GREENSBORO, N.C. (ABP) — In a major upset, outsider Frank Page of South Carolina was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention over two candidates closely tied to the SBC's conservative power structure.
Page, who described his election as a victory for grassroots Baptists, was elected with 50.48 percent of the vote on a first ballot against Arkansas pastor Ronnie Floyd and Tennessee pastor Jerry Sutton, both high-profile leaders in the conservative-dominated SBC.
Sutton, pastor of Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn., received 2,168 votes, or 24.08 percent. Floyd, pastor of First Baptist Church of Springdale, Ark., received 2,247 votes, or 24.95 percent. Page, pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., received 4,546 votes — a mere 65 more than necessary for a first-ballot victory.
Page's election signaled a defeat for the SBC's conservative powerbrokers, who have hand-picked all but one president since 1979. Only Orlando pastor Jim Henry, elected in 1994 and 1995, lacked the endorsement of the SBC's conservative leaders.
Floyd lost despite the endorsement of three SBC seminary presidents, including Paige Patterson, the SBC's most powerful leader. Sutton reportedly had the support of Paul Pressler, another SBC conservative architect.
The surprise election also reflected grassroots dissatisfaction with officers who direct the SBC's work but offer little financial support to its central missions budget, the Cooperative Program. Page's church contributes 12.1 percent of its 2005 undesignated receipts to the Cooperative Program. Floyd's church gave 0.27 percent of undesignated receipts to the Cooperative Program in 2005 and an additional 1.6 percent to other SBC causes. Sutton's church gave nothing to the CP in 2005 but sent 2.7 percent to SBC causes.
After his election, Page, 53, said he would seek to create a more open Southern Baptist Convention, but added: “I'm not trying to undo a conservative movement that I have supported all these years.” He said he would continue the trend of appointing leaders who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible but who also have “a sweet spirit.”
“I'm an inerrantist — I believe in the word of God — I'm just not mad about it,” Page said in a post-election news conference.
“I certainly did not expect to be here, so it is sort of a surreal moment for me,” Page, a self-described no-name pastor of a 4,000-member church, told reporters.
He said his election signals a victory for grassroots Baptists who have supported the SBC's conservative movement but not been involved in leadership before. “It means the Southern Baptist Convention belongs to the Lord and his people, … and we can do together a lot more and a lot better than we can do separately,” he said.
A smaller-than-expected crowd of 11,346 messengers were registered at the time of the vote.
But Page's supporters said their candidate benefited from the participation of many messengers previously uninvolved in convention life.
“This election is about the people being heard,” said Wade Burleson, an Oklahoma pastor instrumental in Page's election. “Every Baptist counts.”
Burleson said the election signaled “a turning point” in Southern Baptist life — “not theological by any means,” but a change in methodology, toward more openness and inclusiveness.
“It's no longer kingmakers; it's the people,” said Burleson, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Okla.
“I am more excited about the Southern Baptist Convention today than I have ever been in my life,” he said.
Burleson, a trustee of the International Mission Board who has argued against exclusivistic tactics of that agency, was himself considered a possible candidate for president. But his influence, plus that of young Southern Baptist bloggers, was credited with energizing support for Page and for a broadening of SBC leadership.
Page agreed the bloggers, a new phenomenon in SBC politics, made a difference. While the bloggers are few in number, he said, “I think there are a large number of leaders who do read those blogs. I think they played a role beyond their number — perhaps an inordinant amount of influence given their number — but they are a growing phenomenon in Southern Baptist life.”
Page is a graduate of Gardner-Webb University in North Carolina and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, including a Ph.D. He grew up in Greensboro, site of the Southern Baptist Convention, and likely benefited from regional familiarity.
Page was nominated by Forrest Pollock, pastor of Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon, Fla., who said the SBC needs leaders who model support for the Cooperative Program. “You know and I know our Cooperative Program is in trouble. Our convention is in trouble.”
“We've got to work together if we're going to accomplish the Great Commission,” Pollock said. “We need a leader who has the integrity to stand before us and encourage us to give more.”
Floyd was nominated by Johnny Hunt of Woodstock, Ga., who described him as a seasoned and visionary leader who has become personally involved in Baptist missions globally and locally.
Hunt invoked the name of previous SBC President Jerry Vines as supporting Floyd as a candidate of character, integrity and courage whose “commitment to God's Word have never been questioned.” He will “lead us into a renewed commitment to Southern Baptist life,” Hunt said.
Sutton's nominator, Calvin Whitman of Applewood, Colo., said the Nashville pastor is “above the vulgarities of political wranglings” and has the “moral authority” and “strength of conviction” to lead Southern Baptists.