NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Ed Litton, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, announced Tuesday he will break with tradition and not seek a second term in the top convention role.
Litton, who narrowly fended off an ultraconservative candidate with his 2021 victory, said he plans to spend the next decade promoting racial reconciliation at the local level, something he thinks is best done "as a pastor and not from the office of president of the SBC."
In a short video message Tuesday, he spoke of his plans to bridge the racial divide through "gospel-based racial reconciliation." He noted the genesis for his racial reconciliation work was in the days after Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
Litton, the pastor of Redemption Church in Alabama, said a group of Christians who convened in Mobile after Brown's killing, has continued to meet at a local car dealership and has grown in membership over the years.
"We've taken the message of reconciliation to our local community and are continuing to try and shrink the racial divide," he said.
Litton's announcement comes after a tumultuous year when the SBC dealt with heated internal debates about the role of women in ministry, the concept of systemic racism and several allegations of mishandled sexual abuse claims.
Last year in Nashville, Tennessee, Litton had prevailed in a runoff against Georgia pastor Mike Stone to become the SBC president, winning 52% of the votes among more than 15,000 delegates at a meeting roiled by controversy and a power play by the denomination's ultraconservative wing.
Speaking to The Associated Press on Tuesday, Litton said he believes the SBC will "make the right decision" when the time comes to pick his successor. He acknowledged concerns about the possibility of an ultraconservative candidate winning the presidency and taking the denomination further right.
"Of course, it's a concern," he said. "But I believe someone will rise who is a good candidate. And I believe Southern Baptists will make the right choice."
Not running for re-election was a challenging decision, Litton said.
"I had every expectation of serving my term," he said. "But this is a unique moment in history for the SBC. We are dealing with two important issues – sexual abuse and racial reconciliation."
Litton believes he has accomplished his goals as president. He appointed a task force to investigate how sexual abuse allegations were handled. The task force is expected to release a report shortly before the convention's national gathering slated for June 12-15 in Anaheim, California. During the meeting, Litton said, he will lay out a strategy whereby churches can begin the process of reconciliation at the local level.
"Southern Baptists at our best are grassroots people," he said. "This movement for racial reconciliation should be a grassroots movement."
His own strategy to promote racial reconciliation locally will involve a "simple three-step process that anyone in the church can start in the community," Litton said.
"It focuses on getting to know one another, finding what we have in common and celebrating our differences," he said. "The next step would be to have times of assembly and to ask God to move us closer to each other. And finally, we need to go into our communities and serve their needs."
In his video message Tuesday, Litton acknowledged that "it's been a difficult year" and took responsibility for "mistakes made in the preparation and delivery of particular sermons," a reference to accusations of plagiarism for which Litton apologized in the initial days of his presidency.
On Feb. 22, during a meeting in Nashville, the SBC's Executive Committee offered a public apology and a confidential monetary settlement to sexual abuse survivor Jennifer Lyell, who was mischaracterized by the denomination's in-house news service as having had an inappropriate relationship with her seminary teacher when she decided to go public with her story in March 2019.
During that meeting, Litton emphasized the seriousness of the sex abuse investigation.
"People's lives have been damaged, hurt and ruined," he said during the Feb. 22 meeting. "We all need to remain sober, yet determined, about this."
Litton concluded his video message Tuesday by urging members of the SBC to focus on the important tasks that lie ahead, including being prepared to act in June on the report that will be delivered by the sexual abuse task force.
"We must keep working to eradicate the stains of sexual abuse and racism from the convention," he said.
Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP's collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.