Willis, Hunt jump in crowded field vying for SBC presidency

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (ABP)—A crowded field of hopefuls for the Southern Baptist Convention presidency appears to be developing, with two high-profile candidates set to join three already-announced nominees.

Retired SBC International Mission Board executive Avery Willis and Atlanta-area pastor Johnny Hunt reportedly will be nominated for the denomination’s top position. SBC messengers will elect a new president and conduct other business during the body’s annual meeting, scheduled for June 10-11 in Indianapolis.

Avery Willis

Willis reportedly will be nominated by John Marshall, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Springfield, Mo. A notice on the website for The Pathway, the in-house news organ of the conservative-dominated Missouri Baptist Convention, said Marshall had announced May 6 his intention to nominate Willis.

Ted Traylor, pastor of Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola, Fla., confirmed via e-mail May 6 that he would nominate Hunt.

“For 12 years, many in the SBC have wanted to have Johnny lead and serve our convention as president,” Traylor said. “His passion is to reach the nations. I know of no other pastor who has had a positive influence on more young pastors than Dr. Hunt. Our future as a convention requires that we connect with those young church leaders.”

Willis retired in 2004 as IMB’s senior vice president for overseas operations. A former missionary to Indonesia, he is well known across the SBC as an expert on missiology and discipleship. He created the Master-Life discipleship series used by the SBC’s publishing agency, now known as LifeWay Christian Resources. He now lives in Bella Vista, Ark., but continues to work with several initiatives that bring evangelical missions organizations together for joint evangelism strategies.

Georgia pastor

Hunt, pastor of First Baptist Church of Woodstock, Ga., initially was expected to be a candidate during the last contested SBC presidential election, in 2006. But he dropped out a month before the convention.

Johnny Hunt

Although he was the first choice of the SBC’s fundamentalist leadership in 2006, Hunt was likely to face opposition from one or more other factions in the convention—most notably a loose-knit group of younger conservatives protesting what they called the leadership’s narrow and exclusivist track record.

Instead, Hunt nominated Ronnie Floyd, pastor of First Baptist Church of Springdale, Ark., that year. But Floyd and another candidate with the support of some SBC power-brokers—Nashville, Tenn., pastor Jerry Sutton—both lost to an outsider candidate, South Carolina pastor Frank Page, who is completing his second one-year term next month. Presidents customarily are re-elected to a second term but cannot serve more than two consecutively.

Presidency key to control

The presidency has been the key to gaining and retaining control of the 16 million-member denomination and its agencies. The SBC’s inerrantist leaders have controlled the position for almost three decades, usually running unopposed.

Since 1979, all SBC presidents have been inerrantists. But only two were elected without the approval of the small cadre of insiders who directed the denomination’s rightward shift, which took place during the same period.

The 2008 SBC presidential election was thrown into disarray in February, after Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler dropped out of the race for health reasons. He was expected to be the establishment candidate for the position.

Three other candidates for the spot already have been announced—Frank Cox, pastor of the Atlanta-area North Metro First Baptist Church; former Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary professor Bill Wagner; and Orange County, Calif., pastor and activist Wiley Drake.

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