GREENSBORO, N.C. (BP)–The final gavel at this year’s Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Greensboro, N.C., will mark the end of a two-year tenure for Bobby Welch, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla., and president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
It also might end an era of relative calm in the life of the convention dotted with uncontested presidential elections, predictable business sessions and waning attendance.
Cautious about this year’s June 13-14 meeting, Welch told the Florida Baptist Witness May 28 it’s too early to tell whether the convention will falter in light of a highly contested presidential election amidst a debate about Cooperative Program support — which Welch said could be healthy in spite of causing some to “wiggle” a bit.
“The convention stands at an opportunity,” Welch said. “It can go on and capitalize on what we have seen over the last two years as possibilities of people uniting, getting excited about reaching people — or we can allow this to be given away to … personal preferences and political agendas that are contrary to the good of the whole and for the sake of the Kingdom and lost souls.”
Welch has declined to endorse anyone for the office because as current SBC president he will moderate the annual meeting during the election process.
“I am willing to trust the Lord and this convention,” Welch said, hastening to add, “I do have an opinion, a very honest opinion, [although] I am not campaigning for or against anybody.” As to whether other SBC leaders should support a nominee — as in the case of three of the SBC seminary presidents — Welch said, “… [T]hey’re not infallible, but they got to where they are by trying to do what’s right, and they’re all men of strong commitment. I might not feel comfortable in [declaring support for a candidate], but apparently they do and they’ll have to stand by that.”
Paige Patterson of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, R. Albert Mohler Jr. of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Daniel Akin of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary have indicated their support of Ronnie Floyd, pastor of First Baptist Church in Springdale, Ark. The other two candidates for SBC president are Frank Page, pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., and Jerry Sutton, pastor of Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn.
Reiterating his support for the Cooperative Program, Welch said he is “unwavering” on his church’s commitment to continue to give about 15 percent or more of their weekly offerings through Southern Baptists’ channel of support for state, national and international missions.
“My Cooperative Program giving is a commitment out of our heart and our church’s heart,” Welch said. “That’s important to me and I don’t intend to change that.”
Welch said there are two other important considerations when looking at potential SBC presidential nominees and the churches they lead.
Participation in evangelism, the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions, should be considered, as well as involvement in the state and association, Welch said.
He emphasized, however, that First Baptist in Daytona Beach supports the Cooperative Program through the Florida Baptist Convention — “and I do believe that’s the best way to do it and I’m committed to that.” But, giving “credit where credit is due,” Welch said it would be “disingenuous to criticize anybody on one thing and not be willing to give credit on another.”
Welch added that although CP “may not be everything … it is everything to a lot of people,” including missionaries and seminaries. “It is not just an option to those people,” he said.
Putting the impetus on pastors and leaders of local churches, directors of missions of Baptist associations, state executives and their staffs and national leaders, Welch said it is up to them to “make CP efforts so challenging” that they would “champion” the CP in such a way that people feel compelled to give.
Welch said his nominations for who will serve on the SBC Committee on Committees is an indication of his willingness to look at factors other than CP giving in a nominee’s church. Holding up a sheaf of papers, Welch said the average CP giving of nominee churches is 11 percent across the board — with the highest at 17.6 percent and the lowest, 3 percent. Last year it was 12 percent, he said.
“Nobody is making this a litmus test, but we are paying attention,” Welch said. “When [prospective committee nominees] were interviewed, they were asked, ‘What is your CP giving?’ That was a part [of the process]. No apologies. And if I had two more years of being president, we would ask them again.”
Looking ahead to the meeting in Greensboro, Welch said the single most important issue he believes Southern Baptists should be focused on is “finding God’s man” to lead the North American Mission Board.
Though other issues may surface, Welch said NAMB “articulates and defines” what the SBC believes “theologically and practically” about evangelism. “If we don’t get that nailed down and straightened out soon,” he said, “we will have deeper problems than we have now.”
Welch said he believes it is imperative that NAMB’s new leader be one who is already recognized for proven leadership in evangelism.
As for tensions at the International Mission Board and a trustee call for an inquiry into various trustee practices, Welch said he believes both NAMB and the IMB will move on to “even higher ground” despite “thrashing around” in light of questions concerning trustees’ leadership.
“IMB is a direct recipient of the good, bad and indifferent that comes out of this nation and this convention and NAMB is the heartbeat of America when it comes to evangelism and this convention,” Welch said. “So, however this heart beats, that’s how these oversees branches and limbs of the body move.”
The times ahead, Welch said, present Southern Baptists with an unprecedented opportunity to make advances in Kingdom work.
“We cannot squander it,” Welch emphasized, admitting there is “no doubt that we have among us people who, for personal gain or personal agendas, seem to have the propensity for keeping trouble in the air.” Comparing the times to a period in his childhood when he lived next to neighbors with a dog who kept “bringing up stinking things,” Welch said it always took time to find the frogs, snakes, rats, rabbits and squirrels the animal hid — and many times that meant “inevitably you end up getting some of that on you.”
“… [W]e cannot spend all of our time focused on everything that is not perfect,” Welch said. “We cannot just collapse and cave in every time we come across some inconsistency or something’s wrong….
“We need to trust our entity heads and our leadership to deal with that and move on. The thing that again and again and again distracts us is that we all cave in and run to the stink and the press goes ahead and behind trying to keep us on it and we get off the main thing.
“We have got to act more spiritually sophisticated when it comes to our strategy to move ahead,” Welch said.
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, newsjournal of the Florida Baptist Convention, on the Web at www.floridabaptistwitness.com.