Fred Luter poised to become first African-American head of Southern Baptists

June 19, 2012

Messengers or representatives from churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant group, elected the first African-American president for the 167-year-old denomination.

Delegates are meeting in New Orleans, the hometown of the Rev. Fred Luter, Jr., who “has already served as the first African-American in various leadership positions within the convention, including as its current first vice president,” Reuters reported Tuesday morning.

Luter, pastor of the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, heads one of an estimated 3,400 black churches in the denomination.

“In 1995, the SBC apologized for its history and pledged to bring more minorities into leadership in the nation's largest Protestant denomination,” USA Today reported Tuesday. “Past President Frank Page reiterated that pledge Tuesday before the election of Luter, who was unopposed.”

“Electing Fred will send a great message to the church and the world,” Robert West, pastor of that Memphis congregation called One Faith Fellowship Baptist Church, told the Commercial Appealbefore the election.

West, who has known Luter more than 25 years, said the expected vote sends a message “that the Southern Baptist Convention is serious about racial reconciliation.”

“It was not on my bucket list, so to speak, but I think God ordained this because of the fact that what we’re dealing with right now through the convention is trying to make the convention diverse,” Luter told the Baptist Press in February about his nomination. “I think this will speak not only to our convention but to our country and throughout the world that this convention is serious about reaching all people.”

Luter’s election comes at a time when the denomination aims for greater participation among non-white members. The Southern Baptist Convention, headquartered in Nashville, has more than 45,700 churches and about 16 million members.

“Bill Leonard, an expert in Baptist history at Wake Forest University School of Divinity, said some other denominations have been much more intentional about diversity. The American Baptist Churches USA in the 1970s added quotas for ethnic groups in its denominational leadership,” the Associated Press reported Monday.

“Such a system would likely not be accepted by the Southern Baptists. A recent poll of SBC pastors conducted by the denomination’s Lifeway Research found that 10 percent of respondents disagreed with the statement, ‘Without regard to any individual, I think it would be a good thing to have an African-American as president of the Southern Baptist Convention,’” AP reported.

“Lifeway Research President Ed Stetzer said at least some of those negatives are likely from people who believe that race should not be a factor in choosing a president,” the Associated Press reported. “But faced with declining membership, Stetzer believes the 16-million strong Nashville-based denomination will have to be deliberate about its efforts to diversify.”

Hours before the vote, many expressed optimism about the impact of a Luter presidency.

“The #SBC12 is still a sea of white faces. Praying Fred Luter’s election will encourage wider participation among non-Anglo Baptists,” tweeted Nathan Finn, an elder at First Baptist Church in Durham, N.C., and a professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

“Historic day dawns in New Orleans. Fred Luter, one of our terrific pastors, will be elected President of the SBC. 1st African American pres!” tweeted New Orleans Baptist Seminary President Charles “Chuck” Kelley.

In addition to voting for president, delegates will also consider adopting a new name, Great Commission Baptists, which refers to Matthew 28:16-20 in which Jesus commanded his disciples to spread the word from Galilee to throughout the world.

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