A Florida pastor who had to drop out of the race for Southern Baptist Convention president last year because of accusations brought against him from the most conservative faction of the denomination now will nominate this year’s conservative standard bearer for the presidency.
Willy Rice, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Clearwater, Fla., was the leading contender for the SBC presidency in 2021. He was seen as the institutional candidate, standing against an ultra-conservative candidate favored by the Conservative Baptist Network and Founders Ministries.
An East Texas pastor affiliated with both those conservative groups set in motion a chain of events that led Rice to withdraw from the race two months prior to last year’s convention. The controversy involved a deacon in Rice’s church who had confessed to an incident of sexual abuse 17 years earlier, had been repentant and was still involved in the church. At first, Rice preached a sermon in which he defended the deacon. Then, with pressure mounting from outside the church, Rice announced he no longer would stand as a candidate for the presidency.
His already announced challenger was Tom Ascol, another Florida pastor who leads Founders Ministries, a group of Southern Baptist Calvinists.
In the vacuum created by Rice’s withdrawal, the SBC institutionalists drafted a small-church pastor from Texas, Bart Barber, to run for office. He won in a runoff against Ascol by 22 points.
Throughout the past year, the mild-mannered Barber has been dogged by the far-right flank of the SBC over a variety of issues, including his support for sexual abuse reforms.
Now, Barber has a challenger — something that usually doesn’t happen to an incumbent seeking a possible second term — in Mike Stone, a Georgia pastor who was the ultra-conservative candidate for the presidency in 2021. Stone lost to Alabama pastor Ed Litton by 556 votes or a 4-point spread.
Stone has been stumping for the volunteer job again, and then Rice surprised convention watchers June 5 by announcing he’ll be the one to nominate Stone in his race against Barber.
“Such an announcement would have been unthinkable for both of us a short time ago.”
“Such an announcement would have been unthinkable for both of us a short time ago,” Rice said. “I wish the status quo were an option. It’s not.
“Two years ago, when Mike ran for SBC president and lost a narrow election, I enthusiastically supported my friend Ed Litton. I rejoiced when Ed won. I didn’t know Mike but disagreed with him on several issues and especially felt concern over the Conservative Baptist Network. I found some of their voices to be overly divisive and unnecessarily caustic.
“I strongly support both of our mission boards, love their leaders and believed then (and still do) that the overwhelming consensus of Baptist leaders are rock solid in their biblical convictions. ‘Conservative’ (when one means biblical fidelity and moral conviction) is not an adjective to describe a subset of our people, it’s who we are.”
Although Stone is closely identified with the Conservative Baptist Network, he “does not represent the CBN and if elected … will not be a CBN president,” Rice said.
He called Stone “an independent thinker” and “his own man.”
Rice warned the SBC faces “an existential crisis that could irreparably damage our cooperative work” and the Cooperative Program unified budget — which Stone’s own church now bypasses for several reasons, including objection to the Executive Committee’s sexual abuse investigation and reform work.
Rice was chairman of the Executive Committee immediately before the abuse investigation began, and his leadership was among the things evaluated sternly.
“I will nominate Mike Stone because Mike is one of the few people who understands what has gone wrong and knows how to right the direction.”
“I will nominate Mike Stone because Mike is one of the few people who understands what has gone wrong and knows how to right the direction,” Rice said. “Mike is a sexual abuse survivor. He knows firsthand the horror of such a violation. He also knows what it feels like to be unfairly attacked.”
The SBC’s sexual abuse reforms “began with the best of intentions, at least for most of us,” Rice explained. “But I now believe that movement, as currently engineered, threatens the very fabric of our fellowship.”
As currently playing out, the investigation and proposed reforms are not about child sexual abuse and predators, Rice charged. “I didn’t sign up for left-wing, feminist critical theory, cancel culture, politics. I didn’t sign up for leaked emails, taped conversations, endless lawsuits, and character assassination. A movement that should have united Southern Baptists to attack a problem has instead divided us into attacking one another.”
Rice said he favors Stone as SBC leader also because the current financial trajectory of the convention “is not sustainable” — echoing a line that has become Stone’s campaign slogan.
He concluded his announcement: “The quiet parts have now been said out loud — this is unsustainable. The old alignments and descriptions are obsolete. A new and urgent hour is upon us. The time has come for a bold, if difficult choice. The direction must be changed, and the drift must be stopped. That is why next week I will nominate Mike Stone to lead us as our next SBC president.”