By Bob Allen
Lay denominational worker Suzii Paynter of Austin, Texas, was elected Feb. 21 as the third executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
The CBF Coordinating Council unanimously elected Paynter, whose nomination was announced Jan. 17 after a year-long search, during the opening session of a two-day meeting at First Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga.
She currently works as director of both the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission and Advocacy Care Center of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. She succeeds Daniel Vestal, who retired last year as head of the 1,800-church Fellowship organized in 1991.
A pastor’s wife, Paynter has long been active in CBF life as a layperson, beginning as a member of the first CBF Coordinating Council and planner of the group’s first General Assembly.
“I love the Fellowship,” Paynter said moments after the vote. “If there is any group that has taught me not the words of the Scripture but the spirit of it — the experience of Christ’s encouragement, the experience of Christ’s love, something in fellowship that means kindness and deep sympathy — if there is any group that has given that to me in my own life, it has been the Christians and the leaders and the churches of this very Fellowship.”
CBF moderator Keith Herron, pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., said the historic vote helps bring closure to several years of “some sense of transition” for the Fellowship, which has undergone downsizings due to budget shortfalls, a two-year task-force study calling for a massive reorganization and changes in several top-level leaders including the CEO.
George Mason, pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas and chair of the 10-member executive coordinator search committee that met for the first time in January 2012, said the group talked to 171 pastors and listened to focus groups in a process that had the effect of making committee members “more and more excited about who we are as CBF.”
“In all that process, it came to be clear that if the 2012 Task Force recommendations were to be implemented, that we needed a certain kind of person with a certain set of gifts, who really was experienced, someone we could trust, someone who would inspire us and someone who would give us confidence that the things that this community wanted to be in the future would be ensured,” Mason said. “That led us to Suzii Paynter.”
Reflecting on her own experience as “some random Baptist laywoman” who was named to the interim steering committee of what would become CBF, Paynter said she was “touched and moved” by early leadership of Cecil Sherman, the Fellowship’s founding coordinator who retired in 1996 and died in 2010, and befriended by Vestal, also a key figure in forming CBF who led the organization 15 years before retiring in June 2012.
Embarking on a process of replacing the current Coordinating Council with a leaner and more focused governing council, and two new leadership bodies tasked with global missions and church resources, Paynter anticipates engaging new leadership who are now in a similar place to where she started out 22 years ago.
“My dream for CBF is for us to become the most vital and vibrant religious community in the United States and to reach our arms around the world,” she said. “I think we have a voice that we can be proud of, a voice that reflects the heart of our churches and exemplifies the best that we want to give.”
A mother of two and married to the pastor of First Baptist Church in Austin, Texas, where she is a frequent Bible teacher and deacon, Paynter is a native of San Antonio who grew up attending the city’s Trinity Baptist Church.
She is a graduate of Baylor University with a master’s degree from Stephen F. Austin University and an honorary doctorate from Dallas Baptist University. She worked as a literacy professional, professor and consultant before going to work for Texas Baptists in 2001.
The first woman to serve as director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas Christian Life Commission, Paynter now joins a small group of women leading national religious bodies in the United States and in Baptist leadership around the world.
She begins work March 1 at the CBF Resource Center in Atlanta, but as Herron noted, she has already been busy “for weeks and months” meeting with various groups in anticipation of her election.