LAKELAND, Fla. (BP)–In a rare contested race, messengers to the Florida Baptist State Convention elected a president by the slimmest of margins, heard Southern Baptist Convention President Johnny Hunt and honored their executive director-treasurer for his 20 years of leadership during their 147th annual meeting in Lakeland Nov. 10-11.
A total of 1,336 messengers and 469 visitors attended the meeting at First Baptist Church at the Mall in Lakeland.
John Cross, 45, pastor of South Biscayne Church in North Port, was elected president of the Florida Baptist State Convention by 12 votes.
Promoted as addressing the “elephant in the room” of diminishing involvement by younger pastors, Cross was elected with 357 votes over 345 cast for Richard Powell, 49, senior pastor of McGregor Baptist Church in Fort Myers, who until Nov. 9 was expected to be unopposed. The election marked the first contested election for president in the state convention since 1999.
Cross, pastor of the nearly 3,000-member congregation since 1990, said he had been encouraged by others to run for office for several years.
“There’s a desire to lead our convention like never before to be very intentional about sharing God’s love with our state in very innovative and creative ways, and I think this was on the front burner of a lot of people’s minds,” Cross said in a news conference after the election.
During his convention sermon which followed the announcement of the election results, Powell, who has been at McGregor, a congregation of 7,800, since 1999, admitted, “This is just a little bit awkward.”
Joking about having the “hanging chads recounted,” Powell stopped laughing after making an analogy between Cross’ name and the cross of Christ.
“I don’t want anyone to ever say that Florida Baptists voted 50 percent for the cross,” Powell said. “So I want you to join me as Florida Baptists and join me in getting behind our new Florida president, John Cross. I want us to be 100 percent behind the cross in the days to come.”
Tim Passmore, pastor of Woodland-The Community Church in Bradenton, nominated Cross, citing his “passion for evangelism” and his leadership at South Biscayne, which he said included 4,000 people being baptized since Cross began there — and 506 last year.
Tommy Green, pastor of First Baptist Church in Brandon, in nominating Powell, noted Powell is pastor of a church with a “Great Commission heartbeat” which has a “very balanced” approach to evangelism and missions.
Powell has led McGregor to be among the leading churches in baptisms both in the state and the nation, averaging 250-300 baptisms per year, Green said. He also noted Powell’s commitment to the Cooperative Program which resulted in his church’s giving more than $800,000 in 2007, to place them in the top two in CP giving in the state.
Cross is eligible for re-election to a second one-year term.
Messengers unanimously elected the remaining slate of uncontested officers: Wayne Briant, pastor of Southside Baptist Church in Sarasota, vice president; Gail Adams, a member of First Baptist Church in Terra Ceia, second vice president; and Randy Huckabee, pastor of First Baptist Church in Okeechobee, recording secretary.
Nine women in Florida Baptist State Convention history have been elected to serve as second vice president, but only one, Virginia Parker in 1974, ever ascended to the presidency.
Johnny Hunt, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of the Atlanta-area First Baptist Church in Woodstock, cited Psalm 119 to exhort listeners to “lead and pray with the end in mind.” He explained, “The victorious Christian life is a continuous series of new beginnings.”
Other than the contested presidential race, the convention’s business was relatively quiet. No miscellaneous business or resolutions were introduced by messengers.
A 2009 Cooperative Program budget of $39,154,265 — representing a .84 percent decrease from last year’s revised budget — was approved without discussion. The 2008 budget, approved by messengers to last year’s annual meeting, was trimmed by $1.5 million in February to offset a 2007 budget shortfall.
At that point, portions of the budged earmarked for state missions causes, state entities and institutions, and the Southern Baptist Convention Cooperative Program funded programs were reduced. The CP budget next year will distribute monies in a 60-40 split in a manner similar to last year’s division — 60 percent will remain in the state to fund Florida Baptists’ program of missions and ministries and 40 percent will be designated to the Southern Baptist Convention to underwrite worldwide and national mission causes.
Messengers also heard a report from an ad-hoc Cooperative Program study committee that was created by the State Board of Missions in response to an action by messengers at last year’s annual meeting in Daytona Beach authorizing a study of the state’s Cooperative Program division to determine if more could be sent to national and international causes.
In recommending that no change be made to the current CP division, study committee chairman Tim Maynard, pastor of Fruit Cove Baptist Church in Jacksonville, explained that Florida Baptists are funding specific ministries beyond most other SBC state conventions — church planting, theological education and missions investments in Cuba and Haiti.
Additionally, he noted, John Sullivan, Florida Baptists’ executive director-treasurer, had held listening sessions in 43 of the state’s 49 associations and found “no voice to split CP funds in a 50/50 distribution.”
While the committee recommended no change, Maynard suggested that more needed to be done to promote the Cooperative Program and Florida Baptist ministries.
“We believe in the Cooperative Program, and I do not believe there is a state convention anywhere that believes in it more intensively,” Maynard said.
Sullivan, the longest-tenured state executive in the SBC’s old line states, was recognized for his two decades of service with a special video recounting the convention’s accomplishments since his arrival on Feb. 9, 1989. These included: giving $574 million through the Cooperative Program; starting 2,331 new churches; deploying 337,047 volunteers; establishing nine theological education centers where 1,500 students currently study; and baptizing 608,049 new believers.
In the presentation, Don McLaughlin, president of the State Board of Missions, equated Sullivan with three biblical men of faith — Daniel, the prophet statesman; David, the shepherd executive leader; and Paul, the passionate visionary.
“For 20 years you have led us with compassion, strength and integrity; in biblical fidelity, Baptist polity and brotherly love,” McLaughlin said. “We thank God in heaven for the Jesus we see in you.”
Prior to the annual meeting, Crossover Lakeland events in five venues resulted in 129 professions of faith in Christ. Six of the new converts reached through the Compassion House to the needy were baptized in a portable baptistery in the parking lot of the host church, FBC at the Mall.
McLaughlin also thanked Florida Baptists for supporting Florida’s Marriage Protection Amendment. He introduced messengers to John Stemberger, head of Yes2Marriage.org, and the president of Florida Family Policy Council.
“I’m not a Southern Baptist, but I’m the biggest fan of Southern Baptists,” Stemberger said, citing appreciation for Orlando pastor Clayton Cloer and Florida Baptists’ legislative consultant, Bill Bunkley, among others who he said were instrumental in getting the word out about the importance of the amendment. He also noted that Jay Dennis’ resolution at the 2004 annual meeting calling for a marriage amendment triggered the effort.
“Jim Smith is the only fair and balanced reporter in this state,” Stemberger added, to laughter, naming the executive editor of Florida Baptist Witness, the state newspaper which produced 78 articles related to the issue.
“There is no earthly way possible this could have happened without you,” Stemberger told the convention. “Florida Baptists have been there the entire way.”
Next year’s annual meeting will be Nov. 9-10 in Pensacola.
Barbara Denman is director of communications for the Florida Baptist Convention and Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness. With additional reporting by Margaret Dempsey.