Thousands of Baptists flocked here today for the annual convention of the nation's largest black religious organization as it begins the arduous task of restoring its good name after an embarrassing scandal that culminated in a prison sentence for its former leader, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons.

Eleven candidates are running for president of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., a post Lyons vacated in March after he was convicted of grand theft and racketeering. Lyons, 57, who is serving a 5 1/2-year sentence in a Florida prison, also pleaded guilty in the spring to federal tax evasion and fraud charges in connection with the theft of nearly $5 million intended for the Baptist group's coffers. Lyons's 4 1/2-year federal sentence is being served concurrently with his Florida sentence.

The dramatic fall of Lyons, once a powerful figure courted by business and political leaders, has added a sense of urgency to the Baptist group's upcoming election set for Thursday. A slew of candidates has emerged, running energetic campaigns. Some are hosting rallies. And their supporters are handing out colorful literature, pens, banners and other trinkets to what organizers said were an estimated 30,000 black Baptists in town for the convention.

Many of the candidates are promising to check the absolute power traditionally held by the group's president, which is cited as a key factor in Lyons's downfall.

"Our problem today is not a problem of one man's mistakes," said W. Franklyn Richardson, a Mount Vernon, N.Y., minister who has been harshly critical of Lyons and is considered a leading candidate to win Lyons's former post. "We must fix the presidency first. The presidency of the National Baptist Convention is a flawed institution. It is an imperialistic institution."

Richardson pointed out that the president of the Baptist organization, which claims the allegiance of 33,000 churches and 8.5 million members, serves as "chief executive officer, chief financial officer and chief operating officer." In addition, he said, the president appoints many of the group's board members, leaving him with absolute control of the organization.

"That's too much power for any one person to have," Richardson said during a rousing talk that more resembled a sermon than a campaign address during a candidates' forum today.

If elected, Richardson promised to hire a professional operating officer to oversee the organization's daily activities and a chief financial officer to keep its books.

Similarly, William J. Shaw, a Philadelphia minister who also is running for the top post, said the Lyons scandal exposed problems that run throughout the organization. The presidency is simply "the point of eruption," he said, for "a disease that invades the body."

Others, however, said the Baptist convention needs a restructuring less than it does trustworthy leadership. "The accountability is already in place," said the Rev. Stewart C. Cureton, a South Carolina minister who became interim president of the convention after Lyons resigned and is not running for election.

Roscoe D. Cooper Jr., a candidate from Richmond who was supportive of Lyons until his resignation, said, "It's a big lie to say our convention is in bad shape." Cooper, the group's general secretary, pointed out that under Lyons the loosely organized convention cleared some of its debt and made strides toward becoming a more cohesive and professionally run organization.

When Lyons was elected to a five-year term as convention president in 1994, he ran on a platform that stressed fiscal reform and open governance. He defeated Richardson and Shaw in that election and is credited by his supporters with being the first convention president to even make an attempt at offering written financial reports to the membership.

During Lyons's theft and racketeering trial, his attorneys argued that he merely followed a more than century-old tradition in his denomination by personally controlling the group's considerable finances and intermingling his personal money with convention funds.

E.V. Hill, a Los Angeles minister and self-proclaimed "very close friend" of Lyons who is running for convention president, credited Lyons with bringing energy and a broad vision to the convention. He also promised that if he were elected he would bring proven leadership to an office that he saw little need to change.

While many candidates were greeted with applause, the Rev. Derrick Harkins, of the District's 19th Street Baptist Church, said most of the candidates left him less than optimistic.

"I still see the convention leaning a lot on old traditions and patterns," Harkins said. "The convention needs to be using its influence to rebuild our communities and provide some economic stability."

Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.

CAPTION: The Rev. William Shaw says "disease" afflicts the group.

CAPTION: The Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson, left, of New York and the Rev. E.V. Hill of Los Angeles talk during candidates forum.

CAPTION: The Rev. Henry Lyons, former convention president, is serving 5 1/2-year sentence.