A Louisiana Baptist Convention-hosted website promoting Kenneth Hemphill’s candidacy for Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) president was not funded by any Cooperative Program money, Hemphill told Baptist Press (BP) March 19. Nonetheless, the site is being moved to an independent server this week to avoid “any impression that it was inappropriate.”
“I’m working for the Cooperative Program and certainly wouldn’t do anything to abuse it,” said Hemphill, former president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
The Cooperative Program (CP) is Southern Baptists’ unified effort to fund missions and ministries in North America and across the globe.
The website – kenhemphill2018.com – has been the subject of criticism on blogs and was classified by North Carolina’s Biblical Recorder news journal as part of an “organized campaign” for Hemphill “backed by the Louisiana Baptist Convention.”
Hemphill said the website, launched late last week, is simply a platform to share his ideas on cooperation and partnerships within the SBC.
Louisiana Baptist Convention (LBC) executive director David Hankins offered to help Hemphill build the website, Hemphill said. “I don’t know how to build a website, so I took his offer and told him I would pay for it … Once he gave me what the costs were, I sent him a check right away,” Hemphill noted. “And I will send him an additional one when we find out what it costs to change it to another server.”
Hankins told North Carolina’s Biblical Recorder news journal last week, “Our communications team gave counsel” regarding the website. “We have a lot of people writing articles, a wide ranging group of people.”
“We are glad to host the website,” Hankins said, “because we believe it is in the best interest of the Louisiana Baptist Convention, and we are excited about the opportunity for people to know Ken Hemphill and how he can lead us as the next president.”
Critics, however, raised questions about the website’s connection to a state convention.
On the Baptist 21 blog, North Carolina pastor Ronnie Parrott wrote March 16, “It would appear that Cooperative Program dollars from the 1600+ churches & missions in [Louisiana] are being used to support one of the two candidates for the next President of the SBC.”
Parrott later posted an update stating “someone close to Hemphill” told him Hemphill paid for the website, but Parrott maintained it is “unsettling” that a state convention appears to be “using its apparatus to throw support behind a particular candidate.”
In a March 16 blog post on the SBC Voices website, Louisiana pastor Jay Adkins called the LBC’s hosting of Hemphill’s website “unheard of” and “inappropriate.”
Alabama pastor Rick Patrick wrote in the comments section following Adkins’ post that he is “sympathetic” to Hemphill’s candidacy and has felt “for quite some time … like my Cooperative Program funds are being used to promote ideas I oppose by the leaders of the other denominational wing.”
Patrick – executive director of Connect316, a coalition of Southern Baptists who identify as “traditionalists” in regard to God’s plan of Salvation – seemed to be referencing tweets by SBC entity presidents supportive of Greear and a 2016 parody rap video titled “J.D. Greear for SBC President” in which three SBC entity presidents made cameo appearances.
That year, Greear withdrew from the SBC presidential election after the second ballot and moved that the convention elect Tennessee pastor Steve Gaines by acclamation.
“In my opinion,” Patrick wrote, “there is no significant difference between a national entity leader appearing in a video released to the public, sending a tweet, writing an endorsement letter, making a phone call, sending out emails, or otherwise using their CP-funded equipment, time, office, and platform to promote their preferred candidate, and a state entity leader using their CP-provided equipment, time, office, and platform to promote their preferred candidate.”
Other individuals in the comments thread disagreed with Patrick, drawing a distinction between individual leaders using their social media platforms to demonstrate support for individual SBC candidates and a Baptist body using its website as a platform to promote only one perspective.
Greg Wills, a dean at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) who directs the seminary’s Center for the Study of the SBC, told BP, “Probably for as long as the convention has existed, convention leaders have discussed and consulted among themselves as to who they think would be good candidates to serve as president of the convention.”
Such activity is “natural” and “what you would expect from concerned leaders,” said Wills, dean of SBTS’s School of Theology.
Yet “convention leaders historically have expressed concern about any evidence of public campaigning,” Wills said, noting “it’s difficult, of course, to form a precise definition of what the difference [is] between making recommendations and taking mutual counsel on one hand, and actually engaging in a campaign.”
Among past occasions when the topic of campaigning for the SBC presidency surfaced:
– In 2016, an article by the Association of State Baptist Publications claimed the three SBC entity presidents in the parody rap video supporting Greear – David Platt of the International Mission Board, Russell Moore of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and Danny Akin of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary – “appear to be endorsing Greear’s election.”
– In 2010, a grassroots organization called the SBC Majority Initiative backed the nomination of two SBC vice presidential nominees and endorsed Alabama pastor Jimmy Jackson for SBC president, BP reported at the time.
– In 1987, the SBC Peace Committee reported that “historically, informal political groups or coalitions have emerged in Southern Baptist life. Prior to the last decade, most of these groups operated informally by word-of-mouth among mutual acquaintances interested in selecting the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention. More recently, these groups have developed organized coalitions centered on theological perceptions and individual leaders committed to a defined viewpoint. These coalitions have adopted the political strategies for electing officers of the Convention” among other endeavors.
The Peace Committee added, “But, we believe that the time has come for the Convention to move beyond this kind of politics. We find that the extent of political activity within the Southern Baptist Convention at the present time promotes a party spirit, creates discord, division and distrust, diminishes our ability to do missions and evangelism, is detrimental to our influence and impedes our ability to serve our Lord.”
– In 1968, SBC Education Commission staff member Howard Bramlette, lamented in an op-ed piece for Kentucky’s Western Recorder news journal that “a handful of the politically-astute hold tenaciously to ‘denominational power.’”
“In due time,” Bramlette wrote, “perhaps we will no longer have men seeking the office, but the office seeking the men.”
– In 1948, Alabama Baptist editor L.L. Gwaltney noted what he perceived as a political campaign to elect Memphis pastor R.G. Lee as SBC president.
“The writer thinks it a mistake for religious people to put on such a campaign for the presidency of a general body as was put on for the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention in Memphis,” Gwaltney wrote. “The man, whoever he is, to whom we are most opposed being elected to the presidency of the Convention is the man who wants it most and who would make the greatest personal effort to get it.”
This year, Hemphill said, Southern Baptists should not feel like the convention is divided between his supporters and Greear’s.
“There are usually two or more candidates every year,” Hemphill said, and the multiplicity of candidates has not necessarily hampered SBC unity. His website is simply an attempt to discuss “some specific issues” with “my Southern Baptist family.”
“If anyone got the impression the website was funded with CP money,” Hemphill said, “I’m sorry, because I would never do anything to erode confidence in CP giving.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)