Paul Baxley, a 49-year-old pastor who has been active in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship his entire ministry, has been named the organization’s fourth executive coordinator. He begins duties in March.
On Tuesday the CBF Governing Board voted unanimously to hire Baxley, senior minister of First Baptist Church in Athens, Georgia, to succeed Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter, who steps aside after five years at the helm of the Decatur, Georgia-based Fellowship.
Baxley will be the first non-Texan to lead the 1,800-church network. While all three of his predecessors had ministry experience on both sides of the Mississippi, before moving to Georgia nine years ago Baxley served churches in Virginia and North Carolina.
He also worked for a CBF partner, Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, which is closing its doors at the end of January due to insufficient funds.
Baxley first encountered the Fellowship as a teenager at First Baptist Church on Fifth in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The church was aware of changes in Southern Baptist life that led to the formation of CBF in 1991, he said, because a former pastor, Randall Lolley, was one of the early casualties of the Southern Baptist Convention holy war.
After Lolley’s forced departure as president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1988 and upon receiving a bachelor’s degree in religion from Wake Forest University in 1991, Baxley said he “recognized there were no clear options for a Baptist like me” when it came time to choose a seminary.
He enrolled at Duke University Divinity School, earning his master’s degree in 1996, while serving as associate minister at First Baptist Church in Henderson, North Carolina, where he “watched as the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship came to life.”
“I first attended a General Assembly in Greensboro, North Carolina, in May of 1994 and have been involved in CBF life ever since,” Baxley said in an e-mail interview with Baptist News Global.
Jeff Roberts, chairman of an 11-member executive coordinator search committee formed last July, said the committee interviewed nine candidates before voting unanimously to recommend Baxley.
“The committee was impressed with Paul’s knowledge of CBF’s ministries and initiatives,” said Roberts, senior pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. “We also believe that Paul has a passion and vision for CBF’s future. He possesses excellent communication skills, both written and verbal, to express that vision. In addition, Paul demonstrated biblical knowledge and a depth of theological reflection in his interaction with our committee.”
Baxley, a former member of the CBF Governing Board, said he comes to the position “as one who loves the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.”
“I believe our Fellowship has an essential calling to serve congregations and help congregations thrive,” he said. “I believe CBF exists for congregations, not the other way around.”
Baxley was on the team that led the Illumination Project, a study of attitudes toward issues of LGBT inclusion in Fellowship churches that resulted in a much-discussed policy change. In February the Governing Board dropped a policy banning the intentional hiring of anyone who is gay but concluded that many churches and international partners are not ready to support the hiring of sexual minorities as missionaries or top executives.
In a sermon last October about whether God is calling gay and lesbian Christians into ordained ministry, Baxley described reconnecting with a member of the youth group he led early in his ministry who eventually became a minister and came out as gay.
“There is clear evidence, at least to me, of the work of the Holy Spirit in his life and obvious signs that the Holy Spirit is working through him in the lives of others, and I am now one of those people whom the Spirit has blessed, strengthened and challenged through his courageous faithfulness and his relentless love for the people of God,” Baxley said. “If God gave him the same gifts and calling that God gave me, who am I that I could hinder God?”
While on the Governing Board, Baxley chaired a committee that worked 18 months to restructure CBF global missions while doubling down on a commitment to long-term presence by field personnel. In 2017 CBF announced budget cuts reducing the number of missionaries on the field and eliminating two senior level positions in Decatur.
Baxley said he is “deeply committed to our Fellowship’s vision for global mission.”
“I think, serving together our congregations have a chance to be part of a mission in the world far more compelling and reconciling than anything any of our congregations could do on our own,” he said. “I am eager for the opportunity to invite congregations to a deeper participation in that mission and a closer partnership with our field personnel who are leading faithful and beautiful ministries all around the world.”
Baxley said he believes CBF “must continue to be more diverse.”
“His love for the church, his Lord, and the people of the world have equipped him with God’s gifts and God’s blessing to be the best-ever executive coordinator of CBF.”
“As we become more authentically and honestly diverse, we can grow in faith in new ways and also model a more loving and faithful way of responding to difference than what we see too often in the world around us,” he said.
Baxley said “it is essential that we seek a new covenant for the making of disciples among youth, students and young adults, and for helping women and men in those generations hear a call to ministry and mission.”
“To do so, we will need a new kind of covenant, a close collaboration between congregations, CBF Global, CBF states and regions, theological schools and other partners,” he said. “Making disciples, calling new generations to ministry, seeing that women and men have the best possible formation must be a focus of our cooperation, and we must find new and more faithful ways to do so.”
Baxley was ordained to the gospel ministry by his home church in 1993. His wife, Jennifer, is a licensed physical therapist. They have four children ranging in age from 8 to 17. The two youngest are twins.
CBF Moderator Gary Dollar commended the search committee’s choice.
“Paul is a deeply committed Christian and a lifelong Baptist,” said Dollar, a partner with St. Louis-based EMD Consulting. “He loves the church and the way it is expressed through the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. I am convinced that Paul will lead all of us in CBF to new levels of service in the name of Christ.”
Paynter, who recently accepted a position with Pastors for Texas Children, described Baxley as “an exemplary leader for CBF.”
“His love for the church, his Lord, and the people of the world have equipped him with God’s gifts and God’s blessing to be the best-ever executive coordinator of CBF,” said Paynter, the first woman to hold the position.
Paynter, chosen to replace Daniel Vestal as executive coordinator after he retired in 2012, announced plans last summer to transition out of the post when her successor is named. An experienced denominational worker employed by the Baptist General Convention of Texas, her first order of business was implementing a new model for identity, governance and financial support developed following two years of study in 2012.
Baxley said he comes into the leadership role with full knowledge of challenges facing churches and denominations in the 21st century. “I’m aware that every day won’t be easy and that every question won’t be soft,” he said. But he remains confident “because I have this conviction, the God who raised Jesus from the dead and who has carried His people through 2,000 years of challenge and adversity, much of it our own making, is still in the business of drawing the world to divine love through us.”