When Suzii Paynter was named the new executive coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in 2013, I had never heard of her.
The distance between Texas and Tallahassee, Florida, where I was serving at the time, never gave opportunity for our paths to cross.
So, I was in the undecided camp on what she might bring to our Fellowship in her new role.
However, it didn’t take me long to warm up to the possibilities when I heard Suzii deliver her first address at that year’s General Assembly.
She shared with us her vision for the organization and then offered a compelling invitation to come alongside her in forging a productive future. “We can be alone,” she said, “or we can be a Fellowship.”
Since that time, I have had the privilege of working with Suzii as a member of the inaugural Governing Board and later as an officer in the organization.
What I discovered was a leader with remarkable savvy and spirit who honestly believed that CBF needed to be a “big tent” organization that, while focused on its clear mission of joining together to spread the hope of Christ to the least-reached and most marginalized among us, acknowledged the freedom of each congregation and individual to discover and fulfill their own God-given mission.
All of that sounded very Baptist to me.
Over these last five years, CBF has tackled some major challenges, ones that would have seriously derailed other denominational bodies that lacked the leadership CBF enjoyed with Suzii.
For example, during Suzii’s tenure, we addressed the implementation of a key strategic plan from a blue-ribbon task force. It involved major organizational restructuring and the development of a funding strategy that could sustain the Fellowship’s future.
Though Suzii stayed in the background throughout the process, her fingerprints were all over the final product, which has resulted in a more nimble body, able to respond to opportunities (and difficulties) that present themselves along the way.
No doubt, the one matter that will define Suzii’s tenure more than any other will be the “Illumination Project,” which dealt with how the Fellowship might maintain its unity in the context of potentially divisive issues, such as human sexuality.
As the quintessential conflict avoider, I would have steered clear of such a conversation if I had been in Suzii’s role. But I would have been wrong to have done so.
Suzii’s instinct was to facilitate such a discussion, precisely because of events in the larger culture at that time, which could not be ignored any longer.
She reasoned rightly that our Fellowship was healthy enough to participate in what could be a contentious season, and the risks of not doing so would no doubt damage our unity and witness.
As a member of the IP Committee (and the person responsible for appointing the group), I can attest that throughout our deliberations Suzii continuously advocated for the unspoken voices on either side of the matter.
She pressed us to come to a place where people in the larger Fellowship could respond to our recommendations with conscientiousness and integrity.
If the group failed in any way in that regard, it has been our fault, not Suzii’s.
Now, as CBF moves into its next chapter, we will do so on the solid foundation Suzii has laid.
We will do so as individuals and churches who have a keener sense of our organizational identity and a deeper respect for one another.
Most important, we will move into God’s good future not on our own, a disparate and divided muddle of people, but as a Fellowship, capable of accomplishing in the grace and power of the Holy Spirit more than we might have ever thought possible – a grace and power we now know was always evidenced in our leader, Suzii Paynter.
Doug Dortch is senior minister of Mountain Brook Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and a past Moderator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.