Pastors, church and seminary leaders representing various ethnicities gathered Aug. 20 at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS) in Wake Forest to discuss racial diversity within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), and to celebrate the launch of the seminary’s “Kingdom Diversity” initiative.
Fred Luter, SBC president, and Daniel Akin, SEBTS president, fielded questions from those who attended a special luncheon presented for more than 80 guests. It was part of several related events held during a day that began with Luter speaking during the seminary’s first chapel service of the semester. The day culminated with a worship service.
“This is just the beginning of a dialogue that we hope [will] be a part of this Kingdom Diversity initiative,” said moderator Walter Strickland, SEBTS’s newly hired advisor for diversity.
“Southeastern Seminary strives to be a school that is recruiting and equipping students from every corner of the kingdom to serve in every context of the kingdom.”
BR photo by Shawn Hendricks
Fred Luter, center, addresses participants at an Aug. 20 luncheon at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS) in Wake Forest. Flanked by Daniel Akin, right, SEBTS president, and Walter Strickland, SEBTS special advisor to the president on diversity.
The benchmarks for the seminary’s new initiative include: building healthy relationships across racial and cultural lines, increasing the number of minorities and women on campus, developing curriculum to better train students to minister to people of different ethnicities, to build and strengthen partnerships with ethnically diverse churches and educational institutions, and to help SEBTS emerge as a resource that fosters diversity throughout the SBC.
“These benchmarks are going to be costly,” Strickland added. “But it is far more costly for the church of Jesus Christ to not intentionally try to [resemble] the Kingdom that we’re appointing our people to.”
Strickland began the discussion by asking Luter if he believed his election as the first African American president of the SBC was a sign of genuine progress in improving race relations throughout the convention, which has been dogged for decades by its troubled past with slavery and racism.
Luter answered the question by sharing his surprise of running unopposed in 2012. He ran unopposed again in June and was re-elected to his second term.
“It’s still amazing to me,” said Luter, pointing out that the convention represents 45,000 churches, 16 million members, and only 8 percent of those are African Americans. “That was unheard of … God had to be in it. … I know it had to be the hand of God.”
Luter added that he has been welcomed warmly by churches throughout the country and has seen growing numbers of minorities in the pews.
“I have no doubt it’s made an impact on this convention,” Luter said. “A lot of African American brothers and pastors are showing more interest in the convention because of the fact you have an African American president. … I have no doubt in my mind.”
“This is not your grandfather’s convention,” Luter later told the crowd. “This is a new convention.”
Luter said the history of the convention continues to be a barrier for many older black church leaders. It’s an obstacle Luter hopes more of them can move past within time.
He pointed to the SBC’s resolution on racial reconciliation in 1995, when messengers publically apologized for the Convention’s past position on slavery, as another a sign of progress.
“All of us have a past,” Luter said. “I’ve got a past. … And there are things in our past that we are not proud of. I know there are some things in my past I’m not proud of. … Brothers, there is nothing we can do about our past … but there’s a whole lot we can do about our future. And that’s why I’m excited about this diversity initiative at Southeastern.”
With that said, Luter pointed out that racism is still an issue in some congregations and needs to be addressed.
“You cannot deny the fact that there are still a lot of churches in our convention … I can’t join,” he said. “That’s a fact. There are churches that would love me to come preach, but I cannot join that church. And that’s something we gotta deal with.”
“I see those walls coming down every day,” he said. “We’ve got to keep preaching [the gospel], teaching it, and most of all, we gotta keep living it. … If we keep doing that, the walls will come down. And people will see … we’re all in this together.”
Intentionality is the key to progress, Luter said.
“It’s gotta be something you plan on purpose,” he said. “It’s not just going to happen.”
Though SEBTS is ushering in a record enrollment this fall, Akin said the seminary has plenty of room for improvement when it comes to racial diversity. He said he hopes to see more progress through the seminary’s diversity initiative, and with hiring Strickland and Edgar Aponte, who will serve as the seminary’s director of Hispanic leadership development.
Akin said both men have “an open door” to approach him and point out areas where the seminary can improve race relations.
“In spite of our good intentions, we all have blind spots,” Akin said. “I recognize as someone who is white [and] who grew up in the deep South … I don’t always see things accurately.”
Improving diversity is not only biblical, Akin said, but it’s also a common sense solution to helping the SBC grow again.
“If it were not for the growth within the SBC [among] African American churches, Asian churches, Hispanic churches, our decline would be even worse,” he said. “… Even if I were not a believer, and I was just being hired to do marketing for the SBC, … I would tell you, ‘You better go after Asians and Hispanics and African Americans, especially Asians and Hispanics.’ They’re growing so rapidly. If you don’t, you’re going to miss out on two of the largest demographic groups in America.
“It’s shameful that we might do out of necessity what we should have been doing out of conviction,” he added.
Ed Davis, an African American and member of Vision Church in Raleigh, applauded SEBTS’s efforts to put more minorities in positions of leadership. He said for many blacks, leadership is a huge issue that has kept many of them from embracing the SBC.
“I think this is big time part of the answer when you start putting people [in leadership positions],” he said. “Now I’ll be the first to say, ‘don’t put anybody in … that classroom that is not solid.’ … I’m not looking for people to be put up there because of their color.”
Luter added that change is not going to happen through “token” assignments. In order for true change to happen, more minorities are going to have to earn the credentials needed to acquire leadership positions.
“Guys, we’ve gotta get the degrees,” he said. “We’ve got to do the hard work. … It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be difficult, but we’ve got to sacrifice if we really want to see more of us at the table. It’s not just going to happen because you’re a nice guy and happen to be African American, [or] happen to be Hispanic.”
Akin said he dreams that SEBTS – and the SBC – will be made up of leaders representing many different cultures and ethnicities.
“My prayer is Southeastern will train up an army of African American brothers and sisters that will fill not only key pulpits but also key positions in our colleges and key positions in our seminaries,” he said. “That’s my goal.”