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2020 SBC Pastors’ Conference canceled; 2021 conference to be SEND event

ORLANDO (BP) — The 2020 Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference has been canceled, and its officers have asked the North American Mission Board to plan and produce the event in 2021.

The decision brings resolution to an event that had become controversial because of its planned lineup of speakers. David Uth, president of the 2020 Pastors’ Conference and pastor of First Baptist Church of Orlando, said in a statement released Friday (April 17) that the officers had “prayerfully considered options” and “sought counsel” from SBC president J.D. Greear and some former SBC pastors’ conference presidents.

“We are in one of the most unusual seasons of ministry any of us have ever experienced,” Uth said in the statement. “When we gather in Nashville for the 2021 Pastors’ Conference, more than anything else we need to focus on and rally around the mission which brings us together. Nothing is needed more than a movement of God in our churches to engage our people in reaching the lost world with the lifesaving Gospel of Jesus Christ, especially in the aftermath of COVID-19.

“I want the Pastors’ Conference 2021 to be entirely about this call back to our singular mission of the Great Commission.”

Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the cancellation of the 2020 SBC Annual Meeting, the 2020 Pastors’ Conference had drawn criticism and concern because not all speakers were Southern Baptists and scheduled performer Hosanna Wong, a spoken word artist, is also a teaching pastor at her non-Southern Baptist church.

The SBC Executive Committee voted Feb. 18 to give the SBC pastors’ conference officers until Feb. 24 to make “amendments to its proposed program” that were acceptable to SBC EC officers in order to use space for the event at the Orange County Convention Center, “due to our belief that multiple aspects of its proposed program … are sufficiently beyond the faith and practice of Southern Baptists in accordance with the Baptist Faith and Message.”

In addition to Wong and the non-Southern Baptist speakers, some were critical of the inclusion of David Hughes, pastor of Church by the Glades, a Southern Baptist congregation in Coral Springs, Fla., which has received attention for various performances in its services, as well as sermon series with sensual themes.

Two days after the EC’s decision, Uth announced he had called his congregation at First Baptist Orlando to a 40-day fast to discern a response. EC chairman Mike Stone agreed to the extension on behalf of the EC.

But when the 2020 SBC Annual Meeting was canceled last month, the fate of the 2020 Pastors’ Conference became a foregone conclusion. As Uth wrote, “the pastors’ conference is an auxiliary meeting to the annual meeting and having this event is not feasible without the annual meeting.”

Officers of the pastors’ conference are elected by conference attendees. Since there are no organizing documents to govern elections in the event of cancellation, the current officers will remain until new officers are elected at the 2021 SBC annual meeting, scheduled June 15-16, 2021, in Nashville.

But Uth wrote the officers were “gladly and enthusiastically handing the planning and producing” of the 2021 Pastors’ Conference to the North American Mission Board, which would coordinate with the International Mission Board “to make it a NAMB/IMB SEND event.”

“This is for one year only,” Uth wrote, “but we believe in this unusual season a SEND event will unite us around our mission of taking the Gospel to the world.”

NAMB president Kevin Ezell said NAMB would be “honored to produce a SEND event for the 2021 Pastors’ Conference in Nashville and to work with our friends at IMB to present it. This is a great way for Southern Baptists to come together after such a unique and challenging year. Missions has always unified us. This will kick off our annual meeting in an incredibly positive way.”

Uth said First Baptist Orlando would retain financial responsibility for the 2021 Pastors’ Conference, including securing sponsorships to cover expenses. In his continuing role as president, Uth would preside over business sessions for the 2021 Pastors’ Conference.

“I was looking forward to a great 2020 pastors’ conference and to having many of you come see us in Orlando,” Uth said in the statement. “Our church was equally excited to welcome and serve our SBC pastors. I’m sad that won’t happen, but I take joy in knowing God will use this experience to make us stronger.”