DULUTH, Ga. (BP) -- The Georgia Baptist Convention will have the shortest presidential election cycle in years in 2013 following a GBC Executive Committee vote to restrict campaigning until two months before the annual meeting.

In addition, the policy calls for greater diversity from the historically Anglo base, soliciting representation among qualified persons "including generational diversity, laypersons, ethnics, and African Americans" to reflect the diversity of the state.

The Executive Committee's unanimous vote Dec. 10 effectively reduces the campaign window, which had grown to 10 months, to eight weeks. The policy was approved by a unanimous vote of the 125-member group.

GBC Executive Director J. Robert White brought the original recommendation to the Executive Committee's Administration Committee, which approved the concept and brought the recommendation as a policy to the full Executive Committee for discussion and a vote.

The new policy calls for a moratorium on the endorsement of any candidate until after the Sept. 10 GBC Executive Committee meeting. The policy also restricts The Christian Index, the convention's newsjournal, from publishing any article about candidates until that time and limits the amount of follow-up story coverage.

The intent of the policy is to remove the state paper "as a tool for political purposes and that no coverage of such items be provided until this policy be put in place." The next regularly scheduled meeting of the Index's board of directors, who will consider the request, is set for Jan. 24.

White, who is completing his 20th year as executive director, called for the new direction "to preserve and protect the health and well-being of our convention."

From that two-decade perspective, White detailed how groups were formed in the early days of the Conservative Resurgence to assure that "good, solid conservatives" were placed in the president and vice president positions. "The system worked very well," he said. "Its goals were consistently met."

Those groups eventually dissolved but in recent years one relatively small group "gathered every year to talk about the person they would like to nominate." But recent disagreements within the group caused a division, with "two very fine candidates" nominated in early 2011.

That resulted in a nearly year-long campaign that saw the first-ever enlistment of blogs, social networking sites and campaign ads placed in The Index. As some pastors lined up behind their candidate with highly public endorsements, others became distressed over such high-pitched campaign tactics.

White stated, "Fine Georgia Baptist pastors were hurt. Many miles were driven by both candidates and much energy invested attending meetings by pastors all over the state. Emotions ran high. People were edgy and easily offended.

"Following this very active political campaign, several people from both sides asked me if there was something that could be done to prevent such political rivalry in our state which is hurtful to people on all sides," White said. "I am following up on their request to do something."

White said he was personally uncomfortable being placed "in the middle of a war of words and emotions," a position "in which the executive director of the convention should never be placed."

"There are signs that this may happen again in 2013," White observed. He said he did not feel Georgia Baptists should be subjected again to a 10-month campaign just weeks after having elected the current president to a second one-year term.

"I have not seen another convention experiencing the same kind of political campaigning that we are experiencing in Georgia," White stated.

White distanced himself from the outcome of any election, noting that he has never voted for a GBC president or vice president "because, frankly, it doesn't matter to me who is elected. I will gladly support whoever is elected to serve."

White then expressed appreciation for John Waters for his "outstanding job as president of our convention" but added, "Frankly, I feel it is very disrespectful of John, as our president, as he helps us to focus on our mission, to have two men battling it out across Georgia, trying to get elected as president in November. This is not only disrespectful of our sitting president, it is distracting." Waters is pastor of First Baptist Church in Statesboro and a former administrator at Brewton-Parker College.

White stated, "We cannot be focused on reaching Georgia for Christ through our new '5 Smooth Stones' strategy if we are focused on electing a man for president. We simply do not need these election distractions every other year. It's time to do something about it."

White added that as Georgia Baptists attempt to reach the state's increasingly diverse population, leadership also needs to be more diverse. "Our presidents have been Anglos but it is time for us to elect those of other ethnic groups, just as qualified, to serve. This will send a message that Georgians of all ethnic groups need to see and hear.

"If our hearts are closed to diversity, we will never effectively reach our highly diverse state for Christ."

Administration Committee vice chairman Tom Rush presented the proposed election policy at the Executive Committee's Dec. 10 session. While several affirmed the need for the policy, one Executive Committee member said he had been considering distancing himself from Georgia Baptists due to the heated election process. However, he was grateful for the new direction that had his solid support.

Committee member Brian Stowe made a motion to amend the policy by suggesting that any campaign committee be disbanded. Stowe said he wanted the policy to be clear that "enough is enough, let's move on. Pastors will do what pastors will do, but we need to make this as clear as possible."

Rush responded by saying that the Administration Committee felt that an outright ban would send too oppressive a message to pastors and could be viewed as not respecting their right to discuss the election at any level. Several committee members voiced appreciation for Rush's response, and the new policy passed unanimously.

Joe Westbury is managing editor of The Christian Index (www.christianindex.org), newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention.

The full text of the Policy on Election Process adopted by the Georgia Baptist Convention's Executive Committee follows:

1. That the Executive Committee request the Board of Directors of The Christian Index to establish a policy of not permitting any announcements of persons seeking elected positions at the annual meeting of the Convention or otherwise publish any ads or articles, paid or not, promoting candidates for election at the annual meeting of the Convention. The exception to this being that in the editions following the September meeting of the Executive Committee information be printed by The Christian Index announcing those who plan to be nominated for office in the upcoming annual meeting of the Convention. This announcement will include the name of the candidate, the name of the church where the candidate is a member, the percentage of Cooperative Program gifts and baptisms from that church for the past three years as reported in the Annual Church Profile. Accompanying this announcement will be a commentary of not more than 500 words commending consideration of the candidate for election at the next annual meeting of the Convention. This commentary will be provided by the candidate or by a person approved by the candidate. The intent is to remove The Christian Index as a tool for political purposes and that no coverage of such items be provided until this policy be put in place.

2. That the Executive Committee affirm the historical understanding that the election of officers for the Convention is an open process, wherein any Georgia Baptist, duly elected as a messenger, is free to nominate any other eligible Georgia Baptist, and that such nomination does not require a prior announcement, political campaigning, or advanced endorsements.

3. That the data processed by the Executive Committee for pastors, churches and lay members of Georgia Baptist churches not be made available or accessible for any person or group wanting to use such information for political purposes.

4. That the employees of the Executive Committee be uninvolved and unaffiliated with any political meetings, communications or groups associated with any candidate for elective office, and that any candidate or group promoting a candidate be respectfully requested to refrain from contacting or soliciting employees of the Executive Committee for involvement or support.

5. That the Executive Committee, encouraging more diversity among those elected to serve, call upon Georgia Baptists to recognize and nominate qualified persons representing the diversity of our Convention, including generational diversity, laypersons, ethnics and African Americans to serve in the elective offices of the Convention.

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