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ERLC trustees OK senior staff additions, award recipients

ERLC trustee A.B. Vines, pastor of New Seasons Church, in Spring Valley, Calif., raises his hand to ask a question in a session. Photo by Kevin Miller

NASHVILLE (BP) – Trustees of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission approved additions to the senior staff and recipients of two annual awards in the mid-year meeting of the Southern Baptist entity’s board.

The ERLC’s trustees conducted business Monday and Tuesday (March 20 and 21) before and after the installation of Brent Leatherwood as the ninth president in the commission’s history. The board had unanimously elected him to the post in its annual meeting in September.

ERLC President Brent Leatherwood presides over a spring trustee meeting March 21, one day after his installation to the role. Photo by Kevin Miller

Elected as senior staff members were Julie Masson as director of communications and Rachel Wiles as deputy chief of staff. Masson has been serving as the ERLC’s director of external engagement. Wiles has been serving as executive assistant to the president and director of placement for the ERLC’s Psalm 139 Project.

The trustees also approved the recommendations of O.S. and Susie Hawkins to receive the Richard Land Distinguished Service Award and Rushan Abbas for the John Leland Religious Liberty Award.

O.S. Hawkins, president emeritus of GuideStone Financial Resources, led that Southern Baptist entity for 25 years. Susie Hawkins’ ministry includes serving on the board of the Lifesavers Foundation, a pro-life organization in Dallas. As executive director of the Campaign for Uyghurs, Abbas advocates for a primarily Muslim ethnic group targeted in a genocidal campaign by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The ERLC board also received updates from its newly installed president and other staff members.

Leatherwood told the trustees he is “excited about the work that we are doing and the ways that we are beginning to refashion ourselves as the ERLC.”

The commission “has begun to initiate a real change in philosophy in the way that we are engaging in the public square,” Leatherwood said of his administration. Seeking the communication of “a solid and consistent message” by the ERLC, Leatherwood said there are “things that we want to talk about, things that we want to point our pastors’, our churches’, our constituencies’ attention to as opposed to being driven to whatever might be in the news cycle at a given time.”

The ERLC will have an “increased focus on research and church engagement,” he said. The attention to research will serve those in the commission’s audience “who do want to go deeper,” Leatherwood said.

ERLC Vice President and Chief of Staff Miles Mullin (left) and ERLC President Brent Leatherwood attend the March 21 meeting of ERLC trustees. Photo by Kevin Miller

“I want us to be closely tethered to our churches, and I want us to speak where our churches have spoken,” Leatherwood said. He desires “to formulate a plan and eventually a team to make sure we are continually engaged” with Southern Baptist churches, he told the trustees.

The ERLC partnered with some Baptist state conventions to issue a state policy review March 15.

“What we hope to do next year is actually an agenda very much like what we do at the federal level, again in partnership with our states but providing it at the beginning of the legislative session to help legislators [and] say, ‘This is something we think you should be pushing for,’ or ‘This is something we think you should be opposing,’” Leatherwood said.

The ERLC will continue its efforts to address sexual abuse and promote racial unity, he told the trustees.

The commission has maintained conversations with the SBC’s Abuse Response Implementation Task Force about ways the ERLC can support its work, Leatherwood said. The ERLC and the Unify Project will jointly host an event June 12 on the first evening of the SBC meeting in New Orleans to consider the pursuit of true racial unity, he said.

In updates regarding the previous six months, the trustees were told by staff members:

  • The Psalm 139 Project reached its goal of 50 ultrasound machine placements in pregnancy resource centers by what would have been January’s 50th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. It has placed 15 machines since September and is in the process of placing four more, including one in Illinois, which has become a destination state for women seeking abortions.
  • The ERLC’s end-of-year giving campaign set a goal of $100,000 for Psalm 139 placements, especially in abortion destination states, and raised more than $168,000.
  • The Hyde Amendment and other pro-life riders on annual spending bills in Congress survived at the end of 2022, and the ERLC has given significant attention to contesting proposed Biden administration regulations, including one that would weaken conscience protections and another that would burden the rights of faith-based organizations that participate in government programs.
  • “The Digital Public Square: Christian Ethics in a Technological Society” – a book edited by Jason Thacker, the ERLC’s chair of research in technology ethics – was released in February as the last in a four-set series of resources. 
  • The ERLC’s financial state is strong with nearly nine months of reserves, no debts and spending under budget each month.

In recommending the addition of Masson and Wiles to the senior staff, Leatherwood said both “have shown themselves to be incredibly capable leaders who love” the ERLC’s work.

Masson, who has served at the ERLC since 2016, “is uniquely qualified for this role because she gets innately what I’m driving at when I say I want us to be aligned in all of our communication platforms,” he told the board.

Wiles, who has been on the commission’s staff for nearly 18 years, “has an incredibly rich institutional knowledge that we want to take advantage of, and she has the trust of the entire team,” Leatherwood said.

Wiles will continue in her role with the Psalm 139 Project.

The Distinguished Service Award is presented for outstanding contributions to Christian social ethics, while the Religious Liberty Award goes to someone who has championed religious freedom. Land served as the ERLC’s president from 1988 to 2013. Leland was a Baptist pastor in Colonial America who was instrumental in helping secure religious freedom in the Constitution’s First Amendment.

Of O.S. and Susie Hawkins, Leatherwood said they “have just been incredible voices that have added to the rich history in the SBC.”

O.S. Hawkins was GuideStone’s president from 1997 to 2022 after serving as pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and three other Southern Baptist churches during the previous 25 years. The proceeds and royalties of his more than 40 books go to Mission:Dignity, a GuideStone ministry to help support Southern Baptist pastors and their widows in their retirement.

He received the John Leland Religious Liberty Award in 2016 for his leadership in GuideStone’s legal challenge of the Obama administration’s abortion-contraception mandate.

Susie Hawkins is “truly one of the unsung heroes in SBC life,” Leatherwood said. “And she is equally deserving of this award, frankly, on her own merit.”

The Lifesavers Foundation, which she serves as a board member, assists families in crisis with free mobile health care. In addition to being an author, she helped found the Widow’s Might ministry that prays for the SBC’s entities.

Abbas, a Uyghur American, helped found the Campaign for Uyghurs in 2017 and has continued to advocate for the oppressed people group. Her sister, a retired doctor, was detained in 2018 six days after Abbas took part in a panel at a Washington, D.C., think tank and remains in prison.

The CCP’s efforts against the Uyghurs in western China have included forced labor, widespread detention in “re-education” camps and a coercive population control program of abortion and sterilization.

Messengers to the SBC’s 2021 meeting resoundingly adopted a resolution that condemned the CCP’s oppression of the Uyghurs and called for the U.S. government to take “concrete actions” to end the genocide. The SBC became the first Christian faith group to denounce China’s campaign against the Uyghurs as genocide.

The Campaign for Uyghurs partnered with the ERLC and other organizations in successfully urging enactment in late 2021 of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which bans the importation of goods made by forced labor in China. Abbas also spoke during an ERLC-hosted webinar prior to the 2022 Winter Olympics in China about the CCP’s genocidal campaign.

Abbas became the first Muslim selected for the award. The Religious Liberty Award has gone in the past to non-Baptists and non-Protestants. Among these have been Russian Orthodox priest Gleb Yakunin in 1994 and Catholics such as New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York (2012) and the Little Sisters of the Poor (2017).

In response to trustee questions, Leatherwood said he thinks giving the award to Abbas “is very consistent with” the SBC’s 2021 resolution. Some Uyghurs are Christians, he added.

“[I]t’s always the right time to affirm people who are standing up for religious liberty,” he told the trustees. “And in that sense, I think it’s consistent with the Baptist Faith and Message to link arms with anyone of good will who is doing good work, and I think they are doing good work in this sense.”

The Baptist Faith and Message is the SBC’s confession of faith.

In other actions:

  • A bylaws workgroup of board members issued a report. Speaking by video, Scott Foshie of Illinois said the workgroup has been considering such issues as the relationship between the president and the board, increasing trustee committee involvement in oversight and full board participation in choosing the trustees’ nominating committee. The workgroup expects to offer some recommendations at the September meeting, Foshie said.
  • The trustees affirmed the appointment by Chair Lori Bova of these officers: Nathan Lugbill of Indiana, chairman, Administrative and Finance Committee; Michael Guyer of Michigan, chairman, Communications Committee; Anthony Cox of Arizona, chairman, Research and Public Policy Committee; and Tony Beam of South Carolina, secretary.
  • Three trustees were honored upon completion of their service to the ERLC: Trevor Atwood of Tennessee; Roger Manao of Pennsylvania/South Jersey; and Mike Wilson of Ohio. Also rotating off the board but unable to attend the meeting were Justin Sampler of Oklahoma and Juan Sanchez of Texas.
  • Leatherwood recognized Thacker, who will begin serving in June as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College, the undergraduate arm of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. “[I]n many ways, he has been a pioneering voice in the world,” particularly in digital ethics, Leatherwood said. “[H]e’s going to further his journey in ethics and become a great voice for Baptist ethics in the years to come.”