Southern Baptists’ new leader: long career as bridge builder

As ideological divisions wracked the Southern Baptist Convention this year ahead of a pivotal national meeting, one of the leading candidates for its presidency, Ed Litton, embraced a role as the man best equipped to build bridges and promote unity.

“From time to time, every family has disagreements and tensions,” Litton said in a campaign video. “Because we’re a family, we don’t give up on one another.”

On Tuesday he prevailed in a runoff against Georgia pastor Mike Stone to become the next leader of the United States’ largest Protestant denomination, winning about 52% of the votes among more than 15,000 delegates at a meeting roiled by controversy and a power play by the SBC’s ultraconservative wing.

In doing so, Litton bested a better-known rival in the Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as Stone, who ran an aggressive campaign fueled by some of the SBC’s most prominent hard-line conservatives.

Among Litton’s notable attributes are a long record of hard work promoting racial reconciliation, and his perseverance in the face of personal tragedy. Litton’s wife of 25 years, Tammy, was killed in an automobile accident in 2007; two years later, he married Kathy Ferguson, the widow of another SBC pastor killed in a 2002 car crash.

Alan Cross, an SBC pastor from California who has worked with him on racial reconciliation projects, evoked those attributes in endorsing Litton’s candidacy.

“He will do a good job because he has character and integrity, he operates in humility, he trusts and lifts up Jesus, he has suffered and experienced the love of God in the midst of great grief,” Cross wrote on the blog SBC Voices.

Litton, 62, earned a bachelor’s degree in religion and theater from Grand Canyon University, a private Christian university in Phoenix, and later received a Doctor of Ministry from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

He spent the early years of his ministry in Texas and Arizona, and since 1994 he has been senior pastor of an SBC church — now known as Redemption Church — in Saraland, Alabama, a suburb of Mobile.

For the past six years, he’s been active in a Mobile coalition called the Pledge Group, a movement of leaders from different racial, religious and vocational backgrounds who want to shrink the city’s racial divide.

Litton was nominated for president at Tuesday’s SBC meeting by pastor Fred Luter, who in 2012 became the SBC’s first and thus far only Black president. Luter said he’d known Litton for more than 20 years, initially teaming up to preach on behalf of racial reconciliation.

That cause has been an enduring one for Litton, who has built strong relationships with many Black pastors.

Late last year, racial tensions in the SBC were heightened when the presidents of the SBC’s six seminaries — all of them white — issued a statement repudiating critical race theory, a term used to describe critiques of systemic racism. In response, a diverse group of Southern Baptists, including Litton and Luter, co-signed a statement asserting that systemic racial injustice is a reality.

During his presidential campaign, Litton identified unity and diversity as two of his top priorities.

Without unified commitment to the Gospel, he said in one campaign video, “We will stumble into opposing factions, differences of opinions and turf battles that squander precious time and resources.”

As for diversity, he noted that Blacks, Hispanics and Asian Americans increased their presence in the SBC over the past 20 years even as white membership declined.

“I want to continue broadening ethnic diversity on our boards to reflect who we actually are and who we’re becoming,” he said. “I want to build bridges. Where necessary, we have to repair burned bridges.”

He noted that some Black pastors are asking why they should remain in the SBC.

“My answer: because we want you and need you” Litton said.

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