The Southern Baptist Convention elected Frank Page as its new president Tuesday, choosing an unlikely candidate who had said it would take a ''miracle'' for him to win, and marking a new direction for the 16-million-member church.
"I'm a little taken aback by this," Page, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C. said. "Because I have not been known across the nation, ... I truly believe [the election] is God's people saying we want to see broadened involvement."
On the first ballot, Page received 50.48 percent of the vote just over the 50 percent plus one vote needed to win, beating out two high-profile candidates that had received the backing of top denominational leadership. Ronnie Floyd, pastor of First Baptist Church in Springdale, Ark., came in second with 24.95 percent of the vote, followed by Jerry Sutton, pastor at Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn., who received the remaining 24.08 percent.
Page, 53, called his victory evidence that Southern Baptists believed we could do together a lot more and a lot better than what we can do separately, referring to the two campaign points that helped bring victory: his support for the denominations missions-sending Cooperative Program and his call for a broadening of the church leadership.
Since the conservative take-over of the nations largest denomination 25 years ago, candidates for the SBC presidency have typically run unopposed or faced only token opposition. The last time the church held a contested presidential election was 12 years ago in 1994.
Forrest Pollock, pastor of Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon, Fla., emphasized Pages consistent support for the Cooperative Program when introducing the candidate to the 11,000 delegates yesterday.
Weve got to work together if were going to accomplish the Great Commission, Pollock said. Thats the reason that we started the Cooperative Program in the first place so that granddaddys church could work with your church and my church to reach the world for the Lord Jesus Christ.
Pages church gives 12.4 percent of undesignated receipts to the Cooperative Program, Pollock said.
This issue is not about theology; its about methodology, Pollock said. Are we going to support our missionaries or not, and who has the credibility to stand before us and challenge us to do more? You see, we cant have a double standard.... All of us must give if were going to reach this world for Christ.
While all three candidates head mega-churches of at least 2,000 members, most SBC congregations are smaller, and view the Cooperative Program as a crucial collective effort for the denomination and the best way for them to carry out Jesus call to evangelize the nations.
Floyds church, while one of the fastest-growing in the denomination, had been criticized for giving less than one percent of annual earnings to the Cooperative Program.
Sutton, who had served as the SBCs first vice president last year, has given over 13 percent annually, but was likely opposed because of his ultra-conservative views on membership and leadership standards.
Page said he hopes to use his presidency to broaden the range of Southern Baptist leadership, expand support for the Cooperative Program, and to help churches whose membership has been declining.
Denominational participation should come "from younger leaders, older leaders, small churches, medium churches and yes larger churches from across this nation who perhaps have been overlooked, he said.
Another factor of his victory may have been the local support he received from church delegates in the Carolinas. Page grew up in Greensboro, where the annual meeting was held, and became a Southern Baptist at one of the citys churches.