by RUTH KIM
In a closely watched election, the Rev. Dennis Kim lost in his bid to become the next president—and first Asian American one—of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest Protestant denomination in the nation.
The Southern Baptist Convention, based in Nashville, met in Baltimore Tuesday to choose a successor to its outgoing leader, the Rev. Fred Luter, Jr., amid much speculation about whether the membership would elect its second person of color to the highest post. Two years ago, members elected its first African American president, the Rev. Fred Luter Jr. The candidates this year included Kim, a Korean American who leads the largest SBC church in Maryland; the Rev. Ronnie Floyd, pastor of 27 years at Cross Church in Arkansas; and Jared Moore, pastor of New Salem Baptist Church in Hustonville, Kentucky. Floyd, who is white, won, capturing 52 percent of the votes, to second-place finisher Rev. Kim’s 41 percent.
The election comes at a time when the convention, with an estimated 15.7 million members, struggles to combat declining membership, attendance and baptisms, and faces heightening conflict with mainstream culture, especially its views that that gay sex is immoral. Ethnic diversity in leadership emerged as a key issue in this election.
Two years ago, when the Convention elected its first African-American president, the move was seen as a milestone in the church’s efforts to move the nation’s largest Protestant denomination beyond its traditional white Southern demographic. These efforts appeared to have an impact, with the ratio of predominantly white member churches moving from 1-in-20 in 1990 to 1-in-5 in 2010. But some say there is still room for improvement.
“One of the untold stories of evangelicals, Southern Baptists included, is their incredible ethnic diversity,” said Ed Stetzer, the executive director of Lifeway Research, the publishing arm of the 15.7-million-member denomination. But Stetzer says that diversity is not yet well-represented in SBC leadership.
If Kim had been elected, it could have signaled that the denomination, associated predominately with white Southern culture, is becoming more ethnically and geographically diverse. Kim’s supporters hoped to make history by electing the first Asian American president at SBC. However, some members, including some of Kim’s supporters, admitted to feeling “uncomfortable with the idea of making a conscious effort to diversify the leadership.”
Both candidates’ supporters downplayed the significance of race, and instead agreed that the next president should be someone who can turn around the decline in church membership.
“I don’t think it sends any big signal about diversity in leadership,” said Rev. Albert Mohler, the head of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky, who nominated Floyd. “The SBC is becoming diverse in leadership at every conceivable level.”
However, Texas pastor Dwight McKissic who nominated Kim, echoed the words of Rev. Luter, who said immediately after his election two years ago, “If we stop appointing African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics to leadership positions after this, we’ve failed.”
In a letter expressing his reasons for nominating Kim, McKissic wrote, “Dr. Luter expressed faith that ‘ethnics’ would assume positions of authority in the SBC—not just a solo African American—but ‘ethnics.’ Dr. Kim will lead us to continue our growing ministry to a rapidly diversifying America with a strong and faithful gospel witness.”
Though Kim said he believes the denomination can be more effective through diversifying its leadership geographically and culturally, he also expressed that he does not support any type of quota for ethnic minorities in leadership.
Photos via NewsTimes, Black Christian News, and Mercury News