An International Mission Board trustee at the center of a dispute over principled dissent has withdrawn from a speaking engagement just prior to this summer’s Southern Baptist Convention, suggesting he might be nominated for president.
Wade Burleson, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Okla., declined comment. But given his track record, it’s possible Burleson’s nomination will be unannounced. When he won election as president of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, as a dark horse candidate in a contested race in 2002, he told no one he was being nominated, not even his wife.
Burleson was scheduled to speak at a “Younger Leaders Summit” scheduled on the eve of the June 13-14 SBC annual meeting in Greensboro, N.C. But Marty Duren, an organizer of the meeting and blogger who writes at SBC Outpost, reported Thursday that Burleson changed plans to speak at the gathering citing “the increasing likelihood that his name would be placed into nomination at the national level.”
Duren said Burleson confirmed in a phone conversation that “numerous people had approached him about the possibility of being nominated” to an undisclosed office, “and that if God was orchestrating it, then he needed to keep that door open.”
Burleson has been at the center of controversy since early this year over a Web log he used to criticize both new IMB policies narrowing doctrinal requirements for missionary candidates and behind-the-scenes politicking of trustees who would like to replace the IMB’s current chief executive, President Jerry Rankin.
Burleson has been mentioned before as a possible candidate for president but told EthicsDaily.com in February he had no interest in the job.
But according to someone who knows Burleson well but doesn’t want to be identified, that’s also what Burleson told Buddy Hunt, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church, Duncan, Okla., when Hunt first told him he believed God wanted him to nominate Burleson as president of the next state convention.
Burleson told him he was not interested, but the pastor protested: “You don’t understand. I believe God has called me to nominate you.”
Saying he did not want to get between the pastor and God, Burleson agreed, but on a condition. Reasoning that if God truly wanted Burleson to be president God could make it happen without a campaign, he made the pastor promise that he would not tell anyone about his plans before the actual nomination.
Burleson also told no one. Two candidates had already announced they were seeking the presidency. One was a popular pastor and close friend to the state convention’s executive director. On the day of the election, a newspaper ran a feature story on his ministry and described him as favorite to become the next president of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.
Burleson sat on the back row of the auditorium at First Baptist Church, Moore, Okla., when the two previously announced candidates were nominated. Then, to everyone’s surprise, Hunt stepped to the microphone to throw Burleson’s hat into the ring.
It was an evening session, and messengers from Burleson’s church had already left to head home. Burleson’s wife did not know the nomination was coming, and she had gone shopping.
When the votes were counted Burleson won the election. It was the first time in modern history that an unannounced candidate was elected president of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.
During Burleson’s two years as president of the BGCO, he led a difficult but needed reorganization of the convention’s ministries and agencies that became a model for other state conventions to follow and accomplished things that people had told Executive Director Anthony Jordan were impossible.
Withdrawing from a high-profile speaking engagement before a supportive crowd would fit a strategy of political avoidance. For years SBC leaders have used the platform of the SBC Pastors Conference, a preaching marathon held two days prior to the annual meeting, to parade their handpicked successors before the masses.
One of the speakers at this year’s Pastors Conference is Johnny Hunt, pastor of First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga. His name was mentioned as a candidate for president at a Bible conference in Jacksonville, Fla., but he has not yet announced whether he will be nominated.
Burleson still writes his blog, but he no longer criticizes fellow trustees or IMB policies. That is because trustees passed a new policy against public criticism of other board members or IMB staff and for speaking about IMB policies and votes in positive terms.
Some have complained the gag order is intended to keep Southern Baptists in the dark about controversies dividing SBC leadership. A pastor from Texas has proposed a resolution affirming principled dissent to a committee.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.