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TAYLORS, S.C. (BP)-—As Frank Page recounts it, he didn’t want to be president of the Southern Baptist Convention. And he never believed he would win even after he felt compelled by God to be a candidate. But winning an election wasn’t really the point of his reluctant candidacy anyway.
While mowing his lawn May 19, after struggling for two weeks with the decision of whether to follow the urgings of many who wanted him to run or to accede to those who advised against a candidacy, Page remembers praying.
“The Lord made very clear to me that while I may not want to do this, it didn’t matter whether I did or didn’t,” Page said. “He wanted me to run to get some things on the table for discussion. He didn’t tell me at that time that I would win. He just said, ‘I want you to run.’”
But Page indeed was narrowly elected SBC president during the SBC’s June 13-14 annual meeting in Greensboro, N.C., beating out two other candidates in Southern Baptists’ first seriously contested presidential election in more than a decade.
The pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., talked about his surprising victory, his plans as president and current issues of debate among Southern Baptists in an extensive interview with the Florida Baptist Witness at his church near Greenville, S.C., July 12.
Calling himself the “quintessential anti-bureaucrat,” Page said he did not want to run for president because he “doesn’t like bureaucracies” and he knew his election would mean being “thrust into working with a very strong bureaucracy” and he “would have to do a lot of challenging of bureaucracy.”
He also didn’t want to run because of what he called “dirty politics” which have sometimes characterized SBC life. The decision to run, Page said, “was not what I would call a warm, fuzzy moment.”
OFFERING A CHOICE
While repeatedly affirming the conservative resurgence which brought the Southern Baptist Convention back from the brink of liberalism, Page said he believed the time had come for Southern Baptists to have a choice for president.
“We’ve not had elections; we’ve had coronations,” he asserted.
“I believe my election says, by the majority of the people, this convention does not belong to any subgroup, but it belongs to the Lord and a broader spectrum of people,” Page said, adding that he has “great respect” for the men who have given Southern Baptists conservative leadership for the past several decades.
“But I think it was time we had a truly democratic convention where people could choose,” he said.
Page said he does not oppose politics in SBC life when the purpose is positive influence -— such as the conservative resurgence.
“The conservative resurgence to influence this convention back toward a belief in the inerrancy and integrity of the Word of God was absolutely appropriate and I thank God for that. I cannot imagine where we would be [without it],” Page said, affirming Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. who noted in Greensboro that without the conservative resurgence of the last three decades Southern Baptists may have been debating whether to ordain homosexuals.
“I thank God that we’ve come to the point where we are,” Page said.
But he opposes “bad politics” in SBC life.
“By that I mean breaking the ninth commandment of bearing false witness, of rumor and innuendo. That is absolutely not of God; that’s bad politics and that happens far too often in our convention,” he said.
Although considered the anti-establishment candidate since prominent SBC leaders -— including three seminary presidents —- had endorsed one of the other president candidates before Page announced his own candidacy, he acknowledged that other leaders in Southern Baptist life strongly urged his candidacy.
“There were state [Baptist convention] executives that very much wanted me to run,” Page said, noting that the executive director-treasurer of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, Carlisle Driggers, publicly endorsed his candidacy.
The endorsement of a presidential candidate by the seminary presidents created debate among Southern Baptists about the appropriateness of SBC entity leaders becoming involved in denominational politics, even resulting in a public rebuke of such activities by Morris H. Chapman, president of the SBC Executive Committee.
While re-asserting the view he expressed at his first news conference after his election that SBC entity heads should not publicly endorse candidates, Page told the Witness it is not wrong for SBC leaders to be involved privately in denominational politics.
“I don’t have a personal problem with any entity executive -— national or state or associational level —- who states in private conversation their belief. … I believe it is best not to endorse candidates.”
THE VOTE IN GREENSBORO
Page offered three factors for his surprising election -— in order of importance: concern about the Cooperative Program; a “protest vote”; and the location of the annual meeting in his home state of North Carolina.
“I believe the convention spoke loudly that [the] Cooperative Program matters,” Page said. His church gave 12.44 percent of its undesignated receipts to missions through the Cooperative Program last year, far outpacing the level of CP support of the churches of the other two presidential candidates.
“I do believe there was a major protest vote against the system that has become too much in control of who the next president would be. I teasingly said a large number of people would have voted for Daffy Duck. … But seriously, I think there were a large number of people who said, give us a choice, and if he’s the candidate, we’ll vote for him. We don’t want someone telling us who our president’s going to be,” Page said.
The third reason for his narrow victory, Page said, was the location of the annual meeting in Greensboro -— his hometown and in the neighboring states of his current place of ministry, South Carolina, and previous place of ministry, Georgia.
Speculating on what his election means about the future of the Southern Baptist Convention, Page offered two scenarios -— a “blip on the screen” which would not result in meaningful change or a “true heart change” in which “the Cooperative Program is going to be strengthened and that we’re going to truly involve a larger number of godly, conservative men and women in the convention. And, instead of a tightly controlled convention, that it’s going to be more open for, I believe, healthy dialogue and debate.”
At his post-election news conference in Greensboro, Page said he had not developed a theme for his presidency since he did not believe he would win.
Since Greensboro, however, Page told the Witness he has started to develop a multifaceted theme:
“Lord, send your Spirit to transform our churches. Lord, send your Spirit to re-energize evangelistic efforts to reach the lost. Lord, send your Spirit to call us to repentance, to call us to seek forgiveness for our self-sufficiency. Lord, send your Spirit to revive a cooperative mission effort among your children.”
In contrast to the practice of the SBC’s immediate past president, Bobby Welch, pastor of First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla., Page said he “cannot be a fulltime Southern Baptist Convention president.”
Although he will not “micromanage trustees -— that’s not my business; that’s not my job,” Page said he will seek to attend “at least one, if not more, of all [SBC] entity trustee meetings,” acknowledging his role is to be “adviser and encourager.”
Regarding a motion by International Mission Board trustee Wade Burleson seeking an investigation of alleged interference in IMB governance, coercion of staff and narrowing theological parameters which messengers at the SBC referred back to IMB trustees for response, Page said he hopes to “provide assurance for Southern Baptists that the issues regarding the Burleson situation are handled with integrity and with completeness.”
“There are fears that because it was referred back to the IMB trustees that it will not be handled with integrity. I do not say I hold those fears, but there are fears out there that they cannot … police themselves -— that it’s not going to be dealt with sufficiently; that it will be swept under the rug,” Page said.
Page said IMB President Jerry Rankin has asked him to be involved in the trustees’ review of the matter, including “to sit in on all the meetings as much as possible to help make sure that objectivity is assured.”
Page believes IMB trustees should “involve some other persons outside the board to help them make sure it is objective.”
STATE OF THE SBC
Page told the Witness “there are many things that are right” with the Southern Baptist Convention, citing as examples “10,000 godly men and women on the mission field,” “six conservative seminaries training men and women to be champions for the Gospel,” “a conservative ideology that holds the Bible with great, great respect,” and “there’s still a cooperative spirit that is among most Southern Baptists.”
Page cited a number of concerns when asked what’s wrong with the SBC.
“There’s an increasing factionalism that could break the back of the Southern Baptist Convention where groups could be pitted against one another in such a way that would bring about absolute division. That disturbs me; that frightens me,” he said, citing divisions over issues like Calvinism, the younger leaders movement and “extreme alienation among small church pastors.”
“I’m afraid that if we do not make a concerted effort to reach out to small- and medium-size churches that we’re going to lose a huge constituency,” he said.
To address what’s wrong, Page said he will call for revival among Southern Baptists. He also will “intentionally seek out pastors of every size church, including small- and medium-size churches, young pastors and older pastors who are godly, conservative men who need to be involved.”
Page was careful to point out that his call for “broadening of involvement” was methodological, not theological.
“I had an e-mail this morning from somebody wanting to know if I was a stealth candidate for the CBF [Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a dissident group opposed to the current leadership of the SBC], which offended me. … As I’ve said over and over, I’m not talking about broadening the tent theologically; I’m talking about broadening the tent of involvement among godly conservatives.”
Page said his presidential appointments will include people who have a “sweet spirit,” are evangelistic, affirm the inerrancy of Scripture and strongly support the Cooperative Program, and the same will be expected from those who make recommendations to him for appointments.
Acknowledging he must rely on the recommendations of others since he cannot possibly know everyone he will appoint, Page said he will listen to the advice of others, including current SBC leaders, but added, “I’ve told at least one entity head since I was elected, ‘Please know that I am a team player, but I am not a yes man.’”
James A. Smith Sr. is executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, on the Web at http://www.floridabaptistwitness.com