ORLEANS — Even before the Southern Baptist Convention
(SBC) elected Fred Luter to national office,
there was already widespread speculation that Luter is poised to become the
denomination’s first African-American president.
Representatives of 16 million Southern Baptists overwhelmingly elected Luter
first vice president on June 14 at their annual meeting in Phoenix.
By the time Baptists gather again next summer in Luter’s backyard, many expect
the pastor of this city’s 5,000-member Franklin
Avenue Baptist Church
— one of the largest Southern Baptist churches in the state — to clinch the top
“Many of us are thinking this is the first step toward him being elected
president next year,” said Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist
Theological Seminary in Wake Forest,
who nominated Luter for the vice presidency.
“I haven’t talked to a person who hasn’t affirmed that, including the present
president, Bryant Wright, the past president, Frank Page” and others, Akin
said. “There’s tremendous interest and excitement about that.”
Luter’s election comes at a moment that the nation’s largest Protestant
denomination confronts evidence that it has plateaued in numbers — even
Moreover, some leaders of the predominantly white, socially conservative church
say they are concerned that their ranks — and especially their leaders — do not
look like the nation as a whole.
In recent decades, the convention has passed 11 resolutions seeking “greater
ethnic participation,” including a 1995 resolution apologizing for its past
defense of slavery, but church leaders deemed that insufficient.
“There’s a sense that we’re behind the curve in the SBC,
that we’re not really representative of our constituency at the level of leadership.
That we need to be moving forward with more diversity,” said David Crosby of First
in New Orleans.
Convention delegates, or “messengers,” approved a plan in Phoenix
to vigorously reach out to minorities to incorporate them in meaningful leadership
“We’re becoming more aware of the fact we should strive to make church on earth
look like church in heaven,” Akin said in an interview.
Luter’s allies portray him as the right man for the job next year, regardless
of the denomination’s explicit desire to incorporate more people of color into
its leadership ranks.
“I think Fred can be elected on merit, regardless of race or color,” Akin said.
“But he gives us opportunity to make a proactive statement, to say something
about who we want to be.”
Luter, a gifted preacher, has traveled widely in Southern Baptist circles for
almost 20 years and built a solid reputation all across the convention, Crosby
In 2001, the last time Southern Baptists convened in New
Orleans, he was given a plum preaching slot and
delivered a tour-de-force sermon that roused 10,000 messengers to their feet.
Luter took over the Franklin Avenue
pulpit in 1986. Formerly a white church whose congregation had left for the
suburbs, it had only about 60 members and was near death.
At the time, Luter was a commodities clerk, not even formally ordained. His
preaching experience was in borrowed churches and street corners, including his
native Lower 9th Ward. Luter was ordained and installed as pastor on the same
day, he said.
The congregation grew. And although it became predominantly black, like its
changing neighborhood, it kept its Southern Baptist affiliation.
Franklin Avenue numbered
about 7,000 members just before Hurricane Katrina destroyed it in 2005.
In the following months, evangelical pastors around the
state sent money and volunteers to help Franklin Avenue
get back on its feet. It currently claims about 4,900 members, according to the
Louisiana Baptist Convention.
“He’s known not only as a great preacher, but an effective pastor. He’s worked
hard and people love him. He’s a model for pastors all over the convention,” Crosby
Meantime, Luter said he is overwhelmed by the sudden attention.
Although a movement to draft him for the presidency has quietly circulated for
months, he said he was approached about the vice presidency only in the past
With the elevation to that office, he said,
people are congratulating him as if the presidency were a foregone conclusion. “My
head’s spinning,” he said.
“I haven’t decided what to do, but every step I take people are telling me, ‘It’s
your time,”’ particularly with next year’s meeting scheduled for New
Orleans, Luter said.
His congregation is in the midst of a major capital campaign to build a new
church in eastern New Orleans. He
said he would decide whether to seek the presidency after consulting with his
church and other leaders.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune in New
Orleans. Adelle M.
Banks contributed to this report.)