from the past could inspire unity in the present.

“When all the dozens of reasons to throw in the towel and abandon our one sacred effort were easy to find — we chose instead to search hard for reasons to lean in and cooperate harder,” SBC President Bart Barber told the Executive Committee trustees.

Meeting in a hotel ballroom a few miles from the committee’s offices, about 80 trustees—the pastors, educators, lawyers and other professionals who oversee the day-to-day governance of the United States’ largest Protestant denomination—gathered for the first time in person since the committee’s leader resigned after admitting he had faked his resume.

Willie McLaurin, who was serving as the Executive Committee’s interim president and CEO, resigned Aug. 17 after a committee vetting him as a candidate for the permanent position discovered the fraud. McLaurin was the fourth person to lead the Executive Committee since 2018, and the third to step down amid controversy.

His departure was followed by news last week that five staffers and two contractors had been laid off due to the committee’s troubled finances.

Jonathan Howe, who has filled in as temporary interim leader since McLaurin’s departure, told trustees that the committee’s reserves had dropped from nearly $14 million two years ago to about $4 million today. The committee will need to draw on additional reserves to balance its budget this year.

Committee members also learned this week that retired Kentucky pastor Dan Summerlin has been nominated to replace Howe as interim president and CEO. A vote on Summerlin is expected Tuesday (Sept. 19). The search for a permanent leader — now nearly 2 years old — continues, with the search committee hoping to identify a candidate by February 2024. The committee is also expected to discuss an internal investigation into McLaurin’s tenure, likely in executive session.

Since 2019, the SBC has been reckoning with political divides, fights over doctrine, leadership failures and a sexual abuse crisis.

Members of the committee have been divided over how to respond to the ongoing crisis, with some warning that a transparent investigation into SBC leaders’ management of sexual abuse might lead to financial ruin and others quitting in protest.

Howe gave a nod to some of the challenges that the committee has faced in his report and to the recent layoffs.

“There is a cost to doing the right thing,” Howe said.