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Southern Baptist Reforms Proposed : Religion: Former official seeks grass-roots action to end conflicts in the denomination.

May 22, 1993| From Religious News Service

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A former top executive of the Southern Baptist Convention is calling for members at the grass-roots level to rise up and demand an end to the bitter war between moderates and conservatives.

Lloyd Elder, former president of the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board, says neither the "controlling majority" of conservatives and fundamentalists nor the "voting minority" of moderates can rescue the 15.2-million-member body from events threatening the denomination's historic missionary emphasis.

Elder's call for a grass-roots revival and revolt was contained in a three-page May 8 letter and a 16-page report, "Calling the Family Back Together," mailed to some 6,300 local and state leaders and media outlets.

His proposals are sweeping and include constitutional and bylaws changes that would force the Southern Baptist Convention's ruling conservatives to share power with state Baptist conventions and dissident moderates.

The proposals, Elder said, "would involve the whole family in missionary governance, and call our people to renew their zeal in missions support."

Conservatives now leading the denomination had no immediate response to Elder's proposals.

"Months ago, I became concerned at the alarming decline in mission support in our Southern Baptist Convention, especially through the Cooperative Program," Elder said in his letter. "Either the Southern Baptist Convention has become what the people want but are not willing to support financially, or the Southern Baptist Convention can be changed by the people into what they do want and will, in fact, support."

He referred to financial difficulties that have beset the denomination in recent years as the conservative movement has solidified its control over the boards and agencies of the denomination. Earlier this month, the Foreign Mission Board announced an 8% cut in the number of workers at its home office in Richmond, Va., and warned of cuts to come in its overseas budget.

In addition, the denomination's Cooperative Program, its primary fund for supporting national agencies of the church, has insufficient funds to meet the year's already reduced budget.

Elder's report also confirmed a charge often made by the moderates during the long political struggle--that congregations headed by conservative powerbrokers are often far less supportive of the denomination's mission efforts than are congregations headed by moderates.

The congregations headed by each of the denomination's last seven presidents--all conservatives--gave just 4.45% of church income to the Cooperative Program, compared with 7.2% from churches represented by members of the Coordinating Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the leadership of the moderate movement within the convention.

Elder's 20 proposals for restructuring the denomination would change the convention structure, which is currently controlled from the top. The changes would affect not only the presidency but the makeup of the powerful committees that nominate trustees of boards and agencies.

His proposals would also change procedures for annual conventions.

For example, Elder would have the denomination's president and first vice president be elected for two years and alternate between a lay and ordained person. At present pastor-presidents are elected every year.

In addition, state conventions would nominate half the persons to serve on the denomination's national boards, allowing for more diverse representation. Elder would also increase the number of messengers (delegates) to national conventions and make the number of messengers a congregation could send dependent on its support for the Cooperative Program.

Elder also calls for holding the annual convention biennially but combining it with simultaneous "regional voting conventions" that could involve between 200,000 and 300,000 people.

Elder insisted that his challenge was not aimed at forming a "new political party" in the deeply divided denomination.

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