The surprise resignation of a centrist executive director is causing moderates to question whether there is a place for them in the future of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.
Jim Royston, 57, who has sought to hold moderates and conservatives together during seven and a half years at the helm of the state convention, is stepping down to become pastor of First Baptist Church in Mooresville, N.C.
While his even-handed approach sometimes put him at odds with both sides, moderates contacted by EthicsDaily.com generally viewed his tenure with favor.
“Jim Royston really did strive to be a centrist and make sure the Baptist state convention was a broad tent for all people,” said Larry Hovis, coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina.
“Jim has done an admirable job at working with both moderates and conservatives,” said Wayne Hager, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Mt. Airy, N.C. “I know that at times both camps have been upset with some of his decisions. I would have preferred less times when I was upset, but in reality he was in an almost impossible position.”
David Hughes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, who ran unsuccessfully for state convention president in 2003, gave Royston credit for “attempting to accomplish the impossible.”
“I admire him not because I’ve agreed with everything he’s said or done–I haven’t,” Hughes said. “But I admire his willingness to step into the lion’s den and encourage the lions and the lambs, conservatives and moderates, to work together.”
The convention’s executive committee was scheduled to meet Tuesday and expected to discuss interim leadership. The group is also responsible for finding a permanent successor to lead the 4,000 church, 1.2 million-member organization.
Ken Massey, pastor of First Baptist Church of Greensboro, said the makeup of that search committee will be an important first sign about whether moderates can expect to have a meaningful future in the state convention.
The committee that nominated Royston in 1997 was balanced between conservatives and moderates. Observers believe if a new search committee is dominated by conservatives, it will send the message that conservatives now in power don’t desire to include moderates.
While moderates in North Carolina have viewed convention meetings in past years as pivotal, Royston’s departure gives this November’s annual meeting added importance.
Politics have already started to heat up for the meeting. The Conservative Carolina Baptists have announced a slate of candidates for officers. At a meeting in May, one leader stressed the importance of maintaining the course of requiring biblical inerrancy as a test for fellowship. Another speaker, seminary president Danny Akin, said the state’s churches should not support the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship but rather send more money to the Southern Baptist Convention.
Meanwhile, a nominating committee is reportedly passing over potential members of boards of trustees of convention agencies holding membership in congregations deemed too liberal.
Also, the Southern Baptist Convention will hold its annual meeting next year in Greensboro, further hardwiring the state and national conventions.
One moderate leader described the events coming together as possibly creating a “perfect storm” this November for conservatives seeking to tighten their grip in North Carolina.
Hovis of the CBF said it will be a “challenge” for any future leader to continue to hold the two sides together.
“I have great concern about the future leadership of our convention,” added Hughes. “I cannot imagine the next executive director will have much sympathy for moderates, given the current tilt of our convention.”
Hager of Mt. Airy said he has sensed for some time “that the pressure was increasing for the convention staff to satisfy the conservatives at the expense of the moderates.”
“Basically, I think most moderates felt the handwriting was on the wall and this just hastens it,” Hager said of Royston’s retirement. “The next executive director will be the indication as to which way things are going to go, and my gut says it is just about over for moderate participation in the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.”
Hovis said he wishes “the very best” for the Baptist state convention, but added, “We in CBF of North Carolina are here, and we are excited about our mission and ministry. We want to work with all North Carolina Baptist who are willing to work with all North Carolina Baptists.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.