On the election of Fred Luter, Jr. as the first Black President of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), columnist Jena McGregor opined that “tokenism is a risky approach to choosing leaders, but that hardly seems to be the case here. By all accounts, Luter is an exceedingly successful, charismatic and motivated leader of his church who happens to be black.” Luter, pastor of the Franklin Baptist Avenue Church in New Orleans, a predominant Black congregation, now is tasked with stemming the declining SBC membership, while also developing a strategy that would result in the SBC becoming more racially and ethnically inclusive.
An estimated 20 percent of SBC’s membership base is minority. Luter, “a former street pastor,” is no stranger to the problems that challenge the SBC. In 2005, his church, which was one of the largest in Louisiana, was decimated by Hurricane Katrina. At one time boasting some 7,000 members, post-Katrina, Luter saw his congregation dwindle to 50 or 60 members. With some patience and time, Luter has been able to get his membership base up to about 5,000.
There is something about Luter. People seem to be attracted to his personality, his style, and persona. SBC is hoping that his election is not viewed as a token attempt of bridging a racial divide, but viewed as a concerted attempt of reversing the SBC’s image and failed attempts of reaching across the divide. Luter anticipates on developing a pipeline of leaders of varying races and colors; this commitment also coincided with the convention adopting an alternate name–the Great Commission Baptists.
Is it irony, faith, or happenstance that the largely socially conservative SBC has elected its first Black president in the year that the United States first Black president is up for reelection? It is safe to say that Luter is blazing a trail, one that SBC hopes will yield significant returns.