Young Pastors Encouraged by Southern Baptist Election

By Adelle M. Banks
Religion News Service
Saturday, June 17, 2006

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- On the eve of this year's annual meeting of Southern Baptists, Micah Fries spoke of how he, as a 27-year-old pastor, often feels left out of the nation's largest Protestant denomination.

But with the presidential election of Frank Page, a self-described "normal" pastor, Fries and other young pastors and bloggers say they have greater hopes for inclusion.

"It's a whole new world," Fries, pastor of a St. Joseph, Mo., church, said Wednesday, the day after Page's election by a slim majority. "His arms are open. There's no small circle of leadership. There's no attempt to divide and conquer. He wants others to get involved."

The election of Page, 53, pastor of First Baptist Church of Taylors, S.C., is giving young leaders hope about their recent influence and their future involvement in the 16.2-million-member denomination. Some in the fledgling Baptist blogging community -- which gained prominence in the past year -- felt there was a narrowing focus on nonessential aspects of doctrine within Baptist ranks.

Page, at a news conference shortly after his election Tuesday, said: "I truly believe it is God's people who are saying we want to see a broadened involvement."

He won an unusual three-way race, getting a slim majority -- 50.48 percent -- of the vote; his opponents received about 24 percent each. About 11,000 delegates attended the two-day meeting.

International Mission Board trustee Wade Burleson -- like, Page, a relative unknown in the Southern Baptist Convention before this year -- and other bloggers attribute the election results to the ramped-up computer conversations. "These young men and women . . . got the word out," Burleson, 44, said of bloggers. "It's a new day."

They are pastors such as Benjamin S. Cole, 30, from Arlington, Tex., who helped draft the "Memphis Declaration," a document released last month that repented of "triumphalism" within Southern Baptist ranks.

"I think that younger conservatives walk away from Greensboro invigorated and enthusiastic about supporting the convention they love and preaching the Bible they believe and leading the world to Christ," he said.

Relatively young leaders -- often in their twenties and thirties but sometimes older -- are becoming a more forceful presence within the Southern Baptist Convention, differentiating themselves from the old guard that has long held the leadership posts within the denomination.

Although blogs are one key demonstration of their influence, there were signs in this year's annual meeting and preceding meetings that younger voices are being heard and changes are being made to accommodate them.

Burleson is one of the most prominent examples. The International Mission Board dropped its plans to remove him as a trustee for using his blog to criticize policies he felt focused on "nonessential doctrines." His phrase about "narrowing the parameters of cooperation" was almost a mantra for some of those who attended a Younger Leaders Summit in Greensboro on Monday.

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