Editor’s note: Matt Henslee is president of the 2022 SBC Pastors’ Conference, scheduled for June 12-13 in Anaheim, Calif.
FARMERSVILLE, Texas (BP) – This weekend, flights filled with pastors and their families from all over the country will land in California. They’ll grab rental cars or book Ubers to make their way to the Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference for two days of encouragement and edification. As they do, I thought it would be helpful to look back at the history of our legendary conference, give a taste of what to expect Sunday and Monday, and look ahead at our future.
Much of what I’ve learned about the history of the SBC Pastors’ Conference came from either attending them in person or Gerald Martin’s Sir, We Would See Jesus. The latter was a much better help as I’ve only been able to participate since 2017, and the story of our conference goes back to 1935.
In a brief article on Dr. David Allen’s website, Allen notes, “Dr. M. E. Dodd, pastor of First Baptist Church, Shreveport, La., for forty years (1912-1952) founded the Southern Baptist Convention’s Pastors’ Conference in 1935 and served as its chairman (president) for fifteen years. Herschel Hobbs succeeded him and became president in 1950, serving for two years.”
Allen also noted that C.C. Warren and Ramsey Pollard, both past presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention, succeeded Dodd and Hobbs with two-year terms each until 1956, which is when the Pastors’ Conference began to see one-year terms – a tradition that continues to this day.
In Allen’s look at our history, he quoted Dodd on the purpose of the SBC Pastors’ Conference: “[The Pastors’ Conference] could prepare a fine atmosphere for the Southern Baptist Convention.” In a letter written after his 15-year tenure, Dodd wrote, “In method it was to be a conference and not a convention. It would deal definitely with pastors’ problems, spiritual, missionary, evangelistic, doctrinal, practical.”
More often than not, the SBC Pastors’ Conference president has been the pastor of a large church near or in the host city. For example, David Uth, pastor of First Baptist Orlando, was set to be the president when the annual meeting was to be in Orlando, but a global pandemic canceled the conference and the 2020 meeting, and Uth was responsible for the conference in Nashville the following year. Previously, Danny Wood, pastor of Shades Mountain Baptist in Birmingham, served as president of the conference in Birmingham in 2019.
However, there have been exceptions, like Dave Miller, pastor of Southern Hills Baptist in Sioux City, Iowa, who served as the president of the Pastors’ Conference held in Phoenix. Miller is a small-church pastor and took a unique approach to the conference by filling the preacher slots with fellow small-church pastors and going through an entire book of the Bible, Philippians.
Eighty-seven years strong, the legacy of the Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference, led without exception by Southern Baptist pastors, has carried on the vision of Dr. Dodd by encouraging pastors of all ages from all sizes of churches with faithful preaching.
Dodd’s vision continues this year with me at the helm. Like Dave Miller, I was pastoring a small church in the middle of nowhere when I was elected. My dad’s deteriorating health forced us to move closer to home, which is where I now serve as a preaching pastor at First Baptist Farmersville and associational missionary for the Collin Baptist Association.
I promised well over a year ago that if I were elected, we would select Southern Baptist pastors from a wide variety of backgrounds who affirm the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message and the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. There may not be anything spectacular about that, but I’ve long believed the best preachers in the country are largely unknown, and in the Southern Baptist Convention.
We listened to hundreds of sermons from nominated pastors and chose 12 pastors from churches of as few as 50 to as many as 2,600. Some you know, some you don’t. One is only about two years into pastoral ministry; one is retiring after over four decades and all look much like what we see any Sunday in the Southern Baptist Convention – church plants, replants, and established churches; urban, suburban and rural.
While each preacher has little to nothing in common beyond their commitment to Christ and the Southern Baptist Convention, they’re also faithful expositors, which was another promise I made. Knowing the bread and butter of a strong Pastors’ Conference is the preaching, I took a page from Dave Miller’s vision and promised that our preachers would preach verse by verse through a book of the Bible.
On Sunday and Monday, our 12 preachers will make their way through Colossians verse by verse, with the theme “We Proclaim Him.” Additionally, there will be six stand-alone homilies to, as Dodd visioned, “deal definitely with pastors’ problems, spiritual, missionary, evangelistic, doctrinal, practical.” We also have Matt Boswell, a church planter in Texas, and the Cowden Hall Band (made up of current Master’s level students at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) to lead in singing, and Robby Gallaty, a pastor from Tennessee, to lead in praying.
One final note, some may not know that the burden of funding the Pastors’ Conference falls squarely on the shoulders of the president. Over the past 12 months, I’ve worked tirelessly to fundraise every dollar we need ($350,000) so that every dollar we raise during the Pastors’ Conference can go to Mission:Dignity, a ministry of Guidestone that helps retired pastors and their widows. If you’re coming to the SBC Pastors’ Conference, come ready to give generously to those who paved the way for us!
I don’t know what the future holds for the Pastors’ Conference, but I know that I worked hard to carry on Dr. Dodd’s vision that has continued for almost nine decades. Without governing documents or guidelines, virtually every decision is under the purview of the current president. Traditionally, every nominee for and, without exception, every president elected was a Southern Baptist pastor.
Today, there are two announced candidates for president of the 2023 SBC Pastors’ Conference. One is Dr. Daniel Dickard, the pastor of Friendly Avenue Baptist in North Carolina, and Dr. Voddie Bauchum, a former Southern Baptist pastor and church planter who now serves as Dean of the School of Divinity at African Christian University in Lusaka, Zambia.
As president, I think it is best left up to Southern Baptist pastors to decide who will lead them next year. My earnest appeal is for everyone to lay down your arms and join us from Sunday at 4 p.m. to Monday at 9 p.m. because our team of Southern Baptist pastors has worked incredibly hard this year to line up great Southern Baptist preachers and song leaders to encourage and edify pastors. But if you can’t, we plan to hold the vote in the afternoon on Monday. The rules will be explained at the time by our parliamentarian, Craig Culbreth.
It is my prayer that a conference designed to unify us around our call to proclaim Christ will not be derailed by divisive behavior but lead us to devotedly follow hard with Christ after the lost. I also make a plea for all past presidents to work together on governing or guiding documents regarding eligibility for future SBC Pastors’ Conferences to be affirmed by Southern Baptist pastors, so future presidents don’t face difficult, unexpected decisions about who can run and how we vote.
Regardless of what the future holds for the Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference, I am chomping at the bit to see what God does in and through this year’s event. Whether you plan to attend or not, please pray for our team, our preachers, and everyone who will be in the room – expect great things from God as we aim to encourage pastors with biblical worship through preaching, singing, praying and giving. If you’re not able to attend, you can watch online at live.sbc.net.