Pick one. It would be impossible to adequately describe the emotional disorientation that came — and lingers — with the news of Willie McLaurin’s unimaginable and incomprehensible fall from grace due to fraudulent claims on his resume regarding his educational achievements. McLaurin was within grasp of becoming president of the Southern Baptists Convention’s Executive Committee, a position for which he’s shown aptitude for 20 months.
But like a whisper, the opportunity vanished.
And like a tsunami whose destructive surge will recede slowly, it is way too soon and too impossible to calculate the colossal amount of damage his actions have caused a beleaguered denomination already staggering from various issues and in-fighting. McLaurin, as interim Executive Committee president, brought calm to a battered organization in the wake of former president Ronnie Floyd’s resignation and to the EC’s handling of sexual abuse claims related to SBC churches.
However, the calm is now a tempest, blowing away more of the SBC’s credibility and solidifying for many secular people — people who desperately need Christ — the image that Christians aren’t any different from people who have no relationship with God.
It wasn’t supposed to end this way. This process with McLaurin was a breath of fresh air and followed anew the process that began in February of 2022 and dragged on for more than a year, only to culminate in suspicion.
Let’s go back.
In early May, we released a Baptist and Reflector editorial urging the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention to fulfill a promise by initial EC presidential search committee chair Adron Robinson, stating the search committee would seek to restore the credibility of the EC following Floyd’s resignation. However, the search process did nothing to restore the desired credibility. The editorial identified how Jared Wellman, EC board chair, quietly resigned both as ex-officio member of the search committee and then as board chair — after participating in the other candidates’ interviews — to become the committee’s presidential nominee. Fortunately, the full EC board resoundingly defeated Wellman.
With the process reopened following the Wellman vote, and a new search committee formed, there was a renewed hope of transparency, credibility and brighter days ahead for the EC leadership position and for the SBC.
Let’s pause to split hairs. The process overseen by the previous EC search committee failed Southern Baptists in the nomination of Wellman because it appeared fraudulent. The process worked this time because it uncovered McLaurin’s fraud due to its members’ diligence and care.
In the spirit of transparency, McLaurin — Willie — is a friend. A good friend. A former co-worker. A brother. We would like to have seen him become the EC’s next president. However, while we did encourage the new/second search committee formed after the Wellman vote to again consider McLaurin, we also encouraged the admittance of all candidates who were part of the original search process. We never endorsed him for the position but specifically called for “a clearly defined process free of outside influence by which the EC board will ensure transparency, provide informed updates through the convention’s news agency and to which the search committee will be held accountable.”
We wanted to see integrity in the process and a rebuilding of trust in those who sit on the EC Board. This search committee, the one now led by Neal Hughes of Alabama, has done that. Unfortunately, this time it was the candidate who violated trust.
What could have been
Following June’s Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in New Orleans, Hughes was named the chair of the new search committee and a priority was to decide whether to put McLaurin forth to the full board as the initial candidate since he had been a finalist for the position back in February, according to previous search chair Robinson.
We will now never know if McLaurin might have become the next president — and the first African American president — of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee.
Surely, he could have been. He was doing the job Southern Baptists needed done and he could have done the job Southern Baptists needed doing long into the future. But there’s no way to sugarcoat it. McLaurin falsified his identity on a job application. He wasn’t what he said he was. The journey we were taking with a truly personable guy — the guy who was about to break through a glass ceiling — ended ugly, and the journey is now categorized as the rise and fall of Willie McLaurin.
‘Back to the drawing board’
So now where are we?
It’s back to the drawing board for a shell-shocked search committee who must pull itself together and get on with the business of vetting the next candidate, hopefully with the confidence that they are exactly the right people for the job.
And what about the rest of us, not just those of us who supported Willie but all Southern Baptists? Some may gloat and revel in his fall. To those, careful lest the Lord’s anger be visited upon you: “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles, lest the Lord see it and be displeased, and turn away his anger from him” (Proverbs 24:17-18).
The correct response is lament, not just for Willie and his family but for the SBC. Everyone loses in this scenario.
Repentance is another response. Yes, Willie must repent, but look at the pervasive antagonism, manipulating agendas and divisive spirit permeating our denomination and annual meetings. There is also the determined posturing and saber rattling by many across the SBC. It is heard at microphones on the convention floor, in resolutions and in ongoing social media rhetoric. There is an escalating dearth of civility, kindness, gentleness, love and cooperation.
A look in the mirror
There is a collective lack of humility across the Southern Baptist Convention.
So yes, while we are devastated over the rise and fall of Willie McLaurin, wisdom dictates that we use his very public moment to also be devastated for ourselves. And like Willie, we should fall on our faces and seek God’s mercy and forgiveness, individually and collectively.
Otherwise, it won’t be just Willie’s rise and fall people write about. They will also be writing about the rise and fall of the Southern Baptist Convention.
In many ways they already are.