COVID-19 forces cancellation of SBC annual meeting, third time in convention history

March 24th, 2020 / By: Rob Collingsworth / comments

COVID-19 forces cancellation of SBC annual meeting, third time in convention history

For the first time since World War II the Southern Baptist Convention will not hold its annual meeting, the SBC Executive Committee announced earlier today. The announcement regarding the meeting, which was to be held in Orlando June 9-10, was published by Baptist Press and was shared throughout the convention’s social media channels.

"We know it is the right thing to do," SBC Executive Committee President Ronnie Floyd told Baptist Press. "We are extremely disappointed in having to make this decision, but God will see us through and give us a way until we are able to meet in person together again. 

“We know our churches need to focus on ministering to their communities and to those who have been impacted by the COVID-19 global pandemic,” he said.

The COVID-19 virus has forced the world to reevaluate the wisdom of social interaction in not only work, sports, entertainment and dining, but also for church and associational gatherings like the SBC’s annual meeting. Many states and localities have shelter-in-place orders, and because of the nature of the virus there is no way to know when a mass gathering such as the SBC might be viable.

According to Baptist Press, the cancellation was in the interest of public health and in keeping with guidelines on social gatherings from the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the White House. 

The decision follows a number of other cancellations for large gatherings, the most recent of which is the postponement of the 2020 Summer Olympics scheduled for Tokyo, Japan in July.

Article XI Section 4 of the SBC Constitution contains a provision allowing for the cancellation of an annual meeting “in case of grave emergency.” The power to make such a decision, according to the constitution, is vested with “the Convention officers, the Executive Committee, and the executive heads of the Convention’s boards and institutions acting in a body.”

The decision to cancel was unanimous, with 77 members of the Executive Committee, the 12 members of the Great Commission Council and all elected officers voting in favor.

"While the constitutional process of voting to cancel is a simple one that involves around 100 leaders," EC chairman Mike Stone said, "the information needed to actually make the wisest decision is quite involved. The EC staff, officers and legal counsel worked diligently to consider the various results of cancellation."

In his capacity as president of the SBC, JD Greear, pastor of the Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, was a part of the group that ultimately made the decision to cancel.

"We are a people committed to keeping the gospel above all," Greear told Baptist Press, "and our sole purpose in coming together is to support one another in that mission, catalyzing our collective mission efforts. This year, our unusual circumstances mean we can best meet that goal by not meeting together."

According to the convention’s governing documents, no convention business which can only be conducted with a quorum of registered messengers will be able to take place in 2020. Among other things, such business would include voting on resolutions and motions, filling vacant trustee positions and electing new convention officers.

Each entity’s charter will dictate how they move forward with expiring trustee terms. Some trustees may be asked to continue through 2021, while some boards may function with vacancies in the interim. 

Elected officers will remain in their positions until 2021, when new elections can be held at the annual meeting in Nashville. This is in keeping with Article V of the SBC Constitution, which states that officers “shall hold office until their successors are elected and qualified.”

The Cooperative Program Allocation Budget and the Executive Committee and SBC Operating Budget, which run from Oct. 1 through Sep. 30, may be adopted by the Executive Committee, which has ad interim authority according to Baptist Press.

Because another Committee on Nominations cannot be established, this year’s Committee on Nominations will at next year’s annual meeting put forth trustees to fill vacancies arising from terms expiring in both 2020 and 2021. The resolutions committee appointed by Greear earlier this year will carry over and preside over the resolutions process in Nashville as well.

The pastors’ conference, which was scheduled to be held during the two days prior to the annual meeting, is also being cancelled. David Uth, pastor of First Baptist Orlando and 2020 pastors’ conference president, expressed hope in the midst of uncertainty and changed plans.

“Who would have ever dreamed we would be in this kind of situation? I’m overwhelmed at all that’s happening around us that’s resulted in the cancelling of a meeting I’ve been to for over forty years,” Uth said. “At the same time, these times demand that we be like the men of Issachar, who discerned the times and understood the will of the Lord. And I really believe that, in spite of the fact that we would love to be meeting, what we must be doing is ministering to communities and cities that are going through this crisis and the aftermath and need hope.”

The pastors’ conference speaker lineup had been a source of criticism in February, sparking a move from the Executive Committee stipulating that adjustments be made to the program. Uth had asked for a 40-day season of prayer and fasting, set to end on March 29, before responding to the EC’s action. 

Several other issues have been sources of friction in the convention over the last year, including Resolution 9, “On Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality,” passed at the 2019 annual meeting in Birmingham; the recently announced Executive Committee investigation into the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s effect on Cooperative Program giving; and issues related to the role of women in ministry.

Jared Wellman, pastor of Tate Springs Baptist Church and Executive Committee member, served on the Resolutions Committee in 2019 and had been selected to do so again this year.

“To me there’s a tension,” Wellman said. “The gathering of the SBC 2020—which was already shaping up to be a heated one—has been cancelled by something that has caused us to forget about our differences and come together over what unites us.

“This new climate has stripped away a lot of idols and unnecessary things,” he said, “and caused us to come together.”

In an email announcing the cancellation, Floyd challenged Southern Baptists not to “shrink back in timidity and fearfulness or be paralyzed with uncertainty.”

“This is not the time to retreat,” he wrote. “This is a time for us to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ to every person in every town, every city, every state and every nation.”