KEYSTONE HEIGHTS (FBW) – The Southern Baptist Convention is a ship “adrift” and so low in the water that it “probably” needs to rid itself of some unnecessary “cargo” to “float and be healthy and strong again,” SBC president Johnny Hunt said in a May 13 interview with Florida Baptist Witness.
Confirming his intention to seek re-election, Hunt said his recently released “Toward a Great Commission Resurgence” declaration offering a 10-point plan for rekindling fervor in SBC life for Jesus’ missionary mandate was a needed “shock” to the unhealthy denomination in spite of the “ruckus” it has created.
The declaration, which has been endorsed by more than 2,200 Southern Baptists since its initial release April 27, at first asserted the denominational structure was “bloated and bureaucratic.”
After strong reaction from some denominational leaders, the controversial Article IX, “A Commitment to More Effective Convention Structure,” was softened – while still calling for a streamlining of the structure – and the entire declaration was re-released the following day.
“It was a little more coarse than my heart normally presents, but I think it had a good effect. And I would say that in this sense – it shocked the system. We needed a shock. We’re not breathing healthy,” Hunt said before speaking to Trinity Baptist Church in Keystone Heights in a special service celebrating the 15th anniversary of pastor James Peoples.
Hunt, who has mentored Peoples as well as many other younger pastors, is pastor of First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga.
Noting much of the “push back” on the document has come from state convention executive directors who saw the declaration as an attack on their ministries, Hunt said he has spoken with many of those leaders and he agrees with Union University president David Dockery that all “partners” will be needed for a Great Commission Resurgence.
“We’re all partners – all of our state guys, associations, we’re partners. I think when it’s all said and done it will show them in a greater light to a younger generation and to any that would cast doubt on the faithfulness of the denomination,” Hunt said.
Hunt confirmed a motion will be offered at the SBC annual meeting in Louisville next month directing him to appoint a task force to study the GCR declaration and bring a report and recommendations to the 2010 annual meeting in Orlando.
Expecting the task force likely will be comprised of 12 persons, Hunt said although he is not ready to name specific persons he would appoint to the “very fair committee,” the types of people he anticipates naming would include leading pastors, a state convention executive director, a seminary president, and a college president – without speaking exhaustively of the potential make-up of the group.
During the 30-minute interview focused mostly on the declaration article on denominational structure, Hunt stressed repeatedly the GCR effort was not his agenda but reflects a growing movement among grassroots Southern Baptist pastors and lay persons – and especially among younger pastors with limited loyalty to the denomination – who are concerned about the SBC.
“A lot of things I’ve said is what pastors are saying, what our people are saying. And so, we need to listen to them,” Hunt said, noting that because he has spent a great deal of time with pastors, “I have a better handle on hearing that than others that serve in the context of the denominational life.”
Hunt expressed frustration that those who are concerned with certain wording in the document did not give him the “benefit of the doubt.”
“Why is there so much – and maybe there is a better word, but I feel sometimes – so much distrust in this Baptist family? That’s why I think we need health that only God can give,” Hunt said.
Imagining an alternative way critics of the GCR declaration could have responded to him, Hunt continued: “So much distrust to believe that someone that has led a church, started a lot of churches, given a lot of money and been a friend to all – why is there such distrust? Why couldn’t we say, ‘I want to ask him about a couple of those words because I know him enough, know his heart enough, that we’re brothers.’ But it’s almost like it sets us aside and at odds with each other at first run of the document, instead of just saying, ‘I want to get clarity on that. Maybe there’s something I haven’t seen.’”
Noting that the local church is “king” in Southern Baptist life and each of the spheres of denominational life – associations, state conventions, national entities – are answerable to the churches, Hunt said, “It’s sort of like I almost feel like I have to ask permission to ask a question about the agencies I support. That gives me major, major heartburn.”
He added, “And I’m committed” to the SBC, unlike some younger pastors who are frustrated with certain aspects of denominational life.
“Why all the ruckus? Why so much self-preservation? Why so much – ‘shame on you to think that we’re not doing the best we can’? I mean, who are we? Are we a bunch of perfectionists?” Hunt asked rhetorically.
Hunt said he hoped the GCR effort would actually result in greater support of the Cooperative Program, rather than less as some critics have suggested.
“I say this as a local church pastor, my people need to know more about what we’re doing with the funds and making sure we’re being the best stewards” of money given to CP.
“I would like to see churches give more money than ever before. But as it gives it, I would like to see bureaucracy ceasing to grow so much larger,” Hunt said, describing a future scenario in which a state convention would determine that it has enough funds to do its ministry and can give more beyond its state.
“I hope it would come to the point they say, ‘You know what, we don’t need to grow the bureaucracy any larger. Let’s just send that money on.’ I’d like to see that happen in a greater amount,” Hunt said, quickly adding there may be some state conventions that need the assistance of other state conventions.
Although acknowledging the GCR declaration was reviewed before its release by certain SBC agency leaders and megachurch pastors, Hunt said he did not regret not involving some state convention executives in the drafting and review process because it’s a pastoral effort.
Noting he won office in 2008 over a field of five other candidates, Hunt asserted he was not elected to lead by consensus.
“If we want to lead by consensus, I’m not sure we need a leader,” he added, calling leadership by consensus an “oxymoron.”
Asked about several high-profile SBC leaders who have not endorsed GCR, Hunt said he met with Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and former SBC president, and had a 40-minute telephone conversation with Morris Chapman, president of the SBC Executive Committee and former SBC president.
Patterson, Hunt said, thought the declaration was a “great document, but I leave it to his conscience as to whether he would publicly sign it.”
Although Hunt and Chapman had a “very commendable time of sharing,” Hunt said they saw the matter differently, perhaps because “he’s sitting as an executive director and I’m out there with the pastors every week,” adding that Chapman is “certainly … with pastors a lot, too.”
Hunt said he was surprised to learn in some research he did after the release of the declaration that Chapman made a call for an “overhaul” of the denomination similar to GCR in an address some years ago at Union University.
In light of that call, Hunt wondered why Chapman would not support GCR.
“Is it more about who says it? I don’t know. But I mean, what’s the difference in him saying it,” Hunt said, adding that he thinks such a declaration should come from a local church pastor, like himself, rather than a denominational executive.
Hunt said Southern Baptists should undertake an effort to review their denominational effectiveness out of spiritual concern, rather than because the current economic recession will force cutbacks.
“It only stands to reason if we can tighten our belt because we have to ... we can tighten our belt because we ought to,” he said.
Concerning a call by Tim Patterson, trustee chairman of the North American Mission Board and pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Jacksonville, for a merger of NAMB and the International Mission Board in response to the release of the GCR declaration, Hunt said he did not have prior knowledge of Patterson’s intention to call for such a change.
Nevertheless, Hunt said: “I love our denomination. We have great leadership. We have great minds. I hope we’ll never be afraid to ask that question and take a look,” while adding that the prospective GCR task force might conclude that a merger is not wise.
Hunt confirmed for the first time that he will be nominated for re-election as SBC president in Louisville. Ken Whitten, pastor of Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, will nominate him, he said.
“I must confess there were times I thought maybe before I hit the gavel on the table I’d let someone else take this because I’m a pastor and love being a pastor. But I love my denomination, so I’m going to hang tight if they want me another year,” Hunt told the Witness.
Because of his concern that the SBC is unhealthy, Hunt said he hopes the annual meeting in Louisville will focus more on the denomination and what it can do to get healthy, rather than focus on national issues, like policies being pursued by President Barack Obama.
While the “Baptist family” is apt to want to address policies Obama is “instigating” that give many Christians “heartburn,” Hunt said just as he has avoided taking public stands on national public policy issues in order to focus on the needs of the SBC, “I wish we would spend more time focusing on our health.”
Hunt said he did not consider inviting Obama to speak at the Louisville SBC annual meeting, but he did contemplate invitations to Sarah Palin, Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate, and Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor and 2008 Republican presidential candidate.
However, doing such would not send the “right signal to the present administration,” he said.
Instead, Hunt said the annual meeting focus should be on how to turn around the denomination, which he said begins with the pulpits.
“There is no evangelistic church without an evangelistic pastor. There is no mission-minded church without a mission-minded pastor. There is no generous church without a generous pastor,” he said.
Although many pastors proclaim the right truths about evangelism, they are not emulating those truths.
“I really believe it’s more of a real work of God in the life of us pastors” that is most needed in SBC life, he said, rather than focusing on denominational entities and executives.
Speaking as a pastor, Hunt said the focus “is going to be on us.”
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