When the Southern Baptist Convention met Tuesday, it elected its first African American president, Fred Luter Jr., a former street preacher and current pastor of a church in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward.
Luter’s election marks a watershed moment for the SBC. The organization was founded in a split over slavery before the Civil War and for decades was a largely segregated, all-white denomination. It was not until 1995 that the organization adopted a resolution of racial reconciliation; it has come under scrutiny for racial insensitivity as recently as the Trayvon Martin case, when the president of its policy arm made racially charged comments about the case.
But the election of Luter will not be, at least primarily, about fixing the sins of the past. Rather, it will be about the future of an organization that has seen declining membership for five straight years. The denomination—the largest Protestant body in the United States—will need to seek new growth from urban centers and minority groups, or at the very least, maintain its size by helping struggling churches find ways to stay afloat. “I think they thought racial diversity would happen,” Ed Stetzer, the president of the SBC’s research organization, told the Associated Press. “Now they realize they have to make it happen,” he said.
Luter’s experience can help with all three of those needs. His church, Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, is an inner-city black congregation—still somewhat of a rarity in the SBC, which counts a minority membership of 20 percent—and is thriving. Before Hurricane Katrina severely damaged the church, it reached a high of 7,000 members, making it one of the largest churches in the state. Just 50 or 60 of its members remained, while the rest fled New Orleans, but Luter worked to rebuild the congregation, sharing another church until construction was complete in 2008. The congregation has swelled again to some 5,000 members.
Most of all, being the black leader of a black congregation in a traditionally white organization should help to broaden the SBC’s appeal. Tokenism is a risky approach to choosing leaders, but that hardly seems to be the case here. By all accounts, Luter is an exceedingly successful, charismatic and motivated leader of his church who happens to be black. “His presidency is not going to be about him,” David Crosby, the pastor of First Baptist Church in New Orleans, which opened its doors to Luter’s church in Katrina’s aftermath, told PBS. “It’s going to be about the health of our convention. And we need his help. We need his perspective. We need his wisdom.”
Crosby’s point is a critical one. Diversity in leadership is not just about having a minority as the face of an organization who stands up in front of the convention itself and the media as a public sign that the organization is open-minded and inclusive. Rather, it’s about having diversity of thought among the people in charge who can help offer their expereinces toward reaching people whom prior leadership may never have been successful at reaching before. As Molly Worthen writes in the New York Times, “genuine diversity means more than a polychromatic group photo at the church picnic. It is a matter of ideas as well as color.” The real benefit Luter can offer the SBC is not the different color of his skin but the distinct perspectives he can bring to its leadership.
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