By Tim Ghianni
NASHVILLE, Tenn (Reuters) - Leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, the country's largest Protestant denomination, on Tuesday opted against changing a name that has proved problematic for some churches because of its connection to the South and slavery.
Approximately 80 members of the convention's executive committee instead favored a task force's recommendation to adopt the name "Great Commission Baptists" as an informal, alternative moniker that could be used by Southern Baptists who prefer something less region-specific.
The decision ended speculation about whether the 167-year-old organization with 45,000 affiliated churches would ditch its well-known name in light of declining membership.
In the past three years, membership has dropped by about 100,000 people to a total of 16.2 million current members, said Roger "Sing" Oldham, spokesman for the executive committee.
The proposal to give churches the option of calling themselves Great Commission Baptists will next be considered at the convention's annual meeting in New Orleans in June.
It will allow the Southern Baptist Convention to maintain its worldwide brand recognition while also fostering church growth in areas outside of the U.S. South, said convention leaders gathered at the organization's headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee.
"I voted for it after a lot of prayer and a lot of consideration," said David Perdue, a lay member of the executive committee who attends a Southern Baptist church in the Memphis area.
Perdue said he would have voted against a wholesale name change, an issue that has come up repeatedly since the first attempt to change the convention's name in 1903.
Southern Baptist Convention President Bryant Wright appointed a task force in September to study the question again, and that group presented its recommendation Monday night.
The task force acknowledged that leaders of African-American and other ethnic Southern Baptist churches said it would be helpful to have a different way of describing themselves. One member of the task force said the convention's ties to slavery upon its founding in 1845 posed a barrier for some.
But task force members said the potential benefits of a legal name change did not outweigh the potential risks and costs involved.
"If they feel that 'Southern' has a bad connotation, they can use this new tagline to show their affiliation with us," Perdue said in an interview.
The committee voted for the proposal by a nearly unanimous show of hands, Oldham said.
"It's a great compromise," said Paul Fleming, an executive committee member who serves as pastor at a Southern Baptist church in Greenville, South Carolina.
If a full name change had been recommended, there probably would have been discord at the meeting in New Orleans, he said. Instead, "we go forward with great unity and harmony."
(Reporting by Tim Ghianni; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Tim Gaynor)