Suzii Paynter unveils her vision for “CBF 2.0” at the General Assembly in June.
Suzii Paynter unveils her vision for “CBF 2.0” at the General Assembly in June.

2013: The year in Baptist news

A changing of the guard both in moderate Baptist life and the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy agency, challenges to Obamacare and the 200th anniversary of Baptist missions in the U.S. topped Baptist newsmakers in 2013 headlines covered by Associated Baptist Press.

By Bob Allen

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship introduced Suzii Paynter as executive coordinator Jan. 17. The third person to hold the job and the first woman, the former director of both the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission was officially elected Feb. 21 and began work amid a whirlwind of change.

She led implementation of a new networking model approved by the CBF General Assembly in 2012 that included dissolving a representative Coordinating Council that had governed the moderate Baptist group formed in 1991 and replacing it with a smaller Governing Council for administration and task oriented advisory councils to focus on missions and ministry.

Staff changes included departure of Connie McNeill, coordinator for administration for eight years, whose job was eliminated, and arrival of Stephen Reeves, named associate to a newly created position of coordinator of advocacy and partnership for the Atlanta-based CBF. 

Paynter’s orientation also included a relocation of CBF offices from Mercer University in Atlanta to Decatur, Ga. Recently a search got underway for a new CBF coordinator for global missions, a key post in a leadership team that has changed considerably since last year’s retirement of her predecessor, Daniel Vestal.

While moderate Baptists looked toward their future, the conservative Southern Baptist Convention saw retirement of Richard Land as president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, a sometimes controversial figure regularly quoted as a mover and shaker in the Religious Right.

His successor, 41-year-old Russell Moore, signaled change in tone from Land’s adversarial nature. Moore said he doesn’t regard those who disagree with him as enemies and indicated he is open to working even with moderate Baptists on some issues.

He disavowed political jockeying and told the Wall Street Journal that young evangelicals have a “visceral recoil” against the culture wars. That drew criticism from conservative Christian leaders, who accused him of capitulation.

Moore responded in religious media clarifying that he wasn’t calling for a retreat from political involvement but for a “different sort of engagement” to energize a rising crop of Baptist leaders cynical about the previous generation’s activism on selected issues.

Moore quickly weighed in on Obamacare’s required coverage of contraceptives, siding with the Southern Baptist owners of Hobby Lobby who claimed in a lawsuit that forcing them to pay for morning-after birth control pills and intrauterine devices violates their sincerely held religious beliefs. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in 2014.

Another lawsuit filed by plaintiffs including Guidestone Financial Services of the Southern Baptist Convention cleared a legal hurdle Dec. 20 when a federal judge granted an injunction barring enforcement of the contraceptive mandate as the case makes its way through the courts.

The following week plaintiffs, including East Texas Baptist University and Houston Baptist University, won their case challenging the mandate when a judge in Houston ruled in their favor without a trial.

American Baptist Churches USA celebrated this year’s biennial meeting with a three-pronged emphasis recalling the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the first American Baptist missionaries, Ann and Adoniram Judson, to Burma, now known as Myanmar, the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 375th anniversary of the First Baptist Church in Providence, R.I.

A three-day conference in November themed "The Judsons: Celebrating 200 Years of Baptist Missions, Learning from the Past and Looking to the Future," was sponsored by McAfee School of Theology, the American Baptist Historical Society, the Baptist History and Heritage Society, Baptist Women in Ministry and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Recently Baptists from around the world traveled to Myanmar for a four-day conference celebrating the Judson legacy.

Other newsmakers this year included:

-- Glorieta. LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention voted in June to sell Gloreita Conference Center in New Mexico, which reportedly lost money 24 of the previous 25 years, to a Christian camping group for $1.

Homeowners on land leased from LifeWay, in what they say were presented as perpetually renewable contracts, filed a lawsuit seeking to block the sale and damages totaling $12.4 million, accusing the publishing house of fraud.

-- Bill Smithwick. After defending his Baptist child care agency for 13 years against lawsuits that stemmed from the firing of a lesbian employee, Sunrise Children’s Services President Bill Smithwick caused a stir in Kentucky Baptist life when he recommended dropping the agency’s ban on hiring gays.

Smithwick’s suggestion, based on the premise that it is only a matter of time before the discrimination policy places the agency at risk of losing millions of dollars it receives in state contracts, earned him a rare vote of no confidence by Kentucky Baptist Convention messengers in November.

Smithwick later stepped down from the job after saying publicly he didn’t want controversy over his idea to hurt the ministry’s ability to raise money from churches.

-- C.J. Mahaney. High profile Baptist leaders in a movement known by names including the New Calvinism vouched publicly for C.J. Mahaney after he was named in a class-action lawsuit alleging a massive cover up of sexual abuse of children at a church-starting network he led for many years.

Negative reaction led a pastor to recommend a resolution passed at the SBC annual meeting in June urging denominational leaders to “utilize the highest sense of discernment in affiliation with groups and/or individuals” that have questionable policies or practices to safeguard children from criminal abuse.

This fall, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary listed Mahaney as a speaker for an upcoming event on campus but later dropped mention of him from the web page promoting the conference without comment.

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., appeared with Mahaney, a close friend, at a conference sponsored by a local church in November.

-- Chaplains. The SBC North American Mission Board released new guidelines in August barring military chaplains it endorses from leading or attending same-sex wedding ceremonies.

SBC leaders said the directive, issued in response to the military repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and the U.S. Supreme Court’s striking down of the Defense of Marriage Act, is intended to safeguard chaplains’ religious liberty.

Critics said the new policy would prevent chaplains from performing their duty to serve all members of the military, and not just those that share their beliefs.

-- Melissa Rogers. The White House announced March 13 that Melissa Rogers, a Baptist church-state specialist who formerly worked at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, would serve as special assistant to the president and director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Rogers, director of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity Center for Religion and Public Affairs and a non-resident senior fellow with The Brookings Institution, previously served as inaugural chair of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

-- Boy Scouts. The Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee adopted a rare resolution in February criticizing plans for the Boy Scouts of America to drop its ban on gay Scouts. The SBC followed up with a similar resolution in June denouncing the policy but stopping short of calling on all Southern Baptist churches that sponsor Scout groups to end those ties.

-- Guns. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship responded to last year’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., with an April 26 conference for caregivers involved in the aftermath at nearby Wilton Baptist Church.

Directors of American Baptist Home Mission Societies unanimously adopted a statement Jan. 23 recommending 10 measures aimed at combating gun violence in the United States.

-- Merger. Normally we like to say we don’t make the news but only report it, but this year ABPnews devoted headlines space to a merger of Associated Baptist Press and the Religious Herald approved by both governing boards in October.

The plan, which takes effect Jan. 1, calls for creating a new print and online media platform aimed at enhancing the mission and heritage of both organizations. ABP Executive David Wilkinson called it “truly a historic moment for the Baptist family.”