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The executive director for North Carolina Baptists, who assumed his post in 1997 with goals of reconciling moderates and conservatives, is retiring at age 57 to return to the pastorate.

Jim Royston, top administrator for the 4,000-church Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, announced Monday that he is stepping down almost immediately to finish writing a book before becoming pastor of First Baptist Church in Mooresville, N.C., in mid-September.

The 1,400-member church doesn’t formally vote on calling Royston as pastor until July 17.

According to a press release, Royston informed convention leaders of his decision in a letter.

“I’ve always been a pastor,” Royston said. “While my seven and a half years in this office have been challenging and fulfilling, my wife Jeannie and I have missed the familial relationships unique between a pastor and congregation.”

On his election in November 1997, Royston told reporters he hoped North Carolina Baptists wouldn’t go the way of Baptists in Virginia or Texas, where separate conventions exist for conservatives and moderates.

“I assure you it’d be a very sad time for me if Baptists were to decide they didn’t want to work together in North Carolina,” he said at the time.

Describing himself as “very conservative theologically” but “open and flexible” toward accepting the opinions of others, Royston said, “I think if we focus on the most important things, the things that divide us will pale in comparison.”

“What we agree on historically as Baptists–the lordship of Christ, the authority of scriptures, the autonomy of the local church–some of these issues I think we’re 99.97 percent ivory pure on,” he said.

But that didn’t stop moderate and conservative factions from waging annual political campaigns to elect officers year after year. Conservatives solidified control of the state body in 2003.

“Jim Royston had an impossible job from day one,” Ken Massey, pastor of First Baptist Church in Greensboro and the defeated candidate for first vice president in 2003, told EthicsDaily.com. “No person can create a spirit of cooperation between moderates and conservatives by sleight of hand, heavy hand or no hands when conservatives refuse to accept moderates as full partners.”

Last year defeated moderates met in Greensboro to consider options.

“Jesus didn’t die on the cross so we could play political games at the state convention,” said David Hughes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, who lost the presidential election in 2003. “He wants us to raise our sights much higher than that. He wants us to take on the world in Christ’s name.”

North Carolina is one of a handful of Baptist state conventions that allow moderate churches that don’t support the conservative realignment in the Southern Baptist Convention to designate a portion of their gifts to the alternative Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Conservatives in the state have the last couple of years criticized the practice as disloyal to the SBC. A motion made from the floor to end multiple giving options failed in a vote last fall.

But Royston has also drawn criticism from the left, after he and other state leaders took administrative steps to remove from the state convention’s membership rolls a church that baptized two gay members.

Royston said on the Baptist state convention Web site that the last seven-plus years have been “demanding” and that he couldn’t say he “enjoyed” them, but nevertheless called in “an exciting, fulfilling time.”

He said one thing missing has been “a pulpit of my own and a congregational family that calls me their pastor.”

“I’ve never been one to preach one gospel and live another,” Royston said. “So when I urge people to seek God’s face, listen to Him speak and be willing to move as He leads, I do the same.”

Royston also said health issues related to a fall by his wife three years ago has made his travel schedule more difficult.

In a column, Royston promised to remain “our convention’s strongest supporter and biggest advocate” after he re-enters the pastorate.

Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics said Royston has been a “good friend” to the Nashville-based agency. He called the departing executive “a fair arbitrator between competing alliances in North Carolina and the last hope for a centrist convention in that state.”

Parham predicted Royston will be followed by “a fundamentalist executive director determined to take North Carolina Baptists into the 19th century.”

Massey expressed similar fears but said he hopes he will be proven wrong by makeup of a search committee that will be named to seek Royston’s successor.

In addition to seeking to unify Baptists in North Carolina, Royston set out to lead in numerical growth. In 2001 he outlined a five-year plan setting goals for increased baptisms, church starting and budget growth.

While the state convention did recently surpass 4,000 churches for the first time, other areas remained flat. Giving last year of $35.6 million last year is about the same as in 1991, when Royston announced a goal of increasing the budget to $50 million over the next five years.

Budget woes prompted a major staff cut in 2003, when 24 jobs—about one in every five at the state office—were eliminated.

In 2004 gifts to the unified budget dropped for the second straight year, while designated gifts for missions exceeded their goals.

First Baptist Church in Mooresville includes links to both the Southern Baptist Convention and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship on its Web site.

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina lists it as a “partnering” church.

The church’s denominational relations committee recently sponsored educational events addressing increased interest in the CBF but recommended no change in the congregation’s support for the SBC.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

Previous related articles:
Memo to Baptists Gathering in Greensboro
Planner Says N.C. Moderates Likely to Realign, But Not Split
Upcoming North Carolina Convention Potential Turning Point
North Carolina Moderate Meeting Draws 500
Pastor Wants North Carolina to End Multiple Giving Options

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