Three days after preaching a sermon in which he defended a deacon recently removed from church leadership because of confessed sexual abuse 17 years ago, Willy Rice announced April 6 he no longer will stand as a candidate for the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Rice, pastor of Calvary Church in Clearwater, Fla., had been the leading candidate for the SBC presidency — to be elected at the SBC annual meeting in June — with backing from the centrist and institutional leaders of the convention. His track record as a pastor and in denominational service checks all the boxes normally expected of the top elected spot in the nation’s largest non-Catholic denomination.
However, Rice’s candidacy hit an unexpected rough spot April 1 when he apparently was pressured by persons outside the church to explain why the church had ordained as a deacon a man who was known to the congregation to have had a sexual relationship with an 18-year-old girl when he was a teacher and coach at a nearby high school.
That man since has been identified as Jeff Ford, who in 2005 was a 27-year-old teacher and assistant coach at J.W. Mitchell High School in Tampa Bay, Fla. He confessed to the relationship with the student and resigned.
Rice explained to his congregation in the April 1 video that Ford later experienced “a genuine conversion to Christ” that was followed by baptism as a “true follower of Jesus.” The pastor said Ford had turned his life around and had no further problems, coming to be known in the congregation as an exemplary leader.
Today, Ford serves as executive director of Man Up and Go, a Christian nonprofit with an “Authentic Masculinity Program” that “teaches men how to be protectors of and providers for their families.” Ford is a member of the Florida Faith-Based and Community-Based Advisory Council, providing counsel to Gov. Ron DeSantis.
At some point in recent years, Ford was ordained as a deacon at Calvary Church.
Then, just more than two months before the SBC annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., a “pastor from another state” contacted Rice to inquire about the deacon’s story. Rice has not said who that pastor is or how he knew to ask the question.
In less than a week’s time, that inquiry derailed Rice’s presidential ambitions.
But in less than a week’s time, that inquiry derailed Rice’s presidential ambitions.
In a statement announcing his withdrawal from the race April 6, Rice said: “The last few days have been very difficult, and I’ve found myself in an untenable position of watching people I love in a church I love done immeasurable harm simply because my name was being considered for this office.
“My calling is to my local church, my family and to the mission field God has given me,” he continued. “I wish to return my time and attention to those things. I do hope another candidate will emerge whose ministry has been characterized by leading in the local church with a passion for the Great Commission. I will continue to contribute to Southern Baptist life and cooperative efforts where I am able, but my primary focus will be as the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church as long as God allows me to serve in that position.”
That leaves two other announced candidates in the race, although it appears likely a third candidate will emerge to fill the niche Rice represented among the choices. The other two candidates are conservative activist and Cape Coral, Fla., pastor Tom Ascol, and former international missionary and seminary professor Robin Hadaway.
The topic of sexual abuse is a front-burner issue in the SBC right now, with an outside firm hired to investigate allegations of mishandling of sexual abuse cases by the SBC Executive Committee. That firm and the SBC Sexual Abuse Task Force have been allocated a full hour for a report at the Anaheim meeting. Within the annual meeting’s tightly controlled schedule, a full hour is an unusual amount of time to be given to anything.
Others who initially backed his candidacy quickly backed away, realizing the combination of the sexual abuse report and the story of the Calvary Church deacon would be toxic.
Although Rice continued to have the support of some SBC leaders, others who initially backed his candidacy quickly backed away, realizing the combination of the sexual abuse report and the story of the Calvary Church deacon would be toxic.
One of the big questions the SBC and other religious bodies are wrestling with is whether a person known to have committed sexual abuse should be disqualified from church leadership forever. That is the stance of a resolution adopted by the SBC in 2021.
While saying he agreed with the resolution, Rice said in an April 3 sermon that Ford is saved and forgiven. “If the blood of Jesus Christ is not enough to save him, then it’s not enough to save me.”
A related question is about what should be classified as “sexual misconduct” versus “sexual abuse.”
In his April 1 video, Rice said the church has “learned a great deal about what should be categorized as abusive behavior” and apologized for not recognizing this sooner.