Three down, two to go

May 7th, 2019 / By: Gary Ledbetter | Editor / comments

The election of Ronnie Floyd to lead the SBC Executive Committee marks the third chief executive hire of a pretty remarkable era of transition for the SBC. Only Lifeway and New Orleans Seminary are still looking for presidents. In some ways, the men elected to lead the International Mission Board, Southwestern Seminary and the Executive Committee don’t fit some of the predictions I’ve seen among those who follow our business closely. Here are things that surprise me a little.

This is not exactly a generational turnover. Ronnie Floyd is nearly my age (!), Paul Chitwood is about nine years older than his predecessor and only Adam Greenway is significantly younger than his predecessor. This variety tells us that the search committees were not predetermined to consider only candidates under (or over) a certain age. The 20-year spread between the three men’s ages actually argues that the committees discerned God’s leadership rather than only looking for specific traits. 

There is some interesting variety in the men’s backgrounds. Ronnie Floyd was a megachurch pastor, Paul Chitwood came to the IMB from a state executive director’s role and Adam Greenway was a seminary dean. Chitwood has never been a career missionary and Floyd has never been a denominational employee. Greater diversity is imaginable for sure but again, the committees, operating independently of each other, settled on three men whose ministry resumes are distinctive. 

None of these men are denominational outsiders. This observation seems important. The committees each went with proven leaders who were very experienced within the denomination. They are former board chairmen, committee leaders, strategists and current Cooperative Program champions. I don’t believe the modern “throw the bums out” spirit in our society has found any unifying cause in our denomination. We, it seems, are not anarchists. 

Change is inevitable; revolution, maybe not. I do expect these three men, as well as the two yet to be named, to lead their institutions in new ways. But I don’t think this is the revolution that a few hoped for. Revolution is more fun to watch from a disinterested distance, by the way. I’d like to unpack this prediction about change. 

Those who hoped this would be a reboot for the SBC should not be disappointed that the changes will be less systemic than they hoped. Each of the five institutions has its own history and needs, and each of them will experience a new vision and energy from their new presidents. There really is no justification to start from scratch in any of these cases. Granted, most of the more extreme voices among those wanting something more extreme are no longer Southern Baptists or never have been. 

Some among us are nervous with the degree of change that will come to a beloved institution, or about disrespect for a beloved former leader’s legacy. I understand the sentiment, but I also think changes to each of these five are inevitable and will be beneficial. First, the three new leaders we’ve now met are competent, well-intentioned and godly. Second, trustee boards are never more focused and useful than during the first or last days of the institution’s leader. The board that prayed over this leader and became convinced that he is the man for the job is going to be more vigorous in their oversight of his new administration than at any other time, barring a crisis. Our confidence in new leadership is not only in the men who are leading, but also in the scores of our brother and sister Baptists who care very much about the institutions they hold in trust. 

Though it’s as flawed as the people involved in any decision, I believe in our trustee system. I know a few of the people working in these five search processes, and they are earnest in their intent to seek God’s will and to do it. No one has suggested a better system than to trust representatives from our churches to watch over our institutions. They get it wrong sometimes but I’m convinced their errors are well-intended and less severe than the errors likely spawned by another governance plan. I trust the outcome overall even when I might quarrel with this or that detail. 

I deeply regret the details of some of the transitions Southern Baptists have faced in the past couple of years. That does not mean that nothing good can come of the transition—far from it. New faces, new skill sets and new generations in the top slot will be alternately annoying and delightful as our institutions implement new visions. Since new vision is necessary, we can shrug off some of the annoyances. A new slate of leaders committed to innovation and well-versed in the reasons for the things we’re already doing sounds like progress for our Great Commission work.