SBC Presidents come and go. But the Executive Committee holds the real power. For years, one faction has controlled this top-level committee. But now, it is about to completely fall under the other faction’s control.
For a few years now, two powerful factions have struggled for control of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). And it looks like one faction might finally be taking one of the most powerful strongholds in the war: the denomination’s Executive Committee (EC). The SBC’s internal war might not be over yet, but it’s getting closer all the time.
The EC is the head that controls the Southern Baptist body
Some Southern Baptists say that the denomination itself only exists during its Annual Meeting, which they hold in the summer each year. That’s when Southern Baptists converge on some (usually Southern) city to vote on denominational business, elect major officers, and touch base on future strategies.
But the EC exists all year long.
All year long, the EC handles the denomination’s day-to-day decision-making and check-cutting. With its own staff and paid officers, the EC also takes care of SBC sites and publications like Baptist Press and the Book of Reports that goes into each summer’s Annual Report. In addition, about 80ish other EC members vote on various measures and functions.
The EC also decides the fate of Southern Baptist member churches that step out of line. That’s what happened earlier this year with Saddleback Church. In February, the EC voted to kick them and four other churches out of the denomination for the )horror-of-horrors) grievous sin of being okay with female pastors.
And for years, the EC has been a Southern Baptist Old Guard stronghold.
The factions at war for control of the Southern Baptist Convention
For a few years now, two Southern Baptist factions have been at war for control of the denomination. Each one has its own ideas about how to fix the denomination’s endless, inexorable decline. Each one also proposes different ways to handle the SBC’s two current crises of sex abuse and racism.
(As far as I know, neither faction has an official name for itself. These are just terms that I use.)
The Old Guard
The Old Guard are rabidly-zealous traditionalists. They see no reason to address the denomination’s shocking sex abuse crisis or its troubles with racism. After all, spending their resources to fix things would be taking resources away from finding new recruits to fix the decline! Southern Baptist money and manpower must be directed toward recruitment and recruitment alone.
They also bitterly oppose ideas like women in ministry. Most of these guys fondly remember the last Southern Baptist schism, the Conservative Resurgence of the 1980s-1990s. It largely occurred over the idea of women pastors, and it ended with the traditionalists stamping out that notion for what they hoped was forever. Now that women pastors are making inroads again in Southern Baptist churches, they are spoiling for another schism.
The Pretend Progressives
The Pretend Progressives have their fingers on the pulse of the denomination, so they know that Southern Baptist members largely favor a slightly more progressive direction for the SBC. They’re not really progressive, though. They’re willing to push for sex-abuse reforms if they must, and to tolerate women pastors if that becomes inevitable. They know members want to fix the denomination’s problems, so they’ll make mouth-noises around doing that (while doing whatever they want behind the scenes). Likewise, they know that members are deeply upset about racism in the SBC, so they make a big deal out of what they call racial reconciliation.
Overall, they’re not much different from the Old Guard. They’d likely be upset to think someone, somewhere thinks they’re even conservative moderates.
The Southern Baptist battle royale: How it started…
In 2019, the SBC’s sex-abuse crisis hit national news. Journalists dubbed it “Abuse of Faith” because it involved a disturbing number of SBC ministers abusing many hundreds of victims. Like the Spotlight team had discovered almost 20 years earlier with Catholics, the SBC’s leaders had not helped those victims at all. Instead, they shuffled abusers to other churches. Often, they did so without even warning the new church. And they silenced those ministers’ victims.
Southern Baptists were understandably outraged about this crisis. They were angry with their leaders. Their hearts broke for these ministers’ many victims.
In response, the flocks demanded definitive action from their leaders.
However, their denominational leaders were not there to take action. Instead, they were largely there to enjoy being the Sheriffs of Baptist County for a season, to flex power while they held it, to gather up all the perks they could from their positions, and afterward to ride off into the sunset with lucrative book advances and speaking fees.
The Old Guard tried to ignore their newest scandal. Their enemies, though, sensed opportunity. So they made meaningless mouth-noises about maybe doing something at some point, maybe, to sorta-kinda perhaps address sex abuse somehow. And it was enough to win the Pretend Progressive candidate, J.D. Greear, re-election to the presidency of the SBC for a second year.
It’s worth noting that Greear had first won election in 2018 by appealing to what would soon become the Pretend Progressive faction. Even in 2018, observers could see a split along these factional lines. The sex abuse crisis of 2019 simply solidified those factions and set them on distinct denominational paths.
… and how it’s going
I’m absolutely positive that the Pretend Progressives fully expected the sex abuse crisis to blow over before the flocks realized nothing was getting done to address it. After all, crises always had before. Why should this one be any different?
But it was majorly different. It’d caught the eye of national media, for a start. And it named names at every level of Southern Baptist leadership. Those names went straight up to the top of the power ladder.
Two years later, though, the SBC still hadn’t done much at all to address this crisis.
And the flocks noticed.
When those flocks kept insisting on definitive action, Southern Baptist leaders were caught by complete surprise. But eventually, some of them fell into line.
With a side order of do something about racism too
The Southern Baptist problem with racism exploded around 2020. Immediately, the Pretend Progressives absorbed it into their overall list of deep concerns and stated priorities.
Meanwhile, the Old Guard was left to pretend that Jesus-ing harder and focusing on recruitment would definitely fix all racism forever. They nattered and complained about critical race theory (CRT), turning this scholarly field of study into a dogwhistle for doing nothing whatsoever about racism.
The Southern Baptists who resonated with that dogwhistle were very passionate, yes.
But they were also way outnumbered.
The Pretend Progressives went from victory to victory
While the Pretend Progressives won elections and Southern Baptist hearts, the Old Guard began attacking itself like some weird, Jesus-flavored autoimmune disease.
Just one example from dozens I could pick: Al Mohler was once an Old Guard big-name stalwart and Conservative Resurgence crony hoping to lead the faction. But he soon came under fire for not being hardcore enough. He lost his leadership bid to the extremist Mike Stone. In turn, Stone went on to run in the 2021 presidential election—only to lose to the Pretend Progressives’ candidate, Ed Litton.
That made 3 of 3 previous Southern Baptist presidential elections that the Pretend Progressives had won. (2018, 2019, no election in 2020 because of the pandemic, and 2021.)
The Old Guard sprang into action upon this loss by demanding Litton resign over something that literally every single Southern Baptist pastor has done, “sermon plagiarism.” Nobody cared, because everyone does it. Nonetheless, they’re still grouchy over Litton’s refusal to vacate the position for his Old Guard next-in-line.
But the Pretend Progressives would soon claim an even more important victory.
Sieging the most important Southern Baptist stronghold: The EC
Presidents of the SBC are nice. But they come and go. They’re elected for a year at a time, so they’re unlikely to have any major impact on the denomination.
But you know who sticks around long-term, and who does have a major impact on the denomination?
The Executive Committee.
For many years, the EC had been an Old Guard bastion and stronghold. Old Guard leaders staffed it and led it. Among other big names, Conservative Resurgence veteran Augie Boto was its power-behind-the-throne. Long-time big-name power-broker Ronnie Floyd became its president in 2019, but he sure ran it like his own personal fiefdom. Mike Stone ruled as its Chairman.
But once the Pretend Progressives finally got their asses in gear about dealing with “Abuse of Faith,” the EC began to see the writing on the wall: Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.
Or as outsiders might put it, the Southern Baptist chickens were finally coming home to roost.
A comfortable roosting spot for long-overdue Southern Baptist chickens
Augie Boto saw that writing a lot earlier than others. He retired in 2019. That’s also when Pretend Progressive Rolland Slade became the Chairman of the EC, replacing Mike Stone.
Those chickens began showing up en masse at the henhouse in 2021. That’s when newly-elected Ed Litton finally appointed the Sex Abuse Task Force (SATF). Not long after, the SATF hired Guidepost Solutions to investigate the problem and write a full report about their findings.
Floyd seemed to have dug his heels in for a fight for the EC, though—at least until the EC’s 80ish members voted to waive attorney-client privilege for the Guidepost report. In other words, nothing would be held back from Guidepost. Whatever Guidepost discovered, they’d report in full. And whatever they reported, Southern Baptist flocks would also know in full.
The flocks had demanded an investigation during official votes at the official Annual Meeting, so technically the EC was obligated by Southern Baptist denominational rules to do it. The EC was just more used to nodding along with the flocks and then doing whatever the heck they wanted anyway. This time, that approach wouldn’t fly.
In October 2021, Floyd quit rather than deal with the results of the flocks’ decision. He wasn’t the only one, either; the law firm that had served the SBC for years had quit just a few days earlier. The EC presidency has remained vacant since then.
Guidepost published their report in May, 2022. As you might expect, Boto looks really, incredibly bad in that report. In addition, the report tells us that Floyd knew about ministerial abuse and predator-shuffling for a long time.
The Pretend Progressives saw an opportunity. The 80ish voting members clearly already largely agreed with their policies and stances. So with the EC’s power structure in free-fall, the factions began to fight over who’d replace these departed leaders.
A Pretend Progressive throws his hat in the ring
Knowing all this, naturally I laughed like a goof when I saw this headline over at Baptist Press (which, remember, is an EC production):
Jared Wellman to be nominated to lead SBC Executive CommitteeBaptist Press
Right away, I strongly suspected he’d be a Pretend Progressive.
Turns out, he’d been one of the 80ish EC members for years, from 2015-2023. Remember the EC vote to waive attorney-client privilege? Turns out Wellman is credited with raising the motion for that vote when he was one of the 80ish.
Shortly after the Guidepost report came out, Rolland Slade’s term came up. Jared Wellman won the election and became the EC’s Chairman. (David Sons recently became the current Chairman.)
Not only did Wellman promise, as the new EC Chairman, to continue dealing with the sex abuse crisis, but he also indicated that he wanted the EC “to assume a more low-key posture” within the denomination. In other words, he wanted their presence to be largely background noise instead of their leaders acting like la-di-dah dukes of the kingdom.
In addition, Wellman said he wanted the EC to be very faithful to the wishes of Southern Baptists, as expressed by their votes during Annual Meetings. Oh, that had to sting the Old Guard, which had been trying to ignore the flocks’ wishes for years by then!
So that’s who just got nominated to become the President and CEO of the EC.
The EC will be voting on the matter on May 1st. At that time, their search team will report on the results of their search for a new president/CEO.
I’m not sure anyone else has even been nominated for the position, so Wellman is likely to get it. And if he does, there won’t be much of an Old Guard presence left on the EC. Their last major bastion of power had already been compromised. Now, it promises to be eviscerated.
What this means for Southern Baptist members
For Southern Baptists, a strong Pretend Progressive presence in the seats of power means that something might actually get done regarding the crises of sex abuse and racism. That’s a “might,” however, not a “will.” As I mentioned earlier, this faction isn’t very different at all from the Old Guard. For both factions, their natural inclination is always going to be acting like the Sheriffs of Baptist County.
Even with Pretend Progressives at the helm of many positions of power over the past four years, the SBC’s response to sex abuse alone has been glacial, dithering, ineffective, and incomplete.
If Wellman’s different and really means to enact the will of voting Southern Baptists as expressed in Annual Meetings, that could make a big difference.
None of this is going to make a huge impact on the denomination’s recruitment numbers, but it might favorably impact their retention rate. Again, that’s a “might” and not a “will,” but this time it’s because the Old Guard seems closer and closer to thumbing their collective noses at the SBC and making their own denomination.
Despite its decline, the SBC remains a giant money-maker for its leaders, so they’re sticking around for as long as they can. That kind of money makes a fight worth their while.
The zero-sum game could be coming to a close soon
But Southern Baptist leaders can’t make both factions happy. The happier they make Pretend Progressive members, the unhappier they will make Old Guard members. Authoritarian power is a zero-sum game by design.
That fact has big implications for the rest of us.
Evangelicals have held an outsize amount of cultural and institutional power for decades. Ever since Billy Graham and his cronies organized the Red Scare with Republican leaders, evangelicals have cherished both forms of power.
In recent decades, they’ve begun to lose their cultural power. By now, evangelicals’ self-proclaimed moral superiority has been exposed as a farce. They are known as control-hungry hypocrites. Gen Z has largely abandoned and rejected them. They’re bleeding more members every year, with no signs of their decline even bottoming out anytime soon.
However, they’re well aware that the real power is found in the three branches of government. When these branches align to enshrine evangelical desires into law, to hand them power over citizens who aren’t even members of their denomination, and to let them have taxpayer money to fund their clubhouses and grandstanding, that matters a lot more than attracting and holding recruits through the sheer Jesus-osity of their message.
All of that, though, requires money and the ability to deliver votes upon command. And if the SBC breaks apart, that’s going to seriously compromise both.
So this factional squabble is not only great entertainment, but it could lead to really great news—at least, for everyone who isn’t an evangelical.