The current president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas has been nominated to serve as its executive director, ending a 14-month search process.
Julio Guarneri, lead pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in McAllen, Texas, is the first Hispanic ever nominated to lead the 5,300-church state convention in its 137-year history. If elected by the BGCT Executive Board Sept. 18, he will succeed David Hardage, who retired last year.
Guarneri came of age in a denominational world in transition. After earning a bachelor of science degree in secondary education from Texas A&M Kingsville in 1990, he entered the master of arts in religious education program at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth in 1992 — two years before seminary trustees fired President Russell Dilday and changed the direction of the Southern Baptist school.
Guarneri graduated from Southwestern six years later, in 1998, when Dilday’s successor, Ken Hemphill was still president. Texas Baptists had a rocky relationship with Southwestern after Dilday’s firing but especially after Hemphill also was forced out and replaced by the conservative firebrand Paige Patterson in 2003.
Guarneri then pursued a Ph.D. in leadership at Dallas Baptist University, a school associated with the BGCT and not directly with the SBC. He began that doctorate in 2005 and completed it in 2014.
A key question in the current search for a new BGCT executive director has been whether that person will be more or less sympathetic to the Southern Baptist Convention. Hardage’s predecessor, Charles Wade, led the state convention to more broad affiliations, shunning the more extreme elements of the SBC while opening the door for churches also aligned with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
But during Hardage’s tenure, the pendulum swung back toward the SBC as he sought to rebuild relations with Southwestern Seminary and the convention stopped allowing churches to give to CBF through the BGCT the same way they may give to the SBC.
Guarneri will assume office at a time when one of the major issues of that earlier split has retaken center stage: the role of women in ministry. Once a staunch ally of women in ministry, the BGCT more recently has watered down its approach. That became fully evident this summer when messengers to the annual meeting passed a weakened version of a motion that would have clearly broken ranks with the SBC’s latest anti-women stance.
As convention president, Guarneri said afterward: “We’re not an issue-driven convention; we’re a mission-driven convention.” He also declared that “doctrinal uniformity” shouldn’t distract from “missional fidelity.”
In July, he posted on LinkedIn that his church is “grateful for the women God has called and gifted for service in the body of Christ. For 65 years, faithful women have served with titles that include director, coordinator, missionary, chairperson, worship leader, minister and pastor, among others. God has used them to win the lost, disciple people of all ages, edify the congregation and mobilize people for God’s mission. More than ecclesiastical traditions and rites, we value the priesthood of all believers … . We believe the Great Commission … is for every believer/priest/disciple. Every believer is commissioned by the authority of the Risen Christ to make disciples, which includes sharing the gospel, baptizing believers and teaching them to obey. What a joy it has been to be part of a church that embraces the Great Commission and encourages every believer to be a disciple-maker.”
Such statements place Guarneri in what some have called a “centrist” position that would encourage fellowship among churches and individuals who support women in ministry and those who do not.
However, on another hot-button issue, Guarneri presided over the convention’s recent expulsion of two churches perceived to affirm LGBTQ Christians.
The South Texas pastor has spoken out for sensible policies on U.S. immigration, and his congregation has been involved in meeting the social, spiritual and physical needs of immigrants.
Thus, by resume and reputation, Guarneri appears to fall within the camp of those who identify as “Texas Baptists” more than “Southern Baptists.”
Guarneri has served the McAllen church since 2010. Prior to that, he served as senior pastor of Iglesia Bautista Getsemaní for 17 years; minister of education and youth at Segunda Iglesia Bautista in Corpus Christi; founding pastor of Shalom Baptist Mission in Corpus Christi; and pastor of Primera Iglesia Bautista in Taft.
He has a long record of denominational service in Texas, serving two terms as first vice president of the BGCT before being elected president. He also chairs the board of Buckner International, a child and family ministry affiliated with the BGCT. He further chairs the board of Stark College and Seminary in Corpus Christi.
A statement released by the executive director search committee praised Guarneri’s character, courageous leadership and calling: “We believe Dr. Julio Guarneri meets and exceeds the qualities listed in the search prospectus. His personal characteristics of humility, meekness and courageous leadership confirmed a sense of calling and affirmed the committee’s selection. We believe these qualities will further the cause of Christ in carrying out the mission and purpose of Texas Baptists in the days to come.”
Given opportunity to affirm women in ministry, BGCT punts | Analysis by Mark Wingfield