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The first woman to lead Texas Baptists’ moral-concerns agency says her election is both historic and ironic.

“I come to this position as a Christian Baptist woman,” Suzii Paynter, whose election as director of the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission was announced Thursday, said in an e-mail interview with EthicsDaily.com.

Paynter is the first woman to direct the agency established in 1950 to emphasize a prophetic voice as part of the state convention’s program of missions, evangelism and discipleship.

Ironically, she said, if she had followed the path of other women of her generation in enrolling in a Baptist seminary, it is unlikely ministry doors would have opened to prepare or allow her to be considered for the position today.

She said it is also significant that she comes to the post as a “special breed”–a minister’s wife. Her husband, Roger, is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Austin. She is a frequent teacher and an ordained deacon.

“I have lived and loved the church, even as I know it sometimes to be an environment of unrealistic expectations, competing interests and unfinished human beings,” Paynter said. “It is my prayer that my love for and active leadership in the local church will continue to be an asset for the CLC.” She said she counts “the value of service to Christ in the role as a minister’s wife” as very important in her preparation for her new role.

Paynter has served as interim director of Texas Baptists’ ethics, public policy and religious-liberty agency since March 2. She succeeds Phil Strickland, who worked with the agency nearly 40 years before his death from cancer Feb. 11.

Charles Wade, executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, said Paynter is an effective leader, administrator and motivator with a deep passion for following Christ, serving Baptists and making Texas a better place to live.

“Suzii exemplifies the qualities and passion that filled the past great leaders of the Christian Life Commission,” Wade said. “She demonstrates an ability to lead and lead effectively the ethics arm of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.”

Paynter said the BGCT “has been a sustaining partner not only in missions and evangelism but also in leadership for global movements in religious liberty, poverty and hunger eradication, empowerment of national Christian and Baptist movements, and ethnic reconciliation.” State convention bylaws assign the CLC to provide leadership for ethical and moral concerns, to inform Baptists and the executive board on public policy matters and to collaborate with other religious and faith groups.

Current hot-button issues facing Baptists, she said, include immigration, children, gambling, welfare, criminal justice, education and also “the stewardship of creation–the importance of the environment, clean, adequate water and air.”

“Another very important issue is dialogue and civility in public (and private) life,” she said. “The world is desperate for a loving clarity of expression. As Christians if we are to model love (and there is no shortage of scriptural mandate to do so) we must begin to lift our voices in dialogue and model discourse, civility and respect. This begins with loving our neighbor.”

Churches and individuals can help, she said, first by being honest “that the problems that face God’s world bear our fingerprints.” As a Texan, she said, she buys produce, eats in restaurants, stays in hotels and pays for outdoor work that rely on cheap immigrant labor.

“How can I not claim my part in responsibility for an economy that is dependent on immigrant labor–documented and undocumented?” she asked. “How many times have I uttered a grace at meals that included the blessing for ‘the hands that prepare this food?’ Was I not sincerely praying day after day and year upon year for the undocumented mother of six that worked in the kitchen?”

She also urged individual Christians to “continue acting on the call that God places in each heart ‘for the least of these,'” whether in ministry, missions or policy. “We each have a call to help others,” she said. “God does not provide a sideline bench for human needs. God intends that we get in the game for others if we are to grow to spiritual maturity.”

As director of the CLC, Paynter will split time between two office locations in Dallas and Austin, the state capital. The Austin schedule will be heaviest during legislative sessions. She identified life without parole, prison ID, gambling expansion, foster care reform, school finance reform, immigration and tax diversification as top legislative successes during the most recent legislative session.

Moral education has always been, and will remain, a priority for the Texas CLC, Paynter said. She said she envisions changes in the future as including “more technology, more e-communication, more mentoring of ‘generation next,’ partnerships among cooperating agencies and ministries and more support to institutions.”

Asked what energizes her most about the opportunity, she said: “No one is energized about external things without an interior engine of support. I am energized by the Holy Spirit, my incredibly loving and interesting family, and the wonderful Christian friends–past and present–who are fragments of the face of God.”

Her general philosophy of Christian citizenship, she said, is: “I believe Christian citizenship is a response to the call of God in the world. Christian citizenship is a powerful force in our world–small perhaps in quantity, but powerful for God’s kingdom.”

As an example, she cited a letter written in 1801 from the Danbury Baptist Association to Thomas Jefferson, who responded in 1802 with his metaphor of a “wall of separation” between church and state that came to represent shorthand for the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

She wondered, “Did they have any idea that this letter would provide religious liberty?” for all.

Paynter has been the CLC’s citizenship and public policy director for five years. She was a national literacy professional, professor and consultant for 25 years, advocating for state and federal policy to provide systemic remedies for hard-to-teach populations.

She has taught at StephenF.AustinUniversity and BaylorUniversity and is an advocate for religious liberty issues, literacy and early intervention for high-risk children.

Paynter currently serves on the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Coordinating Council and is a recent board member and officer of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the William Whitsitt Baptist Heritage Society.

In the Austin community, Paynter has served as president of the Samaritan Counseling Center Austin and is a board member of Texas Impact and the Literacy Coalition of Central Texas.

Paynter earned a bachelor’s degree from Baylor University and master’s degrees from Stephen F. Austin University and the University of Louisville.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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