The Southern Baptists are electing a new president to succeed the Rev. Fred Luter Jr., who became the denomination's first African-American president in 2012.
Contenders include the Rev. Dennis Kim, pastor of a Korean church in Silver Spring, Maryland, and the Rev. Ronnie Floyd, pastor of Cross Church, with several locations in northwest Arkansas. Members meeting in Baltimore will vote for the new president Tuesday.
The Southern Baptist Convention is the nation's largest Protestant denomination, with 15.7 million members, but leaders are concerned about recent membership declines. One of the bright spots in the effort to reverse that trend has been an increase in churches that are predominantly African-American, Hispanic and Asian, according to SBC statistics. The ratio of member churches that are not predominantly white moved from 1-in-20 in 1990 to 1-in-5 in 2010.
"One of the untold stories of evangelicals, Southern Baptists included, is their incredible ethnic diversity," said Ed Stetzer, executive director of Lifeway Research, publishing arm of the SBC. But that diversity is not well reflected in the SBC's leadership, he said.
The president of the SBC's Executive Committee is white, as are the heads of the seminaries, the mission boards and the other large entities that carry out the day-to-day work of the convention.
Still, some members — including some of Kim's supporters — are uncomfortable with the idea of making a conscious effort to diversify the leadership. Supporters of both candidates downplay the significance of race and agree the next president should be someone who can help halt the denomination's decline in membership.
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President, the Rev. Albert Mohler, who announced plans to nominate Floyd months before Kim became a candidate, said he is pleased to be part of a denomination that has many qualified leaders. But he said he thinks Floyd has the right qualifications to lead the SBC now.
"I don't think it sends any big signal about diversity in leadership," he said. "The SBC is becoming diverse in leadership at every conceivable level."
Texas pastor Dwight McKissic, who will nominate Kim at the annual meeting, said he thinks Kim is the best man for the job.
"Everything about him represents what the Southern Baptists need to impact the nations of the world with the gospel of the kingdom," he said.
The convention does not announce in advance what resolutions it will consider at its annual meeting, but recent controversies include the admission of a Muslim student to a Southern Baptist seminary and the decision of one Southern Baptist church to stop preaching that homosexuality is immoral.