Every year, the Southern Baptist Convention holds a big Annual Meeting where two main factions contend for control of this huge money-making machine.

Each faction has its distinct strategies in play to win important votes, and their leaders have about ten billion dollar-shaped reasons to want to win.

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As the Southern Baptist Convention approaches its 2023 Annual Meeting, its two major factions are already at each other’s throats. Each faction seems to sense that this meeting will be an especially important skirmish in their war for control of this struggling denomination. Let’s examine the trenches they’re digging ahead of the meeting—and the strategies each side is using to secure victory.

The Southern Baptist gaze turns toward New Orleans for the 2023 Annual Meeting

From June 11-14 this month, Southern Baptist Convention members will descend upon New Orleans for their 2023 Annual Meeting. So far, all signs point to a huge crowd being there.

In fact, that meeting was originally supposed to take place in Charlotte, North Carolina. But these meetings have had incredible turnout lately. In 2021, over 21,000 people attended the meeting in Nashville. Last year, the denomination held its annual meeting in Anaheim. Meetings held outside the Deep South don’t tend to have big crowds, but this one drew over 10,000 people.

In light of those attendance figures, the denomination’s leaders decided it’d be best to hold the 2023 Annual Meeting in a bigger town. Their pre-registration page has been up since February, according to The Baptist Paper. It’s still a bit early, though, to tell how just many people will be there.

If this year’s meeting is anything like those of the previous couple of years, it’s going to be incredibly crowded.

How churches affiliate with the Southern Baptist Convention

The Southern Baptist Convention doesn’t ask much of churches that want to join them. If a church wants to affiliate with the denomination, their leaders must agree to a certain set of doctrinal assertions and regressive culture-war positions. Differing from these will get a church booted from the denomination with a quickness. (Sex abuse, less so.)

Monetary contributions are demanded at the point of application to join the denomination, but churches aren’t required to contribute in the way that, say, a burger joint franchisee is. In fact, the mothership doesn’t even require member churches to submit performance statistics every year.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s leaders don’t audit churches for compliance in any way. They don’t even have a denominational credentialing process for pastors. As a result, they don’t even really know exactly how many churches belong to their denomination. When they kicked out a church last year for being too nice to gay people, the congregation was pretty surprised by that news. They’d voted to leave the Southern Baptist Convention back in 1999!

So unless member churches or their leaders actively bring themselves to the denomination’s attention, they can coast along for years.

How Southern Baptists get “in the room” for the 2023 Annual Meeting

But if member churches want a say in the running of the denomination, they must contribute meaningfully to its Cooperative Program (CP). This is the program that pays for the Southern Baptist Convention’s denominational projects. These include seminaries, its top-ranked Executive Committee, its missionary organizations, and more.

I cannot overstate the importance of the CP. Ever since they started the program in 1925, it has been the cornerstone of Southern Baptists’ focus. It takes in over USD$450M annually.

To participate in the CP, church leaders decide how much money they’ll send to the fund out of their undesignated receipts. (Those are donations that aren’t specifically earmarked to go to anything specific.)

Churches that contribute meaningfully to the CP are called “cooperative” churches. They are “in cooperation” with the mothership. But I’m not sure how much a church must contribute to the CP to get that designation. It looks like they must send a certain percentage of their undesignated receipts, but nobody’s talking about exactly what that percentage is.

Only cooperative churches get to send attendees to the Annual Meeting. They automatically get to send two attendees, who are called “messengers.” If they want to send more messengers, it just costs them extra money. They can send a maximum of twelve people.

Each messenger gets a vote during the Annual Meeting.

Remember how the denomination lacks a credentialing committee to certify pastors? Well, they do have one to certify cooperative churches. (See p. 166 of the PDF of their most recent Book of Reports, Section 8.C.)

In past years, Southern Baptist leaders urged churches to get “in the room” for Annual Meetings. Lately, though, it doesn’t seem like they have to work too hard to make their more ambitious members want to attend.

Attending the 2023 Annual Meeting is of utmost importance

About 25 years ago, the Southern Baptist Convention finished up its most recent schism. They call it the “Conservative Resurgence.”

Before that, Southern Baptists could get away with a lot of different opinions about social progress. But their more conservative, misogynistic leaders got really alarmed by how many women were making inroads to pastoral positions within member churches. Through a calculated campaign that ostensibly pushed for biblical inerrancy, those leaders successfully skewed the denomination into its current super-conservative, super-politicized form—and chased off any dissenters unwise enough to talk about their opinions.

A big part of that campaign involved the schism’s architects getting their allies into very key Southern Baptist positions—especially the presidency of the entire denomination. If they could just keep a made man in that office for a few years, he’d appoint tons of other allies to other crucial positions. And those allies would appoint more allies, etc.

Once the dust settled, these schemers thought they could hang up their stars and spurs forever. But it was not to be. In early 2019, a huge sex abuse crisis erupted right under their noses. Just as Catholics allegedly had, Southern Baptist leaders had allegedly shielded and shuffled around hundreds of predatory ministers for decades. Journalists called the crisis “Abuse of Faith.” The shoe sure fit.

Factions had already been forming up. I’d spotted that fact a year earlier, though I didn’t yet know what to make of what I was seeing. But with this new crisis, the factions crystallized. Their respective leaders decided to pursue two completely and mutually-contradictory strategies in dealing with it.

Four years later, those factions are about to rip each other apart like gladiators in the Coliseum.

Our gladiators will soon enter the arena

On one side, we see the Old Guard. They are intensely, even viciously conservative in every way. Misogynistic, racist, sexist to a fault. Focused entirely on guarding their remaining authoritarian power—and growing it at any cost. There is no low too low for these guys. They are in it to win it.

Their strategy for “Abuse of Faith” is simple: Ordering everyone to Jesus harder. That is their play of choice for all societal challenges facing Southern Baptists. Instead of doing anything to deal with the crisis, they think focusing solely on recruitment and Jesusing extra-hard will fix whatever problems the denomination has with sex abuse.

(Many evangelicals suffer from this mistake in their thinking. They assume that if they hold perfect beliefs, then their behavior will follow in kind—as the night the day, as Shakespeare put it so well. When that doesn’t happen, then they just blame “sin nature” for the disconnect between beliefs and behavior.)

And in the other corner…

On the other side, we see the Pretend Progressives. Don’t be fooled by their hype. They’re just as conservative as the Old Guard guys are, and just as focused on guarding and growing their power. They just have a much better sense of the prevailing winds of the rank-and-file flocks of the denomination.

A slim majority of those flocks are outraged by “Abuse of Faith.” They want something to be done about it. For a long time, their leaders put them off and dithered and dragged their feet. (The Old Guard helped here by obstructing them in every single way they possibly could.) Finally, when nothing else could be done to delay it any longer, this faction began making teeny, tiny little baby steps toward the first inklings of the slightest breath of some meager whiff of progress.

(Related: The Southern Baptist Convention apologizes to a sex abuse survivor.)

The Pretend Progressives aren’t progressive in any meaningful sense of the word. They just know that if they want to win votes, they have to do what the voters “in the room” want.

Incidentally, the same fight is occurring over racism, but even less is actually getting done there.

The key election: President of the Southern Baptist Convention

Every year, messengers vote for a new president for their denomination. This year, we have two main contenders for that office:

Mike Stone is a Georgia pastor and a real firebrand in the Old Guard. Nasty piece of work, in my opinion. Utterly hypocritical, scheming, aggressive, and self-serving. Vicious as a cornered stoat. He’s never met a cruelty-is-the-point culture-war position that he didn’t immediately embrace with all his strength. And he shows up in a truly astonishing number of backroom-deal sort of stories. The only Old Guard guy who’s worse than Mike Stone is his overlord, Tom Ascol.

Stone ran in 2021 with the blessing of his allies and overlord at the Conservative Baptist Network (CBN). Alas, he lost to Ed Litton, an Alabama pastor and a Pretend Progressive. Stone blamed his loss on Russell Moore.

Moore, a Pretend Progressive, had once led the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). This committee is funded by the Executive Committee with Cooperative Program money. Right around the time that Moore quit his position and shortly before the 2021 Annual Meeting, Moore leaked some letters that made Stone and his faction look absolutely terrible.

Stone was furious with Moore over the leaks. He even sued Moore for defamation and infliction of emotional distress. (After a lot of mockery and backlash for his hypocrisy, since the New Testament specifically prohibits Christians from suing each other, he eventually withdrew the suit.)

Bart Barber is the Pretend Progressive incumbent. He came out of nowhere last year after the Old Guard successfully pushed their previous candidate, Willy Rice, out of the running. Oh yeah, the Old Guard tried their best to win last year. They even ran Tom Ascol! But Barber won.

(Related: OH MAN, the Willy Rice drama.)

Barber doesn’t strike me as notable one way or t’other. As far as I can tell, he’s doing fine in the role. By Southern Baptist standards, that’s really and truly about as good as it gets.

There may well be other contenders surfacing in the next week or so, but these two are the main ones.

The Old Guard is losing other races as well

Last year, as they do every year, the messengers voted on another, smaller presidency position: the person who’d lead their Pastors’ Conference in 2023.

The Pastors’ Conference runs as a short mini-event alongside the Annual Meeting itself. As the name suggests, it’s a meet-and-greet event featuring preaching, good music, and networking. This year, it takes place on June 11-12.

For this election, the Old Guard ran Voddie Baucham. He’s Black, but they’re getting desperate enough to be seen as not-racist that they’ve been running Black candidates up and down the ballots in recent years. When their candidates lose, that gives them ammunition to call their enemies racists. (Oh, the irony!) Also, Baucham’s name should be quite familiar to Southern Baptists by now.

Opposing Baucham, the Pretend Progressives ran Daniel Dickard. I’ve never heard of him. All I know of him offhand is that his church has given a remarkably large percentage of its undesignated receipts to the Cooperative Program—11%, where most churches give about 4.5%. (In the 1980s, they were nearer to 8%-10%.) Possibly because of that incredible level of donations, Dickard won despite his relative obscurity.

The election was close, though. Out of 1300ish votes, 50.85% went to Dickard, 44.8% to Baucham.

The Pastors’ Conference presidency isn’t a humongous big deal. They don’t even have any official bylaws to follow in voting for their officers. But losing it clearly stung the Old Guard.

The 2023 Annual Meeting looks set for an explosive showdown

If you’re starting to get a sense that this denomination is as split-down-the-middle as Americans themselves seem to be these days, then good. They are. It’s just that the two sides of their split are very nearly identical. You can barely detect a sliver of light between them.

The Old Guard went off like rockets at their loss on the Pastors’ Conference presidency, of course. One Old Guard site sneered in a headline that the messengers had elected a “Woke choice to lead 2023 Pastors’ Conference.” In the post, their writer lamented the denomination’s ongoing “leftward drift” —and, yes, accused their enemies of racism too:

In making this move, the SBC voted for the Woke choice over a conservative black candidate. (You’ll note here that the Woke voted for the white guy and not the black guy.)

Capstone Report, June 13, 2022

Man alive, these guys are such a hypocritical hoot.

(WWJD? Well, apparently Jesus would lie his face off about his own fellow believers, smear them, and try to foment rage toward them. Besides the entire denomination’s power structure being blatantly racist, not one of the Southern Baptists discussed today would ever qualify as “Woke” under any meaningful definition of the term. Sometimes, when they’re feeling particularly tetchy, this faction’s folks call a Pretend Progressive a “Democrat.” Their childish rage, name-calling, dishonesty, and vindictiveness toward their fellow Christians is all we need to see to know just how true their religious claims really are.)

Chances are good the Old Guard will just sulk off in a snit to do their own thing anyway. That’s what they did in Anaheim last year. They were particularly pleased with their “prayer breakfast.” Tom Ascol set its theme: “We have a Book.” It reminds me of a classic cartoon about creationism vs. science:

I’m not sure where this comes from originally. H/T to the Roll to Disbelieve community for finding it again for me!

Every time I see a story about the Old Guard in evangelical news, I have to make sure the source isn’t satire.

The official problem these two factions are fighting about at the 2023 Annual Meeting

Officially, the two factions are fighting over a doctrinal statement the denomination calls The Baptist Faith & Message 2000 (BFM2k). This is the official set of beliefs and assertions that all Southern Baptists must officially embrace, teach, and endorse—and in a severe pinch, when they absolutely must, when there is no way around it and nothing else that can possibly be done, obey.

The BFM2k contains descriptions of Trinitarianism, how to celebrate “the Lord’s Supper” and how to baptize new converts, and a brief overview of how their god will totally end the entire world and universe and everything.

And that’s fine. Anyone would expect that out of any evangelical church’s statement of faith.

But the BFM2k goes much further than that. It wades into the beloved waters of the evangelical culture wars as well. Southern Baptists must embrace, for example, a complete opposition to legalized, accessible abortion care and evangelicals’ ongoing attempts to turn the United States into a theocracy. They must also embrace a form of separate-but-equal sexism that evangelicals call complementarianism.

At the 2023 Annual Meeting, the BFM2k will be the political football that the factions are fighting over.

How the BFM2k figures into our faction fight card

Both sides believe that Jesus himself likes the BFM2k. They prayed a lot before formally adopting it, and they all got the warm fuzzies that they interpret as Jesus’ approval. Therefore, this statement of faith is officially the last word in what Southern Baptists should be believing and doing.

The Old Guard wants to drill down harder on demands for compliance with the BFM2k. When I say that they idolize it, I mean that they fetishize it in much the same way that they do with the Constitution. They think it grants them the power to get whatever they demand, all with Jesus’ blessings.

In this case, they think the BFM2k tells Southern Baptists to focus only on recruitment and gaining political power.

The Pretend Progressives don’t have a problem with the BFM2k, but they don’t interpret it in quite as draconian a way as their enemies do. They don’t see its exhortations to focus on recruitment and politics as meaning Southern Baptists need to do that at the total exclusion of everything else that needs to be fixed in their denomination. Rather, they can address racism and sex abuse/predator shielding while still focusing on recruitment and politicization.

Bringing it together: Sending a message about the 2023 Annual Meeting

I’m mentioning all of this because I suspect that outsiders to evangelical culture won’t catch all the dogwhistles these faction warriors send. For example, check out the webpage for the 2023 Pastors’ Conference. Now that you know what’s going on with the factions, you can probably easily see the Pretend Progressives trying their best to send a reassuring message to the Old Guard:

Join us June 11-12, 2023 at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center to hear faithful expository preaching around the theme “Character Matters in Ministry: Beatitudes of a Pastor.”

Our speakers all affirm the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message, and will encourage pastors through expository preaching. [That’s Christianese for incredibly rich, deep, super-Jesusy, 100% Bible-based preaching. Very right-wing evangelicals love the idea of it.]

These men will share short, timely messages on the subject Character Matters in Ministry, focusing on a different aspect of the Fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22.

Official registration and information page for the 2023 Pastors’ Conference

None of this will matter to the Old Guard’s stalwarts and leaders, of course. But it’ll likely have a good effect on messengers who just lean that way.

I will say this: The Pretend Progressives are pretty good at reassuring Old-Guard-leaning messengers at these shindigs. Sometimes they overreach and overextend themselves, as we saw recently when their Executive Committee president candidate got slapped down. Give them a year, though, and they can usually manage to hit the sweet spot.

(But here’s a sotto voce, confidential whisper to Sir Field of Marked Wing: I don’t know if the Southern Baptist Convention will ever willingly allow mere messengers to force them to submit to oversight and accountability measures like filing 990 forms with the IRS every year. It’d be great if they could push that through, but these silly elections are just plausible deniability for leaders who generally look at their positions as feudal sinecures over Baptist Kingdom. It’s obvious that they get absolutely outraged when messengers make them do anything.)

The Old Guard is pulling out the stops here

As they pursue their ambitious goals, the Old Guard is yanking on every chain it possibly can: making women pastors sound totally ickie and gross, demonizing any dilution of laser focus on recruitment, and expressing their utter outrage over the notion of Guidepost Solutions, a worldly organization full of worldly people, daring to handle the sex abuse crisis of Jesus’ very own favorite hand-picked bunch of TRUE CHRISTIANS™.

(In Christianese, worldly means more than just secular. It means anything that is not focused 24/7 on Jesus. Real true Christians don’t ever want to be worldly, behave or dress or talk in worldly ways, or engage in worldly entertainments or vocations. If you ever need to get under an evangelical’s skin, call them worldly.)

In a recent story about the upcoming 2023 Annual Meeting, The Tennessean offers us hints about how the Old Guard plans to trample the sex abuse crisis out of existence by attacking the legitimacy of Guidepost Solutions:

Guidepost previously contracted with the SBC for an abuse investigation, publishing its findings in May 2022, and has come under fire for a tweet celebrating Pride Month and for detailing abuse allegations in its reporter against former SBC President Johnny Hunt. Hunt, who’s now suing the SBC and Guidepost for defamation, has become a symbol to some of being deprived of due process.

In his candidacy video Wednesday, Stone said the SBC needs “leaders that honor biblical ecclesiology and when outside help is necessary, they are only driven by facts and informed by the truth.”

The Tennessean, April 26, 2023

Goodness. If Stone gets elected and stomps Guidepost out of the picture, it might take an Old Guard-led Southern Baptist Convention another four years to get another investigation to this same point. And those potential investigators will be entrenched in the sickeningly dysfunctional authoritarian ooze that permeates the denomination already, so there’s no risk to Stone or his pals. If they get their way, they’ll be able to splash around a little, declare a Jesus-flavored victory, and then leave the sex-abuse arena forever.

While that all is going on, Old Guard allies will be reveling in years’ worth of high-level positions—and reaping all the benefits those roles have to offer.

Ten billion dollar-shaped reasons are there for the taking at the 2023 Annual Meeting

Yes, the Southern Baptist Convention is suffering. According to their last Book of Reports (p. 8 of this PDF), they’re down almost a half-million members from last year and suffered a net loss of over 400 churches. Their baptism numbers still haven’t bounced back to pre-pandemic numbers—and probably never will. Their seminaries are struggling hard with enrollment.

I don’t even know what their total donation figures look like, because they only list and talk about their undesignated receipts in this year’s report. They’ve offered that figure every single year that I’ve ever seen. But not this year. I’ve found no explanation for why, either. The last total I know of comes from their 2022 report: $11.8Bn. Now, that number has been fluctuating in recent years. Sometimes it dips down to $11.1Bn or goes up to $11.9Bn. I’ve got no reason to suspect it crashed past the $10Bn mark. But I’m speculating that it sure didn’t do well.

Whatever that number is, it’s the clear reason why the Old Guard wants to regain control of the denomination. That kind of money changes everything. Loving families get ripped apart over far less than that. And this pseudo-family was never that loving.

Officially, though, the Old Guard frames its struggle to control the Southern Baptist Convention as something they’re doing out of loving, parental concern for America itself:

The saying goes, “as goes the Southern Baptist Convention, so goes the nation.” The SBC is one of few remaining roadblocks keeping liberalism from overtaking the United States.

Registration form at the Conservative Baptist Network’s official site

Just the narcissism required to make that assertion blows my mind.

And oh, this faction’s leaders rage. Oh, they rage about being sidelined and ostracized from Southern Baptist doings. Considering their insistence that they’re America’s Designated Adults, they must not like that at all.

The Old Guard is rounding up their posse!

The CBN’s registration form for the event isn’t an official registration for anything. Rather, it just lets the Old Guard’s leaders know how many people they can expect to be on their side during the 2023 Annual Meeting. It really lays out just how important this year’s meeting is to them:

It is important to begin planning now to bring a full slate of your church’s allotted messengers to the SBC annual meeting in New Orleans. Please let us know of your plans to attend by filling out the form on this page to help us as we plan for this critical meeting in the life of our Convention.

Registration form to join the Conservative Baptist Network’s posse at the 2023 Annual Meeting

Later on, the form asks registrants to note “any comments or feedback regarding the SBC or the Conservative Baptist Network of which our leadership should be aware.” I’ve got to say that I’ve never in my life seen anything like that on any registration form I’ve ever seen in my entire life. It sounds like a more formal version of something a 12-year-old girl might ask of friends she wanted to invite over for a birthday party and sleepover.

Remember that thing I mentioned earlier about churches being able to bring up to twelve messengers to Annual Meetings? That’s what “a full slate” means. Every one of those messengers gets to cast a vote at the meeting.

The Old Guard needs all hands on deck for the 2023 Annual Meeting. They need some wins, and they need them immediately. The Southern Baptist Convention—and the massive money-making machine it represents—is sliding right out of their grasp.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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