Last Thursday, the Southern Baptist Convention's top-ranked Executive Committee got a shocking bit of news about their Interim President, followed by his resignation.
The next day, they appointed a new Interim President with a strong link to its last real president, and likely some loyalty to him.
The Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) just can’t get away from nonstop drama. This time, it involves fabricated credentials, a swift resignation, and an equally swift replacement appointment.
At least it’s not another sex scandal!
Situation report: The Executive Committee
The SBC contains a dizzying array of groups and sub-groups. Some are seminaries, others missionary organizations, and still others part of Lifeway, the denomination’s printing-and-research arm. Others still are mostly administrative, like one offering health and life insurance to pastors and their families.
The Executive Committee rules over all of them. It sets their annual budgets and handles the day-to-day decision-making for the SBC as a whole. It is the most powerful group within the SBC, answering only, really, to its president. In a very real sense, the Executive Committee is the visible face of the SBC.
Over the past 20 years, this committee got packed full of a stalwart, ultraconservative, ultratraditionalist faction of the SBC that I’ve come to call the Old Guard. But their control began to fray in 2019, when the denomination’s staggering “Abuse of Faith” crisis made national news. Its president at the time, Ronnie Floyd, was an Old Guard power player. But rather than cooperate with outside investigations, he simply quit the job.
The committee appointed Willie McLaurin to be its Interim President.
Since then, the Executive Committee has been trying to find an official president. They organized a search committee and held a vote to confirm the candidate they’d found. Somehow—and against expectations—the vote failed. So they had to dissolve the search committee, organize a whole new one, find another candidate, and hold another vote.
Another drama has hit the Executive Committee amidst this new search.
If you’re squeamish, don’t prod beach rubble
Very suddenly last Thursday, Willie McLaurin quit. It sounds like this is another classic Southern Baptist case of a big-name leader quitting before he could be fired. But this time, there’s a lot less doubt about that being the case.
His reasons remind me a lot of the 1994 movie Renaissance Man. In it, Danny DeVito teaches English literature to some new Army recruits who are about to wash out of basic training. While he’s there, he discovers that a gifted young man in his class nurses a secret family tragedy: he doesn’t know what happened to his Army-enlisted father, who apparently died or disappeared many years earlier. DeVito decides to do this young man a favor, so he looks into the situation without clearing it with him first. Unfortunately, this help creates some very unexpected problems.
In the case of the Executive Committee, McLaurin became one of the potential candidates for its official presidency. And that meant that the search committee had to do a bunch of background checking of his resume.
One idly and innocently wonders if this kind of deep fact-checking occurs with every candidate. Obviously, nobody had ever checked McLaurin’s background out very carefully during his rise through the ranks. But now suddenly there had to be a full background investigation like he was running for the United States presidency or something.
A wild resignation appears!
Regardless of the answer to that idle, innocent question, the search committee discovered that McLaurin had faked his educational credentials.
He had told them that he’d earned degrees from North Carolina Central University, Duke University Divinity School, and Hood Theological Seminary. Alas, none of those schools corroborated his claims. I don’t know if he dropped out or simply never attended them at all. It seems to be a mixture of both. But he definitely didn’t earn degrees from any of them.
In fact, he’d even submitted fake diplomas to bolster his false claims.
Apparently, the other Executive Committee officers confronted McLaurin with their findings. He admitted that he’d lied, then resigned.
The Executive Committee quickly appointed a new Interim President
Moving with surprising speed, the next day the Executive Committee appointed Jonathan Howe as its new Interim President.
In September 2019, Jonathan Howe became the committee’s Vice President of Communications. He’s been there ever since. Though he’s quiet by SBC leadership standards, he’s popped up twice in my writing:
Just a few months before he landed his Executive Committee position, Howe appeared on a podcast with Thom Rainer. At the time, Rainer himself was just about to retire-before-he-got-fired. They were talking about the various ways that church congregations disappoint and frustrate their pastors. To put it very mildly, Howe revealed a lot of damning contradictions to evangelicals’ fanciful claims about their churches. But then, so did Rainer.
Then, in 2021, he shows up in one of the two emails that Russell Moore leaked as he was quitting-before-he-could-be-fired. Moore headed the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). Interestingly, Moore didn’t particularly praise Howe in that email. Moore just said that when he told Howe that he’d be talking about the sex abuse crisis at the ERLC’s Caring Well Conference in October 2019, Howe was fine with it.
It now makes sense that Moore might have told Howe that. As VP of Communications, Howe handled the various news sites related to SBC doings, like Baptist Press itself. Howe presumably would know if Moore’s plan would be a public-relations disaster.
Whither now, Executive Committee?
Jonathan Howe is apparently a Ronnie Floyd appointee. In fact, Floyd himself recommended Howe for the role, held a conference call with the other committee officers, and confirmed his appointment then and there. Given what a deeply polarized and tribalistic bunch the Old Guard are, it’s hard to imagine Floyd going to that kind of trouble for anyone in the Old Guard’s enemy faction, which I call the Pretend Progressives.
Moore was a Pretend Progressive. The last few SBC Presidents have been as well: J.D. Greear, Ed Litton, and now Bart Barber. They are slowly making steps toward reforming the denomination and resolving that sex abuse crisis, and they’re nowhere near as rigidly regressive or misogynistic as the Old Guard.
That said, don’t make the mistake of thinking they’re really progressive. They aren’t. They keep making the mistake of thinking they can maintain rigid gender roles, their culture wars against human rights, and dysfunctional authoritarian social structures throughout the denomination, while still keeping out all the scandals and hypocrisy that keep popping up in their ranks.
The vote that the Executive Committee held this past May involved a candidate who should have appealed to both factions, Jared Wellman. Even the nastiest Old Guard leaders had nothing bad to say about him. In fact, he’d really seemed like a shoo-in. But at the last second, the vote to confirm him failed.
McLaurin himself seems to lean Pretend Progressive as well. He certainly seemed to approve of various courses of action that the Old Guard condemned, like publicly releasing a formerly-top-secret database of accused and confirmed sex abusers in SBC churches. That move seemed to set the Old Guard off like rockets!
So to me, it looks like the Old Guard is not prepared yet to give up the most powerful role in the denomination. Presidents? Oh, they come and go. Every year there’s a vote for the SBC presidency. It’s dizzying to watch them go through the revolving door!
But Executive Committee Presidents are a different duck entirely. They seem to wield the real power behind the throne. The resolution of the entire sex abuse crisis might hinge on whoever gets the role, and there are lots of other faction squabbles that the person in this role will inevitably shape. If I found out that the Old Guard had anything to do with McLaurin’s resignation, like slipping a rumor to the background checkers, then I wouldn’t be surprised at all.
If Jonathan Howe is careful, he might just end up in Ronnie Floyd’s old office one day soon.