As Southern Baptists start preparing for their annual convention – this one in Dallas in June – they will, as they do every year, be deciding who will serve as president of the Convention.
Thus far, two Southern Baptist pastors have thrown their hats into the ring for the year-long term. Current president Dr. Steve Gaines, pastor of Bellevue Baptist church in the Memphis area, cannot run again after serving two terms. Dr. J.D. Greear of The Summit Church in North Carolina may have the upper hand, according to Southern Baptist megachurch pastor Dr. Robert Jeffress.
"I think J.D. Greear may have a little bit of an edge ... simply because during the last election, when it was a tie vote, he graciously stepped aside so as not to cause any controversy," Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Dallas, recalls.
Dr. Ken Hemphill has been in Southern Baptist leadership for years, including serving on the SBC Board and as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
"Both men who have been announced as candidates are friends of mine, JD Greear and also Ken Hemphill," Jeffress continues. "[They're] both respected within the Convention and either one would be a tremendous leader."
Whoever ends up filling the position is expected to address a slow but relatively long-term decline in membership. Both Greear and Hemphill have spoken out in favor of church planting and evangelism. The incoming SBC president will also continue addressing racial reconciliation issues – once a blemish on the denomination's record that has been the focus of leadership for years now.
But Jeffress says all that happens largely over the heads of the average Southern Baptist in the pew.
"What happens in denominational leadership has little to no effect on the average Southern Baptist church," he describes. "I doubt most Southern Baptists could even tell you who the president of the Convention is."
Southern Baptist churches are autonomous, meaning they make their own policy and hiring decisions. The president of the Southern Baptist Convention serves as a volunteer and remains active at the local level.