by Gerald Harris
Mike Stone, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear and President of the Georgia Baptist Convention, was elected as chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee on Monday, June 11. Stone won over two candidates, Joe Knott of North Carolina and Kent Choate of Oklahoma, with a majority vote on the first ballot..
The Chairman of the Executive Committee is perhaps the most strategic elected position in Southern Baptist life and Georgia Baptists are honored to have our state convention president serving in this influential role. Christian Index senior editor Gerald Harris interviewed Stone and we would encourage you to read every word of this vitally important dialogue.
The Christian Index: Being the chairman of the SBC Executive Committee is a very responsible and influential position. I am sure you must have felt God’s leadership to allow your name to be placed in nomination for this role in Southern Baptist life. What were the primary factors that led you to making this decision?
Mike Stone: I’ve been blessed to serve on the committee for the last four years. But the prospect of serving as chairman did not cross my mind until April. While attending a special called meeting to address the departure of our CEO, I rose to speak to a very sensitive issue. My comments seemed very well-received. Several members approached me that day and others contacted me in the days that followed.
This truly was a case of the “position seeking the person.” For a couple of weeks, I prayed along with my wife, Andrea. Receiving her full support, I also spoke with the deacon chairman at my church. By the time Dr. John Yeats of Missouri contacted me with his desire to nominate me, I had already received a peace from the Lord to serve, if elected.
I felt the Lord had prepared me with both institutional knowledge and strong personal relationships across the SBC. Given the critical time we face in our denomination, I simply want to be used of the Lord in this role.
The Christian Index:We are obviously at a crucial time in the history of our Southern Baptist Convention. I perceive that we have come together here in Dallas with a variety of challenges and opportunities. What do you see as our major challenges in this convention?
Mike Stone:I seriously do not know where to begin. Southern Baptists have been this divided before but I do not think we have ever been this divided over this many things. We are divided along more fault lines than I could have ever imagined just a few years ago.
We are increasingly divided over various approaches to funding our collective gospel efforts. The Cooperative Program is, perhaps, the greatest missions funding mechanism in the history of the church. But our convention must deal with the new reality of an increased emphasis on direct societal giving. One of the challenges we face is the question about the distribution of Cooperative Program dollars between state conventions and our national entities. While some want us to give more to national entities, others argue for the necessity of keeping the “home mission field” strong. It is an increasingly tense debate, often behind closed doors.
We are also divided politically. In times past there was general agreement among conservative Southern Baptists about social, moral, and political matters and on how the gospel impacted those issues in the culture. That is not so today.
The emphasis that some call the “Social Justice” movement is quickly becoming a significant fault line. As Biblical Christians, we all desire to have justice in our society. But to some, many voices in our convention sound like old-fashioned liberalism in a new-fangled cloak.
Our views on gender roles are also a source of potential division. Baptist headlines have quickly moved us to a discussion about complementarianism. One seminary recently elected the first-ever female board chairman of an SBC entity. There have even been calls this year for both presidential candidates to step aside in order to elect our first-ever female SBC president. We need to celebrate the tremendous role that women play in our homes, churches, and convention. But we are not all agreed as to what that looks like. This question is as old as the garden of Eden and it is not going away any time soon.
Ethnic inclusion in SBC life is yet another challenge. Our convention is increasingly, diverse which is a wonderful thing. We must figure out a way to bring more people to the table of leadership while avoiding quotas and the like.
The recent discussions of race and gender also highlight a difficulty no one could have seen even a decade ago. Namely, “How are we to treat one another on social media?” A ministerial reputation can take a lifetime of character to build and only 280 characters to destroy.
I have been amazed at key pastors and leaders who jump on an issue with little to no investigation of the facts. The rush to judgment, the propensity to condemn, and the consistent assignment of motives hold the potential to destroy this convention in a way soteriological arguments never could. We might reasonably expect such behavior from our children, but not from our leaders.
One case in point is the recent report of the SBC Committee on Committees. There are organizational reasons, glitches really, that their initial report was ethnically lopsided. But rather than ask questions, the “SBC Twittersphere” largely condemned the committee’s work as being motivated by racism. And much of the criticism came from pastors and entity leaders who I doubt would appreciate being treated the same way. It seems to be easier to tweet a uninformed barb than to roll up your sleeves and do the necessary work of inclusion.
Some continue to see a Calvinism fault line. But in my personal observation the argument is not as much about soteriology as personalities and perceived control. People of varying soteriology have coexisted in the SBC since its founding. But the issues and frustrations I hear these days deal more with the fact that the overwhelming majority of the entity hires within the SBC have come from the same institutional, relational, and soteriological stream. And there is no question that with social media, entity heads within the SBC continue to gain more and more influence in our convention.
The recent firing of Dr. Paige Patterson has been so divisive in part because it combined many of these fault lines in one issue. Social justice, complementarianism, #MeToo, social media use, influence of other entity heads, and the perception of soteriological control.
The Christian Index: I am nearing the retirement age and I know that there must be a changing of the guard in Southern Baptist life. Some of our heroes from the Conservative Resurgence are no longer in positions of leadership. You, as a young pastor, are in a strategic position of leadership and you are becoming one of the influencers in our denomination. How do you think this transition of leadership can be accomplished in the most orderly fashion?
Mike Stone: As trite as it may sound, this transition must involve a deep respect for those who have gone before us and a passionate vision for those coming behind us. Where either of those is lacking, chaos, jealousy, and strife will rule the day. On this point, I want to make a rather direct charge to both generations.
In the Scripture, older disciples train the generation of disciples behind them. Our seminaries are just one example of how we have done that to a large degree. While there is no Scripture of which I am aware that commands the older generation to pass leadership on to the younger, numerous passages demand younger believers to honor and respect their elders.
I know I will trouble some people with what I am about to say. But I pray your readers will read the entire answer before tweeting.
It is the height of pride to be saved in a church led by the older generation, educated in schools built by the older generation, receive a degree largely funded by the older generation, go to a church established by the older generation in a building purchased by the sacrificial giving of the older generation and then say, “I’m here now with my M.Div., so let me show you older people how to do church.” I know every younger leader does not have that attitude. Indeed, most do not. But I have seen that attitude far too many times.
I saw a recent series of tweets suggesting older leaders need to pass the baton like Moses did to Joshua and Elijah did to Elisha. In both cases the younger men had clearly been trained, groomed and prepared to lead. And when the time came for the transition, they were ready! But we should note that the transition did not come until Moses died and Elijah took a little chariot ride.
I am not suggesting that younger people should not lead until the older leaders die or retire. Not at all! I simply want to illustrate that the younger men in Scripture were not complaining that the staff and mantle had yet to pass into their hands. As a Biblical people, we should pay attention to the fact that there is not one God-honoring time in Scripture where a younger leader wrested a leadership role from a qualified older leader.
Having said that, it is equally prideful for an older generation to hang on to preferences and traditions while an entire generation is rushing headlong into Hell. We are losing our children and grandchildren while some are arguing about whether or not to sing Chris Tomlin or Fanny Crosby. Pardon the humor, but even Fanny Crosby would be able to see that’s not very wise.
Where no Biblical doctrine is at stake, the older generation must begin sharing leadership and ownership with the next generation even if the younger generation does things differently. So, to answer your question about transitioning in an “orderly fashion,” older leaders must train, prepare, and release the younger generation. The younger leaders must watch, learn, and be ready to receive the baton when it is handed to them.
The Christian Index: What would you like to see accomplished through the work of the SBC Executive Committee during your term as Chairman?
Mike Stone: There is a heightened awareness of the issue of predatory abuse and sexual immorality. The resignations and firings of entity leaders and employees has put this matter in the spotlight. There are calls again for an “SBC Database” to tag and target known offenders. With polity like ours, this is not an easy fix.
But I believe we must figure out a way to handle these challenges within the context of our congregational autonomy. It is not as easy as denominations with a hierarchal structure but we must do something to keep predators from moving from church to church so easily. Just because we cannot do “everything” that does not mean that we cannot and should not do “something.”
The Executive Committee chairman is also a member of the search team for the new President/CEO of the EC. This may end up being the most influential service of the new chairman’s seat. I would ask Georgia Baptists to pray that God would give me wisdom as I serve in that regard.
Finally, I believe we must take a strategic look at online/distance participation in the annual meeting. With advancement in technology this is more possible than it has ever been before. Of course, just because we can do something does not mean that we should. The idea of regional or local participation in the annual meeting presents both opportunities and challenges. Some are minor and some are major. But I think we need to look at the idea again.
The Christian Index: We have three leadership positions (at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, the International Mission Board and the SBC Executive Committee) and perhaps at least one more leadership position that will probably be filled during your tenure as chairman of the Executive Committee. What kind of leaders do we need in this critical time in our history? What will be your role in assisting these various search teams in the fulfillment of their responsibilities and how would you encourage Southern Baptists to pray for these search teams?
Mike Stone: I don’t recall there being a time where three such influential positions were vacant at the same time. And for Georgia Baptists, we are also searching for the successor to our beloved Executive Director, Dr. J, Robert White. These simultaneous vacancies provide a somewhat unprecedented opportunity for us to reach into our future together.
The SBC Executive Committee Chairman has no specific constitutional role in the process except for the presidential search for the EC itself. There is always a role of influence and prayer support. And the various search committees can be assured of my prayers.
I believe these positions all call for a leader with thick skin, a soft heart, and a visionary mind. Each of these entities is facing significant challenges. Several key statistical markers are in decline for Southern Baptists. “Business as usual” will not suffice. And with change, we Baptists usually get conflict and disagreement.
So, whether it’s the IMB, the SBCEC, SWBTS, or the GBMB, we need to look for men of wisdom, humility, courage, transparency, and integrity. But we also need men who are not afraid of criticism. Sometimes the type of leader you need when things are difficult is not the same type of leader you need when things are great. And things are not great among Southern Baptists. I hate to say that but “facts are our friends.” And it’s just a fact.
The Christian Index: You also have the opportunity to serve Georgia Baptists as the President of our state convention, which has been called the crown jewel of the Southern Baptist Convention. Your role as pastor of the growing Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear is no small task; How can we pray for you, your family, your church and your very pivotal roles in the life of our denomination?
Mike Stone:You are right about Georgia Baptists. I believe I am privileged to preside over the best of our state conventions. And Georgia has recently become the top contributor to missions causes through the SBC Cooperative Program. It’s a “crown jewel” indeed.
But after my family, my primary responsibility is to help shepherd Emmanuel Baptist in Blackshear. We are seeing tremendous success in some “Next Gen” initiatives and I’m blessed to be able to lead in that effort. Our church is vibrant, full of life, and missionary health.
As a “middle age” pastor, I want to join hands with the older generation and make a strategic investment into the next generation. I am already thinking 20 years down the road. I’m praying the Lord will help me deliver a healthy, debt-free, growing, evangelistic church to my successor. Then he and his generation can continue reaching souls for the kingdom.
I would request the prayers of all Georgia Baptists for several things. First, that I will walk with integrity and humility before God and His people. Recent Baptist headlines make me more desirous than ever before to finish well.
Second, that I will be successful as a husband and father. My wife, Andrea, and our four children, Michaela (15), Andrew (14), Sarah (10), and Matthew (5) deserve my best at home. Like most pastors, I keep a busy schedule but we’ve learned to prioritize family time as well. Thankfully, my wife is very supportive and my kids love the ministry. Pray we continue to balance that well.
Third, pray for my church. The local church is “ground zero” for the gospel. And I want to serve well at Emmanuel. They are the most wonderful people in the world. And I’m thankful they allow me to serve our convention as well as pastoring our congregation. But the health of our state and national conventions will never be any better than the health of our churches. So, pray that I pastor well.
And finally, ask God to grant me wisdom in convention service. These are challenging times for Southern Baptists. We need to walk in humility before God, relying solely on His guidance.
This article was originally published at The Christian Index.