In an impassioned address to Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission trustees, ERLC President Brent Leatherwood declared, “The Gospel demands, and justice requires, we take up the cause for innocent life whenever it is imperiled.”
Drawing comparison between challenges faced in 1968 and the present, Leatherwood cited the Southern Baptist Convention’s 1968 Statement Concerning the Crisis in Our Nation,
“Words will not suffice; the time has come for action,” he said, before outlining the ways that “we are not well as a society.”
The trustees gathered Sept. 12-13 at ERLC offices in Nashville to hear from organizational leaders, elect the first Black chairperson of their board and advance strategic priorities during their biannual meeting
They also welcomed nine new board members – the largest group of new trustees in recent years.
Kevin Smith elected
Significantly, the ERLC trustees unanimously voted to elect Kevin Smith as the group’s new chairperson. Smith is the first Black chairperson in the history of the entity.
Smith serves as pastor of Family Church Village in West Palm Beach, Fla., and has been on the ERLC board since 2018.
“Over the last two years, our entity has been blessed by the leadership of Chairwoman Lori Bova,” said ERLC President Brent Leatherwood. “She’s been a constant source of wisdom and encouragement, and we are grateful for her time as chair. Our board has now turned over the gavel to Kevin Smith, a pastor with deep ties in SBC life, who personally understands the importance of cooperation as a Baptist distinctive. I am thrilled to work with him and our new executive committee in this upcoming season.”
Gun violence ‘grieves the heart of our Lord’
Social issues such as gender confusion, sexual assault, abortion, deaths of despair, the breakdown of local communities, and racial division are all evidence that we live in “a culture that increasingly views life as diminished and disposable,” Leatherwood said.
The ERLC president then brought attention to another crisis of our time: mass shootings.
“Gun deaths are now the leading cause of death for children under 18 in the U.S.,” Leatherwood said.
The matter of mass shootings and the work of finding solutions toward their end are deeply personal to Leatherwood, whose three children were at Nashville’s Covenant School when a former student shot her way into the school, killing three students and three adults on March 27, 2023.
Leatherwood underscored his commitment to addressing the issue “because the child gunned down in Chicago grieves the heart of our Lord just as much as the child who is annihilated in the hallway of a small private Christian school in Nashville.”
“Our messengers have spoken to this issue,” he said, “and I intend to begin down the path guided by their words. For they demanded leaders at the federal, state, and local level to ‘take concrete steps toward solutions’ that respect our rights and ‘minimize the threat of gun violence throughout our society.’”
Strategic priorities and initiatives
Miles Mullin, ERLC vice president and chief of staff, presented the organization’s 2023-2024 strategic priorities during a plenary session, which were met with the board’s approval. They include:
- Fortify relationships with partners, with priority given to Baptist partners.
- Provide resources to help churches and Christians thrive in a tumultuous culture.
- Actively pursue additional sources of revenue in order to enhance our capacity to fulfill our ministry assignment.
- Bolster the ERLC’s brand awareness in SBC circles and beyond.
- Maintain a team culture where every employee thrives professionally and personally.
In the research and public policy committee, Hannah Daniel, ERLC policy manager, outlined priorities in the months ahead, such as:
- Engage in state issues at the invitation and in partnership with Baptist state conventions.
- Continue to track and respond to developments in the abortion pill case.
- Pursue expanded protections for life and religious liberty in government spending bills.
Rachel Wiles, director of the Psalm 139 Project and deputy chief of staff, gave a report on the work of The Psalm 139 Project to the full board and described what they are learning about the varied abortion landscape in our nation.
“Pregnancy resource centers around the country are doing remarkable, life-saving work, and they are truly the heroes of the pro-life movement,” Wiles said.
New bylaws approved
A workgroup made up of three trustees, ERLC General Counsel Palmer Williams, and an outside counsel proposed an updated version of the organization’s guiding document to the full board after a year-long review process.
Workgroup member Scott Foshie of Illinois and Williams addressed the group to provide insight into the revision process and the nature of the more substantive changes.
The portions of the revised bylaws focused on the relationship between the president and the board, simplifying access to financial information and clarifying what areas of decision making require full board participation.
Trustee Jonathan Whitehead of Missouri brought to the board two proposed amendments for the bylaws to address concerns that he felt existed. After much discussion, both of Whitehead’s amendments were defeated.
Kevin Smith, then trustee vice chair, said in conclusion, “This Commission has a very honorable track record on fiduciary issues, and a lot of it has to do with that gentleman right there,” as he gestured to Bobby Reed, the organization’s chief financial officer.
The administrative and finance committee reported to the board that the ERLC is in a position of financial stability with a large amount of reserves. The full board approved an operating budget for 2023-2024 of over $3.4 million. The committee also recommended and the board approved use of a portion of reserve funds for future legal fees, strategic priorities, and investments.
In addition to the vote to elect Smith, a new executive committee was unanimously approved. The slate of officers is as follows:
- Kevin Smith, chairperson
- Tony Beam, vice chair
- Amy Pettway, secretary
- Michael Guyer, chair of the communications committee
- Anthony Cox, chair of the research & public policy committee
- Nathan Lugbill, chair of the administrative & finance committee