An SBC Odyssey

Willy Rice

Waking Up is Hard to Do

I was almost President of the SBC. I’m truly grateful that didn’t happen. I suppose many others share that sentiment for vastly different reasons, but it does not matter to me. I am profoundly grateful and consider it an act of God’s merciful providence that he kept me from succeeding in that venture when such success looked somewhat likely. 

I say this without resentment or rancor. What any others may have meant for evil, God intended for good. God used that season and that painful experience to alter my perspective on many matters now facing the SBC. My theology and convictions have not changed, but my perspective surely has. I thought I understood where the boundaries were in SBC life. I thought I understood the difference between real and pressing issues and the others that appeared to be “made up” and merely distractions. I thought I would be prepared to step into the highest levels of leadership for the SBC after a lifetime of denominational experience at a multiplicity of levels. 

I was wrong. 

I am grateful that God kept me from going down that road because it allowed me to see things from a different vantage point, and I am very thankful for that. I now find myself agreeing with those I once dismissed in believing we need a new conservative resurgence. We need what amounts to a renewal movement that will fasten us anew to our convictions and strengthen our resolve to contend for the truth amidst our cultural challenges.

I grew up in Florida and have lived most of my life near the Gulf of Mexico. From the top floors of our buildings at Calvary, you can see Tampa Bay. Water is everywhere. If you come for a visit, you’ll need to overcome your fear of bridges. I love it and would miss it if I lived far from the coast.

But there is something about the coast, though, that everyone who lives here knows. It’s always shifting and moving. There are currents and tides everywhere, and if you look close enough at the barrier islands, you’ll see that things rarely stay fixed. If you get in the water for very long, you’ll probably find yourself drifting. You can drift and not even know you’re drifting. You can drift when you don’t even want to. In some cases, the drift can be dangerous, and sometimes it can even be deadly. As Jimmy Draper once told me, “You never drift anywhere worth going.”

I did not want to believe the SBC was drifting. I grew up in the early days of what became known as the conservative resurgence. I was a student and then a young pastor. I saw the theological liberalism that had eroded our institutions firsthand. I rejoiced at the reform movements that sought to return America’s largest Protestant denomination to its biblical moorings. My heroes were Adrian Rogers, Charles Stanley, and Jerry Vines. I didn’t know them personally, but I watched them from afar. I listened, studied, and learned. The movement succeeded. Against all odds, our institutions began to change. People rejoiced. The SBC had been saved from its leftward drift and reclaimed as a bulwark for American evangelicalism. I would do ministry in a network grounded in doctrinal clarity and conviction. While I knew vigilance was always required, I also felt like nearly everyone in SBC life was committed to biblical values and sound theological conviction. 

So, when I first heard the criticisms of those claiming a new leftward drift, I dismissed them. I saw the critics as malcontents and misinformed, much like backslidden recalcitrant church members that every pastor has faced a time or two. I guess you can never please everyone. And, of course, there were plenty of examples to confirm my bias. There were uncharitable statements, untrue accusations that could be easily disproven, and personal vendettas that seemed easy to dismiss. Upon further reflection, I now realize that some of those statements that I dismissed as “uncharitable” were true, even if I didn’t have the ears to hear them quite yet.

As I mentioned, I’ve served in numerous roles in SBC life. I didn’t seek them; I just showed up ready to help and willing to serve when opportunities arose. Over time, I served as president of our state convention in Florida, on the SBC Nominating Committee, on the Committee on Committees, as president of the SBC Pastors’ Conference, as a trustee at NAMB, and had other opportunities. Over the years, I built friendships with many people at the center of SBC life. The people I had once admired from afar were now friends and colleagues, people I genuinely loved and respected and still do. I was afforded a seat at the tables of influence and believed I was a part of something good and significant. 

So, in the fullness of time, it wasn’t a complete shock when some of those same people asked me to consider running for SBC President. When Ed Litton decided not to seek re-election in 2022, he and others encouraged me to run. Ed was and is a friend, though we may see things differently today. 

I think at least one of the reasons that several people encouraged me to consider running is that I had deep feelings about the sexual abuse reform movement. I was strongly supportive of the reform effort. I have shared before how a close family member was violated by a former IMB missionary who was then serving in an associational role. As far back as the 1990s, I saw firsthand that Southern Baptist institutions and leaders needed to do much better in this critical arena. I was willing to help, and it seemed like the right moment had come. And then it didn’t. 

I have no desire to cover old ground here. What interests me now and what might possibly be important for someone to read and consider is what happened next.  When my vision gradually cleared after getting run over by the SBC bus, I began to see things differently than I had before. It has not been an easy journey, but I cannot deny what I have come to see and believe to be true. 

We have all watched a mystery movie where some unforeseen twist in the plot changes the perspective on the whole movie. We watch it again, and everything looks different from a new vantage point. We’ve heard stories of people whose secret lives were revealed after years, and close family members respond with shock at what they never saw. We see what we want to see; therefore, we sometimes don’t see what we don’t want. I didn’t want to see the SBC drifting. I didn’t want to believe that the sexual abuse reform movement was anything but an honest effort to confront sin and lead redemptively. I dismissed the critics because I felt certain they were wrong. 

It turns out that I was the one who got it wrong. 

There were clues. Several key moments happened in my brief time running for SBC President, most of which have never been discussed publicly until now. Behind the scenes, things didn’t add up, and when the dust settled, I gradually came to see some inconvenient truths. 

I now believe the sex abuse reform movement had gone off the tracks almost from the start. What I experienced led me to the conclusion that this wasn’t about stopping the sexual abuse of children; it was about much more. There was an agenda, almost from the start, that had more to do with stopping the nation’s largest group of conservative Christians and forcing a directional change than serving our churches and protecting the innocent. 

We unwisely platformed people who had weaponized their victimization. We allowed outside forces with an agenda far different from our mission to co-opt our organization and pressure us into unsound choices. We permitted secular voices to shame us and pressure us into accepting assumptions that were erroneous and accusations that were laced with pernicious motives. We saw some in our own convention use this moment to gain a larger platform for themselves, allowing them to write themselves as heroes in a novel of their own imaginations. We allowed embittered and embattled leaders to use this moment to exact personal vendettas and carry out political hit jobs. And in the middle of it all, thousands of sincere Baptists who genuinely wanted to solve an embarrassing and tragic problem gave the benefit of the doubt and got caught up in the stampede.

The results have been disastrous. 

Good people have been slandered, and millions of dollars have been flushed down the drain. Our movement is divided, and right now, we don’t seem any closer to some imaginary solution that those steering this reform movement keep assuring us is out there. 

The time has come to end this stampede. We should absolutely provide training for every church to train and equip their leaders to protect children from predators. We should embrace ethical standards that call every church and entity to fully report any hint of illegal activity to the appropriate authorities. These things have mostly already been done, and imagine all that could have been accomplished if that had been our focus from the beginning. Moreover, we must care for those who have been betrayed and hurt and continue to learn from their painful and tragic stories. Shepherds fight wolves, and we must do that even better in the future than we have done in the past.

However, we must end the perpetual self-flagellation that hopes for an absolution from secular priests that will never come. For them, ruin, not redemption, was always the end game. The Southern Baptist Convention got the Brett Kavanaugh treatment—and probably for the same reasons. 

The first rule of holes is not to get in one. The second rule is when you’re in one, quit digging. We’ve gotten ourselves into a massive hole. We need to quit digging. Some of us will have to get off a high horse we’ve been riding. Some apologies need to be made. We must reverse this current course.

We now know the Executive Committee hid nothing. The whole Guidepost investigation was a snipe hunt. The waving of attorney-client privilege was financial malpractice. Labeling nearly anything and everything as sexual abuse, rather than sticking to biblical definitions and categories, was a massive misdirection ploy. 

It’s time to shut down the ARITF and reject the unwise proposal for an Abuse Reform Commission. It’s time to once and for all stop the idea that we can create some quasi-legal system on our own that denies due process, ignores legal rights, and torpedoes our own polity. It’s time to elect leaders who understand what has happened and will not be pressured or manipulated to continue this current course. 

As Tom Ascol famously said after the 2019 CRT resolution passed, “We got played.” Tom was right. Many others raised concerns about the radical abuse reform efforts and the larger, destructive agenda that it was smuggling into the SBC. Yes, critical race theory is a thing—a much bigger thing and a bigger threat to our gospel message and unity than I initially understood. A host of others saw these things early and said so. Many have paid a great cost. I have no problem with them saying, “We told you so.” You did, and many of us weren’t ready to listen. Repentance is a core tenet of our faith, and it is time for some of us to embrace it. 

I hope my story, which I share in much greater detail on a recent podcast, helps others wake up to the realizations that I have now come to. And that by publicly admitting this, I can inspire others to do the same—to wake up in a woke world and counter a very real drift. We need to chart a course back to sound doctrine, an uncompromised gospel, and biblical principles unapologetically applied to all issues facing America and the SBC today, including abuse reform and race conversations. We must forsake the siren song of destructive and worldly ideologies found in the MeToo movement and critical race theory and hold fast to the Bible as God’s inerrant and sufficient Word and the one rule of faith and practice for us as Southern Baptists. 

Waking up is hard to do. But the future health of the SBC depends on more leaders waking up to what has transpired, admitting that we got played, and now doing whatever it takes to reverse this direction and begin steering a better course on old paths that will lead us to a stronger future. 

  • Willy Rice

    Dr. Willy Rice is the Senior Pastor at Calvary Church in Clearwater, Florida. Willy has pastored churches in the southeastern United States for more than 35 years, and he has a passion for teaching the Word of God in an engaging and understandable way. Willy was called, licensed and ordained to preach at Calvary under the leadership of Dr. Bill Anderson, who pastored Calvary Church for 27 years. Willy Rice returned to Calvary in 2004 to lead the church he considered his home. Dr. Willy Rice is a graduate of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama with a B.A. degree (1985) and the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity degree (1990) and a Doctor of Ministry degree (1996). Willy and Cheryl have three children, Amanda, Anna, and Stephen, and six beautiful grandchildren.