Secret recordings, leaked letters: Explosive secrets rocking the Southern Baptist Convention

Washington Post

June 12, 2021

By Sarah Pulliam Bailey

Demands for political loyalty. Disputes about racism. A fight between conservatives and ultraconservatives. It sounds like current debates within the Republican Party, but this is the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, where thousands will gather Tuesday to vote on issues that will shape the massive denomination’s future, including the choice of its next president.

More than 16,000 people are expected to attend the denomination’s annual meeting, probably the largest religious gathering since the pandemic, as well as the biggest Baptist meeting in decades.

What is especially unusual about the meeting is infighting at the highest levels of leadership that has become public in recent weeks. New details released to news media outlets have shone a light on the backroom dealings of several of its high-profile leaders.

Russell Moore, who previously led the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm, recently left his position and his church for a new position at Christianity Today magazine. On his way out, two letters he sent to SBC leadership were leaked to media, in which Moore described a culture of racism and mishandling of sexual abuse claims.

Since Moore’s letters were leaked, several leaders have called for a third-party investigation into how the SBC leadership has responded to the issue of sexual abuse within its churches.

The letters also exposed how many institutional leaders areunable to speak openly about what is taking place inside the convention without committing professional suicide within the SBC. The Washington Post interviewed a dozen employees of SBC institutions, as well as five pastors, all of whom said they could not speak openly about what has taken place without jeopardizing their jobs.

The SBC is full of highly influential pastors and Bible teachers who vouch for one another and promote one another’s books, conferences and networks. With no pope or hierarchy and a democratic system of voting, its system is designed to protect its own leaders and the institution by generally not publicly criticizing one another. Several people, however, have recently broken those unspoken rules.

When an employee speaks out

One Black pastor has decided to share his removal earlier this year from his job as director of information technology at the SBC’s missions and church planting institution, the North American Mission Board (NAMB).

Tez Andrews, who also serves as an SBC pastor in Atlanta, said that in March, he published a Facebook post about one of the candidates running to be SBC’s president, Mike Stone, who spoke on a podcast against critical race theory (CRT), an intellectual framework used to examine systemic racism in the United States.

NAMB, which poured $130 million into SBC churches in 2020, is a powerful force within the convention, because it decides how to distribute money to things such as relief efforts and church planters, generally with the expectation that recipients will remain Southern Baptist.

On a podcast posted in March, Stone compared people who use CRT as a framework to Catholics, Methodists and Pentecostals — Christians with whom Baptists have major theological differences and who cannot be in the SBC. He compared CRT to issues of women’s ordination and LGBT-endorsing churches. He complained that SBC leaders have bent over backward to apologize over Black pastors who have left the SBC over leaders’ disagreement with CRT.

“If one group in the Southern Baptist Convention believes that critical race theory is a helpful tool but another group believes it is completely incompatible with the Bible and ultimately destructive to our gospel efforts, there can be union, but there cannot be true biblical unity,” Stone said.

Andrews responded to Stone on Facebook: “Critical Race Theory is a theory and a model that helps predict systemic race issues in society. Mike Stone and people like him are afraid of losing their supremacist position.”

Andrews was told to take his post down, which he did, but he was later told he would still be fired.

“They basically said, ‘You disrespected Mike Stone, so you’re gone,’” said Andrews, who will attend the Nashville meeting. “To me, it’s the good-ol’-boy system.”

Stone wrote in an email that he was told by the president of NAMB that an unnamed employee was fired but that he was not trying to force anyone out of a job.

When asked about Andrews, a spokesman for NAMB said that NAMB’s core values were publicly violated.

“Respecting our partners, especially in this era of divisiveness, is a critical core value to which we consistently hold every member of our team accountable,” the organization said in a statement.

Andrews said NAMB leaders told him it would invest money in his lower-income community, yet he is still waiting for the money to come through. When Andrews negotiated his severance, NAMB leaders had Andrews sign a nondisclosure agreement and a nondisparagement clause, which Andrews signed. It said he agreed to not say anything bad about NAMB.

Dwight McKissic, a Black pastor in Arlington, Tex., who decided not to go to Nashville this year, said the SBC has an “unwritten code” in SBC life.

“You have rules outside the Baptist Faith and Message that you don’t know. Now CRT is becoming one of those litmus tests, and whether you vote Republican, and whether you against women preaching. It’s a test of whether you’re in or out,” McKissic said. “When you don’t know the players or don’t have the good grasp of the cultural do’s and don’ts, it’s extremely difficult for a person of color when you’re trying to navigate waters that are not your waters.”

Another person recently singled out for speaking out about SBC issues is Jamie Ivey, a prominent Southern Baptist Bible teacher and podcaster. She was disinvited to events around the SBC’s annual meeting because of comments she made to The Post about being a mother of Black children and raising them in a mostly White evangelical world that, as of late, has been highly critical of CRT. After describing herself as someone who doesn’t think of herself as a Southern Baptist and isn’t looking to attend an SBC seminary, she was disinvited to speak at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s breakfast and at NAMB’s conference, where she was originally listed alongside SBC President J.D. Greear.

“From my understanding they pulled me from their women’s track the day the article released because they didn’t feel I was all in as a Southern Baptist and that the article was full of disdain and disgust of the SBC,” Ivey wrote in an email.

Two people involved said the decision was made because leaders were concerned that Ivey calls herself a preacher and that she and her husband drink alcohol. (NAMB has a policy that doesn’t allow its church planters to consume alcohol.)

“We fully respect her right to speak what is on her heart and mind,” a spokesman said in a statement.

The SBC prides itself in the “autonomy” of individual churches, which operate independently but contribute to multimillion-dollar budgets for missions, seminaries and other collective efforts. The transactional nature of the denomination allows pastors and lay members to financially benefit from things such as pastors’ health insurance and reduced tuition rates at its schools. What matters at the convention is that individual members come forward and vote collectively to find a unifying voice on different matters and to vote for its next president.

One insider said NAMB has been pouring money into getting urban church leaders to the annual meeting to get enough votes to secure the presidency for Ed Litton, an Alabama pastor who has promoted work on racial reconciliation. Litton’s wife, Kathy, heads NAMB’s ministry for wives. A NAMB spokesman said it will send 150 church planters to the meeting this year.

New letters

Some Southern Baptists have been raising the issue of transparency among SBC leaders for several years. Benjamin Cole, a Baptist member from Texas who used to work for Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson and considered him a mentor, has been posting internal SBC documents and audio files online in recent years. He told The Post he is “on a warpath of transparency for the SBC.”

Cole believes Patterson, who helped lead a conservative takeover of the denomination in the 1970s and 1980s, generated a high level of secrecy and manipulation.

“What I have done is given a tiny window into the backhanded ways that denominational power brokers have spoken to each other and about each other for decades,” Cole said.

In other documents obtained by The Post, Patterson criticized one of the SBC’s most prominent pastors, Rick Warren, who is based in California and wrote the best-selling book “The Purpose Driven Life.” In a 2005 email, Patterson described Warren’s influence as “not wholesome for the church of God” and detailed his attempts to work against Warren. “My involvement with it has to be carefully orchestrated,” he wrote, noting that California pastor John MacArthur, a prominent pastor who is not Southern Baptist, was also working to undermine Warren.

A spokesman for MacArthur said his critiques of Warren’s church ministry are public, and Patterson probably found his work helpful. Patterson and Warren did not return requests for comment.

Patterson, who in 2018 was fired from his job as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for his handling of rape allegations at seminaries, is expected to return to this year’s meeting.

Several SBC insiders said they are worried Patterson is attempting to stage another hard-right takeover of the convention by getting allies elected to key leadership positions, including Stone as president. They said a member of Patterson’s group, called the Conservative Baptist Network, is working to unseat Rolland Slade, the first Black chair of the executive committee, which helps run the operations of the SBC, such as the big annual meetings.

Slade said he is aware of such efforts to unseat him, but he’s not paying much attention to them.

“I’ve seen behind-the-scenes deals happen in the business world,” said Slade, who is a pastor in El Cajon, Calif. “I’m disappointed that it’s so entrenched in the SBC.”

Slade wants to see a revival take place at the SBC, but he believes that first the convention has to be “cleaned up.”

“This stuff has to be exposed and acknowledged, and we need to own the truth and repent of it and turn toward God,” he said. “That’s what the majority of SBC wants to be a part of.”

New audio recordings

On Thursday, several audio recordings of high-profile meetings were leaked by a pastor who used to work for Moore. In newly leaked audio recordings of meetings between Moore and Ronnie Floyd, the head of the SBC’s executive committee that runs the denomination’s finances, Floyd said ahead of a Southern Baptist conferencefocused on caring for survivors of sexual abuse that he wasn’t worried about what they would say, but he said he was particularly concerned about “the base” of the SBC.

“I just want to preserve the base,” Floyd said. “And that’s what I would say to y’all as you think through the strategy. Do everything you can to remember the base.”

In a statement, Floyd said the tapes were released as an “attempt to mischaracterize” the meetings. He also apologized “for any offense that may have resulted from my remarks.”

Speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing his current job, a former employee of Moore, the departed SBC leader, said Moore used to make fun of people who left the denomination because the institution would cultivate people, provide training and often an education. Through its financial and relational transactions, that employee said, the denomination cultivates a kind of loyalty usually only broken once a person says farewell.

Moore did not return requests for comment.

The Ivey family has lunch after Sunday church services on May 16 in Austin. Jamie Ivey, second from the right, was recently disinvited as a speaker at two events around the SBC's meeting in Nashville. (Julia Robinson for The Washington Post)
The Ivey family has lunch after Sunday church services on May 16 in Austin. Jamie Ivey, second from the right, was recently disinvited as a speaker at two events around the SBC’s meeting in Nashville. (Julia Robinson for The Washington Post)

Sarah Pulliam Bailey is a religion reporter, covering how faith intersects with politics and culture. She runs The Washington Post’s religion vertical. Before joining The Post, she was a national correspondent for Religion News Service.