(RNS) — Two years ago, Georgia pastor Mike Stone received nearly 6,300 votes for president during the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee — more than any candidate in a contested election in nearly two decades.
Except for one.
His opponent, Alabama pastor Ed Litton, got more than 6,800 votes, winning by a narrow margin of 4%.
The loss was difficult for Stone. Not long after the SBC’s annual meeting, Litton got in hot water after critics discovered he’d used parts of another pastor’s sermons without attribution, in a controversy that became known as “Sermongate.” He’d later apologize and decide not to run for a second year in office. Stone also ended up suing former SBC ethicist Russell Moore, a longtime rival, for allegedly ruining his reputation and costing Stone the election. That suit was later dropped.
Next week, at the SBC’s annual meeting in New Orleans, set for Tuesday and Wednesday (June 13-14), Stone will be nominated for president again. He told Religion News Service earlier this year that he’d had no intention of running again but was asked to do so by supporters, despite the precedent of current SBC presidents running unopposed for their second terms.
With his church’s approval, he agreed to jump in the race.
“I did not see this coming,” Stone said earlier this year.
The SBC presidential election, set for about 3 in the afternoon on Tuesday, will pit Stone against incumbent President Bart Barber, a Texas pastor known for his expertise on denominational governance and his folksy videos filmed from his cattle ranch, featuring a cow named for famed SBC missionary Lottie Moon.
At first glance, little separates the two candidates. Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church in Farmersville, Texas, believes the Bible is inerrant, champions the SBC’s missionaries and defends the long-held Baptist beliefs that homosexuality is a sin, abortion is evil and only men should be pastor. He prefers to dress in a suit while preaching.
Stone, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear, Georgia, has the same view on the Bible and theological issues as Barber, also supports missions — his daughter is overseas on a short-term mission to Madrid — and, like Barber, prefers a formal look when preaching.
Despite their similarities in doctrine and practice, the two pastors represent an ongoing dispute over the SBC’s current direction and future. That dispute has been fueled by the rise of the Conservative Baptist Network — a group with close ties to disgraced former SBC leader Paige Patterson — along with allies such as Florida-based Founders Ministries. This faction, which helped ignite the national debate over critical race theory, argues the SBC has become too liberal, in particular on issues of race and sexuality — and for a while, had referred to itself as a group of pirates striving to take control of the denomination. Leaders allied with the CBN have also resisted sexual abuse reforms.
Candidates backed by the CBN have lost the last two SBC elections.
Their opposition, which lacks a brand name, largely believes the SBC, which has experienced turmoil and membership decline in recent years, is generally headed in the right direction on issues of doctrine and mission.
The sharpest disagreement between the two candidates is seen in their views of abuse reform. Barber, in his role as president, appointed a task force charged with implementing a series of reforms, including setting up the “Ministry Check” website that will include the names of abusive pastors, providing more staffing to help the committee that deals with churches accused of mishandling abuse and creating resources to help churches better deal with the issue of abuse.
Those reforms came on the heels of a major 2022 report on an investigation done by the consulting firm Guidepost Solutions, which found that Baptist leaders had mistreated abuse survivors for years and tried to downplay the issue of abuse in the SBC. That investigation and report had been authorized a year earlier by a vote of local church representatives, known as messengers, during the SBC annual meeting.
Among the leaders named in the report was Johnny Hunt, a former SBC president and megachurch pastor, who allegedly assaulted another pastor’s wife about a decade ago, according to Guidepost. Investigators from Guidepost interviewed Hunt as well as other witnesses and found the allegations credible. Hunt took time off from ministry and then made a comeback earlier this year, which Barber denounced.
Complicating matters, Stone’s feud with Moore played a role in the creation of the Guidepost report. Local church pastors began calling for an investigation of SBC leaders after a letter from Moore, which detailed behind-the-scenes conflicts between those leaders, including Stone, over issues of race and abuse, became public.
Stone, a former chairman of the denomination’s Executive Committee, has argued that the Guidepost investigation was a mistake and the report flawed and unbiblical. The report, which mentions his name in connection to Moore’s letter, also includes complaints that Stone did not respond appropriately when made aware of another pastor’s alleged misconduct. Stone argues the report opened up the SBC to lawsuits and includes false information and argues the SBC should help churches handle cases of abuse instead of taking national action.
Stone has also denied any wrongdoing in regard to how he responded to alleged misconduct by his friend, who pastored at a different congregation.
Stone, along with other SBC leaders, especially at state conventions, has been critical of Guidepost’s support of LGBTQ rights. The task force charged with implementing abuse reforms had planned to use Guidepost to set up the Ministry Check website but later announced it was looking for other options.
In a recent interview with a Georgia Baptist newspaper, Stone did say the Guidepost report made people more aware of abuse.
“But overall, there is no question in my mind that we are worse off for engaging with Guidepost as we have,” he added.
If elected president, Stone has said he would appoint a new task force to address the issue of abuse that would focus more on empowering local churches.
Barber has said on several occasions that he asked the implementation task force not to choose Guidepost, given the concerns of some Southern Baptists. He recently told a Georgia Baptist newspaper that he wanted to find solutions everyone could support.
“It is my prayer that, through all of these twists and turns, God will lead us to the best solutions to assist our churches in preventing abuse,” he said.
A report from the abuse task force is set for late Tuesday afternoon at the SBC annual meeting, after the presidential election. That task force is expected to announce the initial launch of the Ministry Check website and to ask for additional time to do its work.
While the role of SBC president is largely ceremonial — the position is unpaid and the job requires the president to spend a great deal of time promoting the SBC’s mission and message — the role does have some power. In the SBC, the president can influence which leaders get nominated to key committees and the president moderates the denomination’s annual meeting.