(RNS) — On the first day of March, Ed Litton announced he will not run for a second term as president of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
Then he got back to work.
“I am definitely not quitting,” said Litton, an Alabama pastor who was elected for a one-year term as Southern Baptist Convention president in June 2021.
Litton plans to spend the next few months getting Southern Baptists ready for their next annual meeting, to be held June 14-15 in Anaheim, California.
At the meeting, Litton said, he will present what he calls a “gospel-centered” plan for racial reconciliation in the United States, based in part on work he has done in Mobile, Alabama, as pastor of Redemption Church.
Southern Baptists will also learn the results of an investigation into how denominational leaders have handled sexual abuse allegations over the past 20 years. Litton did not discuss any details of that report but believes it will be a “challenge for Southern Baptists” and reveal some hard truths about how the SBC responded to abuse allegations.
During the 2021 annual convention, Southern Baptist church representatives, known as messengers, authorized the investigation and requested a report during the 2022 meeting. As he travels the country, Litton has asked his fellow Southern Baptists to pray for the investigators working on the report and to be ready to act on the report’s recommendations.
He worries that some Southern Baptists will see the report, say “that’s horrible,” and then move on rather than taking action to change how the SBC responds to abuse and abuse allegations.
“Don’t brace for impact,” Litton said. “Brace yourself for action. We need to be people who say, ‘Let’s do what is right.’”
Litton’s 2021 election came during a contentious SBC meeting that drew more than 20,000 people to Nashville, Tennessee, and featured four candidates for president. Litton prevailed in a runoff over Mike Stone, a Georgia pastor allied with the Conservative Baptist Network, which argues the SBC is becoming liberal.
Litton had hoped to rally Southern Baptists around the issues of racial reconciliation and church planting. However, those hopes were quickly dampened by continued divisions within the SBC and by “sermongate” — a controversy over sermons Litton gave that included material from another pastor without attribution.
Litton has apologized for failing to give attribution and told Religion News Service in a video interview that in the end, the controversy turned out for the good.
“I consider it a blessing to have been exposed in a way that, even though it’s humiliating and shameful, I can repent,” he said. “I know who I am in Christ Jesus.”
Litton’s announcement was met on social media with messages of thanks for his time as president and well wishes.
“I love Ed Litton and thankful to call him a great friend,” tweeted Florida pastor Dean Inserra, a member of the SBC’s Executive Committee. “I’m also grateful for his service as President.”
I love Ed Litton and am thankful to call him a great friend. I’m also grateful for his service as President. Ed, you are appreciated! He speaks for so many of us. https://t.co/tVfpUsvT0R
— Dean Inserra (@deaninserra) March 1, 2022
Some Southern Baptists with ties to the Conservative Baptist Network — which has long been critical of Litton and other SBC leaders— wondered why Litton did not step down right away. Memphis theologian and professor Lee Brand, a member of the CBN’s steering council, is currently the denomination’s first vice president and would likely become president if Litton left office early.
According to the SBC’s bylaws, the first vice president would become president in the “case of death or disability of the president.” No mention is made of what would happen if a president were to resign.
I'm thankful Ed Litton will not be running for office again. As I listened to Litton's video, I immediately thought that stepping down now and letting the 1st VP, Lee Brand, assume the role of President would be a great first gesture toward his own stated goal, would it not? https://t.co/xCmV0H6owY
— Tom Buck (Five Point Buck) (@TomBuck) March 1, 2022
The last SBC president to serve for one term was famed Memphis megachurch pastor and radio preacher Adrian Rogers. One candidate to succeed Litton has already emerged. News broke after Litton’s announcement that Willy Rice, pastor of Calvary Church in Clearwater, Florida, will be nominated as a candidate for SBC president. More nominations will likely follow.
.@pastorclint: 'Willy Rice represents who Southern Baptists are at their best. He loves Southern Baptists, believes in Southern Baptists, and has demonstrated at every level of our convention his ability to lead Southern Baptists.'#SBC22https://t.co/d7GPSTwcBq
— Baptist Press (@BaptistPress) March 3, 2022
Litton said he felt a sense of freedom knowing he would not be running for president again.
Instead, as he noted in the video announcing the decision, Litton said he can now focus on the issue of racial reconciliation, which has long been close to his heart and an issue Southern Baptists have historically struggled with.
He said the SBC has made strides to deal with racism and racial divisions in the past but more work is needed. The strategy he will present in Anaheim is being fine-tuned with the help of experts and pastors who have been involved in the issue of reconciliation. Earlier this year, Litton said, Redemption Church hosted a summit on reconciliation that included leaders such as Dallas pastor Tony Evans, a leading Black evangelical radio preacher and author.
Litton said racial reconciliation is tied to the SBC’s larger mission of spreading the good news about Jesus. As the United States has become more diverse, he said, so has the SBC. And the SBC will need Black leaders and Black churches to help reach the nation for Jesus, he said.
He pointed to Mobile, where his church is located and where half the population is Black.
“How do we strategically reach people with the gospel without our African American brothers and sisters?” he said. “This is something we want to do together.”
Still, Litton and other SBC leaders working on racial reconciliation face steep challenges. In recent years, critics have labeled any discussion of racism as a sign of liberalism and have claimed that critical race theory — a legal theory about institutional racism now commonly used in conservative circles as a rallying cry against liberals — is corrupting the SBC.
There’s also a wide gap in how white Christians and Black Christians see the issue of race in America, according to data from University of Chicago sociologist Michael Emerson, co-author of “Divided by Faith,” an influential book about race and religion in the United States.
In the summer of 2020, Emerson and fellow researchers asked Americans if they thought the country had a race problem. Most practicing Black Christians (87%) said the country had a race problem, while a minority of practicing white Christians (30%) said the same.
During the interview, Litton also talked about the ongoing decline in the SBC — where membership has dropped by more than 2 million since 2006. Because of the nation’s ongoing polarization, he said, Southern Baptists have begun to see themselves as being at odds with people outside the church.
“For several year now, we have divorced ourselves from the lost culture,” he said. “We’ve seen them as the enemy instead of seeing them as people that Jesus Christ died for and dearly loves.”
Litton said he also worries the SBC has become too much of a middle- and upper-class church and is out of touch with those of lesser economic means. According to data from the General Social Survey, people who identify as lower and working class are more likely to say they never go to church than those who identify as upper or middle class. Litton worries the prosperity of Southern Baptist has resulted in church members’ being out of touch with people who are poorer than they are.
“Our success is ultimately what is killing us,” he said.
Litton returned again to racial reconciliation, insisting that work has to be a central part of the mission of the SBC, pointing to a set of verses in the New Testament about being “ambassadors for Christ.” Those verses, he said, talk about people being reconciled to God and to each other.
He also pointed to a saying of Jesus in the Gospel of John: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
“That means working out our issues in love — not the rancor that is so prevalent today,” he said.
Despite some of the challenges of the past eight months, Litton is grateful for his time as president. He said his love for Southern Baptists has been “renewed and refreshed” while traveling the country seeing SBC ministries in action.
“Most people are not sitting at a keyboard fighting battles,” he said. “I see people who are the doers — who are out doing disaster relief or feeding people at the border or rescuing kids from sex traffickers or planting churches.”