Meet the six preachers who want to lead the Southern Baptist Convention

(RNS) — The last time Southern Baptists gathered in Indianapolis for their annual meeting, six preachers were vying for the chance to lead the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

During that 2008 meeting, three megachurch pastors squared off against a pair of former missionaries and a small church preacher from North Carolina before Johnny Hunt, a popular Georgia preacher, prevailed. 

Sixteen years later, Southern Baptists are headed to Indy again this June. And just like in 2008, they’ll have six different choices for president.

This time, those candidates are competing to lead a smaller and more divided denomination, with nearly 3 million fewer members, debates over female pastors, calls for more financial transparency, frustration with the denomination’s response to sexual abuse and a growing lack of trust in the SBC’s leadership.  

The six candidates are vying for one of the most influential volunteer jobs in American religion. Though unpaid, the SBC president has a high-profile bully pulpit to highlight the denomination’s work and often travels the country speaking to Baptist churches and other gatherings. While they have no administrative power, the SBC president also appoints the members of influential denominational committees and oversees the SBC’s annual meeting. 

The current candidates reflect some of the ongoing debates. Two are big-church pastors of the more traditional Southern Baptist variety, who want to get the SBC focused back on mission and evangelism; two are best known as advocating for abuse reform; and two have ties to the SBC’s conservative critics, who believe the evangelical denomination has become too liberal.

All espouse conservative theology and a love for the SBC’s missionary programs, and all hope to see the denomination’s fortunes turn around. They disagree on how to get there.

Jared Moore, pastor of Homesteads Baptist Church in Crossville, Tennessee

Jared Moore. (Video screen grab)

Jared Moore. (Video screen grab)

As a teenager, Jared Moore attended Gum Springs Baptist Church in Wailing, Tennessee, with some friends. There they met Aaron and Beverly Barlow, volunteers who loved them, taught them the Bible, took them on mission trips and helped them find a place in the church.

Every local church is filled with people like the Barlows, said Moore, pastor of Homesteads Baptist Church in Crossville, Tennessee, in a recent interview. That’s one reason he was willing to run for SBC president when he was nominated.

“There is a lot to love about the SBC,” he said.

But the 43-year-old Moore, who pastors a church of about 150 people, believes the SBC has issues. One of those issues, he said, is a lack of transparency about the finances of its entities. He pointed to long-running financial mismanagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, whose leaders admitted last year to running up $140 million in deficit spending over decades.

Moore backs a proposal that would require those entities, like the SBC’s seminaries and mission boards, to provide the same kind of information about finances that many other charities do — including the salaries of leaders.

Moore, who holds a Master of Divinity and doctorate from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, also supports the Law Amendment to the SBC constitution, which would bar churches where women hold the title of pastor — even in supporting roles like children’s pastor or music pastor.

However, there should not be any rush to kick churches out, he said. Over the past two years, the SBC has ousted six churches, including Saddleback Community Church, which had women as pastors. Some supporters of the Law Amendment have claimed close to 2,000 of the SBC’s 47,000 churches may have women with the title of pastor, most in a supporting role.

“Removing folks is the last resort,” Moore said. “It’s not the first thing we do. It is the final step where they have rejected any correction from Scripture or the confession or the vote of that convention.”

Moore will be nominated by Oklahoma pastor and state Senator Dusty Deevers, a leader in the so-called abortion abolition movement, which seeks an absolute ban on abortion and advocates for jailing women for abortion. Moore said he holds the same view, but “the goal is to end abortion,” he said. “The goal is not to lock up mothers.”

Dan Spencer, pastor of First Baptist Church of Sevierville, Tennessee

Dan Spencer. (Courtesy photo)

Dan Spencer. (Courtesy photo)

Dan Spencer, the 35th pastor of First Baptist Church of Sevierville, Tennessee, said he didn’t expect to be a candidate for SBC president. He even joked with a friend at the annual meeting two years ago that “it’s never been a better time to be a nobody at the SBC.”

But after being asked by “several people” to consider the role, he determined his lack of a “camp” might be what is most needed.

“I’m not mad at anybody, and I don’t really have an axe to grind,” Spencer, 56, told RNS. “Maybe that does position me to be able to be a builder of consensus and somebody who could maybe promote a refocused kind of unity that we need right now.”

On sex abuse reforms, Spencer, whose church has about 1,400 in attendance on an average Sunday, said he is “on board for anything that makes our churches safer and provides better curriculum resources for churches to be more on guard than ever,” but questioned aspects of a proposed database of offenders.

“The sticky part is what it means to be credibly accused,” he said. “You always should take those accusations that are made, especially when it comes to sexual abuse, seriously, but at what point, if it turns out to be untrue, does a person’s name end up on a list?”

Spencer said he would work with new Executive Committee President Jeff Iorg to determine next steps on what has been a “very expensive process of addressing abuse” without reducing funding for missionaries and new churches.

Although he prefers not to use the term “pastor” for the “amazingly talented and gifted women” on his staff, Spencer believes it unnecessary to further change the constitution to emphasize only men can be pastors. The current language leaves room for the autonomy of the local church, he said.

If elected, Spencer said he would look forward to leading the centennial celebration for the Cooperative Program, the SBC’s central funding mechanism, at the 2025 annual meeting in Dallas.

“It’s an enormous amount of money over the last 100 years that have been given collectively by Southern Baptist churches,” said Spencer, the great-great-nephew of M.E. Dodd, who in 1925 chaired the committee that proposed the funding program. “In the last 100 years, we’ve not gotten everything right. But I’d love for us to be able to celebrate the best of who we are.”

Bruce Frank, pastor of Biltmore Church, Asheville, North Carolina

Bruce Frank. (Courtesy photo)

Bruce Frank. (Courtesy photo)

Bruce Frank began his ministry in Blue Grove, Texas — a small town without a stoplight — and needed to work with other churches if the congregation wanted to make a difference.

That’s one reason he appreciates the cooperative work of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“In a more of a normative size church, it allows you to be a part of something also bigger than yourself,” Frank, 59, told Baptist Press, an official SBC publication, recently.

Now the pastor of Biltmore Church in Asheville, North Carolina, which draws more than 7,000 to weekend services, Frank said one of his goals, if elected, would be to help every SBC congregation, no matter how small, see at least one person come to faith and be baptized.

Seeing new baptisms could help revitalize the denomination’s churches, many of which have faced decline.

“Math shows that if they don’t change their trajectory, they are going to close,” he told RNS earlier this year.

Frank is best known among Southern Baptists for chairing the denomination’s Sexual Abuse Task Force and for championing a series of reforms passed two years ago, the future of which remains unclear. 

Frank said the SBC cannot allow the issue to fall by the wayside but needs to be tenacious about making reforms stick and continuing to address the issue of abuse — something local church representatives, known as messengers, have supported in large numbers.

“Some good progress has been made, but the messengers have been pretty resounding in saying there’s still some more steps that can be taken,” he said. He also wants to see the Ministry Check database get off the ground. That site was launched last year but has no names on it.

Frank described himself as a complementarian, believing men and women have different roles in the church — and that only men should pastor churches — but has called the Law Amendment unnecessary and said it could empower those who want even stricter limits on women in the church.

Passing the Law Amendment, he argues, would be trying to solve a problem the SBC does not have. The current statement of faith, he said, is clear enough to point out when a church has crossed a line — which he said happened in the 2023 removal of Saddleback.

Mike Keahbone, pastor of First Baptist Church of Lawton, Oklahoma

Mike Keahbone. (Courtesy photo)

Mike Keahbone. (Courtesy photo)

Growing up in Elgin, Oklahoma, Mike Keahbone said his family taught him that if church people knocked on the door, the best thing to do was hide until they went away.

So when a church bus stopped in front of his house after school one day, he took that advice and hid in the closet. Unfortunately, the house didn’t have air conditioning, and the older woman who knocked on his door that day didn’t go away.

He finally gave up and answered the door and accepted an invite to the church’s Vacation Bible School, where he was promised cookies and Kool-Aid. He got both — plus a whole lot more. At the church, he found a loving community and a faith he could believe in.

“They just loved me,” he said. “What we’ve always been about as a convention has been the gospel. And when we’re centered on the gospel, it fixes everything else.”

Keahbone, who is Native American, would eventually become a youth pastor, a traveling evangelist and, eventually, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Lawton, Oklahoma, not far from where he grew up, a role he started during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Along with pastoring First Baptist, Keahbone, 52, is a member of the SBC’s Executive Committee and has served on the SBC’s Sex Abuse Task Force and for two years on the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force — which was set up to put the reforms passed by messengers into effect. He remains an advocate for helping churches prevent abuse and care for those who are abused.

While he’s a complementarian who believes only men should pastor churches, Keahbone does not support the Law Amendment, which he said could adversely affect SBC churches in minority communities.

Keahbone said the SBC is much bigger than its problems — and is filled with churches like the one that ministered to him as a kid.

“There’s so much in the name of the gospel that our Southern Baptist churches are doing every day that nobody knows about,” he said. “Those faithful churches are just faithfully sharing the gospel with their communities and loving their communities.”

Clint Pressley, pastor of Hickory Grove Baptist Church, Charlotte, North Carolina

Clint Pressley. (Courtesy photo)

Clint Pressley. (Courtesy photo)

Once asked how he differs from J.D. Greear, the most recent North Carolinian to lead the SBC convention, Clint Pressley responded that he dresses in a suit and tie.

The comparison may be revealing. Pressley, who has led Hickory Grove Baptist Church for the past 14 years, is also more traditional.

If elected president, he said he wants to keep things on an even keel.

“It seems like the kind of rhetoric and the temperature is really high and I’d like to see it come down a good bit,” Pressley said.

On one of the largest issues facing the denomination, helping churches to be more accountable and responsive to sexual abuse, Pressley thinks the denomination has already done a lot.

He is not in favor of a ministry check website that would list abusive leaders and said he’d prefer to keep the focus on background checks and improved training to root out abusers.

“One of the best developments we’ve seen is this raised awareness in the individual churches of sexual abuse as a nationwide crisis,” Pressley said.

Pressley favors the Law Amendment and, while some fear such an amendment could lead some churches to be expelled or to leave, Pressley thinks most churches with women leaders have already been expelled, and the amendment simply serves as a clarification of a 20-year-old rule.

“The Law Amendment just affirms what the confession already says,” he said, referring to the Baptist Faith and Message, the denomination’s statement of faith.

Pressley grew up in Charlotte and became a Christian in his teens. He studied for the ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, served as associate at Hickory Grove and then left the state for a few years to pastor a church in Alabama. He returned as senior pastor of the church, which has an attendance of about 3,000 on Sundays, split between two campuses. The church also has a K-12 private school with about 750 students.

Pressley, 55, suffered a personal tragedy when his 26-year-old son Nate died of an apparent overdose last August. He has one remaining son, Mack. The elder Pressley serves on the board of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina and is a trustee at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. He has also served as first vice president of the SBC.

David Allen, dean of Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary’s preaching center

David Allen. (Courtesy photo)

David Allen. (Courtesy photo)

David Allen, a longtime professor of preaching, said he’s a candidate for the SBC presidency because he thinks the denomination needs a better sense of “balance” and more transparent leadership.

“We need a positive affirmation of the things most surely believed among us, as well as a full-throated convictional defense of viewpoints with which some of our fellow Southern Baptists may disagree,” Allen wrote in a March article on his website about why he was running for the office.

Allen, 67, was not available for an interview.

Since 2022, Allen has been the professor of practical theology and dean of the Adrian Rogers Center for Biblical Preaching at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. The school near Memphis, Tennessee, describes itself as independent of the SBC but “Southern Baptist in theology.” He previously worked at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, where he was a preaching professor for 18 years and served for a dozen years as its theology school dean and four years as the dean of its preaching school.

Allen, a former pastor and frequent interim pastor, also founded PreachingCoach, a ministry that aims to help improve the communication skills of pastors and other leaders, in 2021.

Allen said he thinks sexual abuse continues to need to be addressed by SBC churches, but he said in an interview published May 13 by Baptist Press that it requires “a financially prudent plan” and “genuine compassion” for survivors.

“We don’t have a crisis, but we do have a problem,” he told BP.

In a statement, he called the proposed Law Amendment, which would ban women from holding the title of pastor, “an important clarifying statement” on a “watershed issue for Southern Baptists.”

Allen has said he is focused on “transparency at every level” to restore trust in the SBC and its leadership.

“When Southern Baptists ask questions or seek clear explanations for things and are stonewalled by entity leaders or Boards of Trustees, such lack of response and transparency ineluctably breeds discontent and a loss of trust,” he said in his March statement.

Allen expressed concern that issues that may draw the most attention at the annual meeting can keep Southern Baptists away from matters of general agreement, such as supporting fledgling congregations, which he has said he would like to see established churches do more.

“Distractions cause loss of focus,” he said in his March statement. “We must keep the main thing the main thing. Evangelism, missions, and preaching must ever remain paramount in the SBC lest she lose her reason for existence.”

The SBC presidential election will take place during the denomination’s annual meeting, set for June 11-12 in Indianapolis. About 11,000 local church representatives, known as messengers, are expected to attend. 


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