Willie McLaurin expresses a difference between working “in the business” and working “on the business.”
“So many leaders, they’re working in the business. They’re putting out fires. They’re crossing the Ts and dotting the Is. That’s working in the business,” McLaurin said. “But I’ve learned how to work on the business.
“That just simply means that on a regular basis, I have to constantly plan [for] the future. I need to be thinking strategically about the future, vision casting and just thinking futuristically about our work together. So somebody has to be thinking and working on the business.”
With 20 years of service in Southern Baptist leadership, much of it with the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, McLaurin is a few months into his post as interim president and CEO of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Executive Committee (EC).
Between much travel and many meetings in serving an increasingly diverse body of Southern Baptists, he sat down with Baptist Press (BP) to reflect on issues related to his job and Southern Baptist life.
He spoke of his appreciation for being warmly received by Southern Baptists, and the joys and challenges of leadership at this particular time in history. The importance and health of the local church, committed pastors, entities he described as Christ-centered and a diligent Executive Committee staff, were among topics.
He addressed unity in the SBC, as opposed to uniformity. He views the challenge of restoring unity across the SBC as among the most important ones faced.
“No network of churches is without its challenges. And I think if you would ask any number of Southern Baptists what the challenges are, that they will articulate those challenges from their culture, from their context or from their point of view,” he said. “We just need to make sure that as a network of churches, a network of Great Commission Baptists, that we are unified around the core issues.
“We’re unified around the gospel. We’re unified around the fact that there are people that are lost and they’re on their way to hell and they need Jesus, and that we’re unified around the fact that we’ve got to get the gospel to our nations and our neighborhood.”
McLaurin is accustomed to numbering his days, inspired by Psalm 90:12, that pleads for God to teach His people to number their days, that they might gain a heart of wisdom.
When he spoke with BP, McLaurin was on his 860th day of service to the EC, where he began in 2019 as vice president for Great Commission relations and mobilization, and approaching his 100th day serving as interim CEO and president of the EC, a post EC officers appointed him to Feb. 1.
Serving his immediate family well empowers him to serve Southern Baptists, he said, taking time to praise his wife Antonia and daughters Sierra and SiChanna.
“I could not do what I’m doing without having an amazing wife. Antonia, she has walked with me throughout my entire ministry journey. But especially in these first 100 days, she’s been the person that I could talk to,” he said. “She listens to me, laughs with me, challenges me, she pushes me, and really, she manages some of the larger aspects of my life.
“When the opportunity came for me to be the interim, she said this: ‘If you don’t manage our home and our family well, then you don’t deserve the right to lead Southern Baptists.’ Every day, I’ve just really tried to love my wife and make sure she feels loved and not lonely, and to make sure that my children feel like rewards and not rentals.
“I learned this from home. When I serve my wife and serve my daughters, they empower me, and they empower me because they like it when I serve them. … And what I’ve tried to do, and what I want to continue to do, is I want to serve Southern Baptists. I want to serve our team well, then my team will continue to empower me. Why? Because they like it when I serve them.”
Southern Baptists are weeks away from the 2022 SBC annual meeting and its subsidiary events June 12-15 in Anaheim, Calif.
McLaurin expressed joy inspired by the numerous volunteers and generous Southern Baptists working to make the annual meeting a success, including committees, local churches and the EC staff.
“I’m anticipating that we come out of the meeting in Anaheim having approved the budget for sending the largest missions force to the world,” he said. “And then, I’m looking forward to and anticipating a new slate of volunteers that will serve Southern Baptists on a number of boards and committees, hundreds of people who are serving on boards and committees.”
Uplifting and promoting the Cooperative Program around which Southern Baptists have united for nearly a century, churches from around the U.S. renewing friendships and fellowshipping onsite, and new relationships that will last a lifetime are among exciting things he describes as awaiting Southern Baptists in Anaheim.
Also in Anaheim, messengers are expected to respond to the Sexual Abuse Task Force report delving into the past 20 years of the EC’s handling of any complaints of sexual abuse that might have come before the EC. McLaurin has prayed for task force leaders and pastors Bruce Frank and Marshall Blalock, and SBC President Ed Litton, offering the EC’s support in making their work in leading the investigation as efficient and effective as possible.
McLaurin plans on reading the report as soon as it is publicly released, making sure he understands all that is contained in the report, and laying the groundwork to ensure that the EC staff is on the right path toward implementing any recommendations approved.
“If I can model strong, competent, courageous leadership and just reassure our larger convention that we’re here to serve, and we’re here to keep a laser-sharp focus on the Great Commission,” he said, “and provide what I call a non-anxious presence, then I really think that’s what our convention needs right now. … I need to be able to focus on the issues and separate how others may feel, and even separate how I may feel, particularly from an emotional perspective, and then be very objective and just really try to help move us forward in a path that is Christ-honoring.”
McLaurin is the first African American ever to lead an SBC entity, even in an interim capacity. He has expressed gratitude for the warm reception extended to him by entity leaders, pastors and Southern Baptists across the nation, and the EC’s unanimous affirmation of his appointment by EC officers.
“That unanimous affirmation by our trustees is a representation of a wide network of churches that are in the Southern Baptist Convention. Here’s what I’ve learned about Southern Baptists in this short time. They love Jesus, they love the church, they love each other, they have a heart to see lost people won to the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Humbling for McLaurin is the ability to serve as interim EC CEO in a convention birthed in the era of slavery.
“Even though we are a diverse convention, the vast majority of our brothers and sisters are Anglo,” he said. “I’ve been kissed by nature’s sun. And we are a convention that, for the 177 years of its history, was started out of slavery, if you would. So now, to have a descendant of a slave to lead in the convention, and to see just the openness and receptivity of all kinds of people has just been absolutely humbling.
“And it really is a direct reflection of what I see in the local church.”
During his ministry, McLaurin has served in interim pastorates at more than 15 churches, all of them majority Anglo.
“And so, I’m not surprised by the response I’m getting from the larger convention,” McLaurin said, “because on a regular basis for the past 18 years, I’ve had the privilege of serving in churches that the majority doesn’t look like me. … I’ve been really, really encouraged by that, very hopeful for the future.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ senior writer.)