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Draper: Natural transfer of SBC leadership no longer certain

THOMPSON STATION, Tenn. (BP)–During his third face-to-face meeting with younger Southern Baptist leaders across the nation, James T. Draper Jr. said he realizes his generation cannot assume a natural transfer of power will occur like it has within the convention in the past.

“There has always been a need to include younger leaders and to transfer passion and vision to those who come behind us, and that’s not always an easy thing to do. It’s harder today,” Draper told a group at Thompson Station Baptist Church just south of Nashville, Tenn., March 3.

“When I grew up, it was natural to be Southern Baptist. That’s all I knew. We didn’t have all these options,” said Draper, president of LifeWay Christian Resources, who initiated the dialogue series.

But now, young people enjoy a vast array of conferences, retreats, seminars, curriculum and other resources. And a good number of those are solid even though they’re not Southern Baptist, Draper said.

“The bottom line is, I don’t believe we can assume that leadership is going to transfer naturally like it has in the past. I think it has to be more intentional.”

Draper began to focus on the denomination’s next generation of leaders last year after expressing to messengers at the SBC annual meeting in Indianapolis his concern over the growing distance between current convention leadership and younger leaders — often categorized as age 45 and younger.

He is in the process of holding several informal sessions to listen to the opinions of emerging leaders and work toward improving relationships for the future. In each session, the younger leaders spend a couple of hours in small groups brainstorming solutions to problems that have been raised on the website Draper set up for discussion, www.lifeway.com/youngerleaders. Then they have time to speak directly to Draper and hear his responses.

“I have no agenda. This is your meeting,” Draper said before the brainstorming began March 3. “I have an incredible appreciation for your generation. I believe that you are the sharpest, most disciplined, most passionate generation I’ve ever seen. You’re willing to go to the hard places, and your dreams have made an impact by penetrating the darkness.”

Draper also reminded those in attendance that as leaders of local churches, they are at the “pinnacle of Southern Baptist life”; to him, there is no greater privilege than to serve at a local Baptist church.

“We believe deeply that Baptist headquarters is the local Baptist church,” he said. “The denomination exists to serve you. My job is to help you succeed. If you don’t succeed, I don’t succeed.”

After the younger leaders discussed issues among themselves for a while, some of them asked questions of Draper directly. Kevin Shrum, pastor of Inglewood Baptist Church in Nashville, told Draper his father is Draper’s age and part of the generation that helped build “this wonderful behemoth” now known as the Southern Baptist Convention, complete with six seminaries, two mission boards and other entities.

“What he’s wanting to do now is give it to me,” Shrum said. “I’m deciding whether I want it or not.”

Shrum asked Draper to advise younger leaders on what he would do if he were in their position, being offered leadership of a strong convention but unsure of how to make it relevant to their generation.

“I’d take it. Then I’d make the changes I think ought to be made,” Draper said. “That’s what some of us tried to do in 1979 [by starting the conservative resurgence]. We saw some problems…. There were some changes that had to be made, and it cost a lot to make those changes. And it’s going to cost you.”

Because he stood for changes that were often unpopular, Draper said he lost some of his best friends. He also saw families torn apart over doctrinal issues, and the fight was hard. But it was worth it.

“I know I’m in the last section of my life and the best of my energy and time is behind me,” he said. “But you all have that in front of you. So ask God how to use the incredible energy you have to stand for the changes. They won’t come easy. Southern Baptist life is like any organism — you try to change it and it’s going to resist. That’s just the way it is.

“What I want to say to you is it won’t be easy because there will be enough of my generation who will hang around long enough to give you fits. But there will be enough of us, hopefully, who will be around to encourage you and say, ‘Hang in there. It’s worth the struggle,'” Draper said. “You have to understand we are not handing you a self-contained cylinder that can’t be changed.”

The local Southern Baptist church is autonomous, Draper reminded the leaders, and its simple system of polity means any messenger can stand up at an annual meeting and make any motion he or she pleases, and if seconded, it could be approved.

“It’s a lot easier to say, ‘I don’t need that.’ It’s a lot easier to say, ‘I’m just going to win my community to Christ. I’m just going to focus on Inglewood.’ That’s great, but the Great Commission is still the Great Commission. The world is still lost,” Draper said after emphasizing that the SBC’s strong theological educational system and mission-sending organizations rank among the best in the world.

“I say take it and make it what you want it to be.”

Other younger leaders present at the dialogue in Thompson Station suggested churches consider allowing more young people to participate in SBC annual meetings by blocking off a certain portion of the church’s messengers for leaders ages 25 to 35. Often, older church leaders take all of the allotted messenger spots before younger members have a chance to sign up.

Another issue involved mentoring, and one younger leader said he would like to have more opportunities to be mentored by older pastors or convention leaders. Draper said he’s not aware of a meeting of entity trustees that is not open to any Southern Baptists who want to observe, and he encouraged them to attend an Executive Committee meeting or a LifeWay trustee meeting to see how they operate.

Keith Mowery, pastor of Tusculum Baptist Church in Greeneville, Tenn., said he thought the session with Draper was worth his time and worth driving 300 miles to share his viewpoint.

“I think without a doubt it’s worth the effort on [LifeWay’s] part. It’s worth the effort on my part and the church’s part for allowing me to be gone and to come and represent them — not only to represent myself as a young leader but to represent the church that I serve,” Mowery told Baptist Press.

Based on what Mowery has read about Draper’s two previous meetings with younger leaders and the comments posted to the website’s discussion board, he thinks the opinions are being taken seriously, though he is not yet sure how those perspectives will be implemented within the convention.

“I think we’ve been challenged to take it and mold it as the previous generation has done. We’ve got to take it up ourselves. We can’t let the past victories be all that there is,” Mowery said. “I tell our folks that our dreams have to be bigger than our memories, and I think that’s what we were challenged to do here.”

The next younger leaders dialogue will be March 10 at Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas.

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  • Erin Curry