Messengers attending the 2016 Florida Baptist State Convention elected Brandon pastor Stephen Rummage as president and approved a $30 million Cooperative Program budget for 2017 that continues to send 51 percent to the Southern Baptist Convention while retaining 49 percent for missions and ministries in the state.

The  meeting, held Nov. 14-15 at Calvary Baptist Church in Clearwater, focused on the theme: “Gathering to Exhort, Stir Up and Send Out.”

The nearly 1,200 persons in attendance—including 989 messengers, also heard Florida Baptists from across the state tell how the state convention has come “Right Beside” them in ministry.

The meeting celebrated the diversity of Florida Baptists, recognizing that nearly a fourth of the state’s 3,000 congregations speak in a language other than English. The diversity was illustrated through sermons, prayers and choirs representing multiple nationalities. Multicultural, multi-language fellowship meetings were attended by 500 Hispanic, Haitian and Black multicultural church leaders.

Rummage, the newly elected president, has served as senior pastor of the 9,000-member Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon since 2009.  During his tenure, the church experienced 3,900 additions with over 2,200 baptisms.

Rummage was nominated by Ken Whitten, senior pastor of Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz and ran unopposed.  Whitten said he was nominating the Tampa-area pastor for his “ability, humility and spirituality.” He has the ability to understand Florida Baptists, pastors and denominational life, humility to undertake the challenge of the Convention, and “to undergird the vision of our executive director Tommy Green. He has impeccable character, incredible humility and an indelible spirit.”

Rummage currently serves as the chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee. He served as the second vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 2009-2010 and president of the Florida Baptist Pastors’ Conference in 2012.

Javier Sotolongo, pastor of Iglesia Bautista Estrella De Belen, Hialeah, was elected first vice president,  garnering 70 percent of the vote. Marvin Pittman, a layperson from Bartow, was also nominated. Sotolongo was nominated by Otto Fernandez of Riverside Baptist Church in Miami and is the second Hispanic in FBSC history to serve in this role. In nominating Sotolongo, Fernandez said the Cuban native would represent the multi-language and multicultural churches in Florida and will send a message of inclusion to South Florida when the 2017 Florida Baptist State Convention meets in Miami.

Others elected to serve were Boyd Bunting, a layperson from First Baptist Church of Panama City, second vice president; and Randy Huckabee, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dade City, recording secretary.  Both served in these positions in 2015-2016.

Calvary Pastor William (Willy) Rice preached the historic annual convention sermon, citing Jeremiah 29, telling Florida Baptists they are living in a modern day Babylon. He offered four things to be as the People of God in Babylon: “be faithful, fruitful (through multiplication), useful and hopeful,” knowing they are on the “right side of history where Jesus is standing.”

Other speakers included James Merritt, lead pastor of Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, Ga.; Johnny Hunt, senior pastor of First Baptist Church, Woodstock, Ga.;  and Florida pastors: James Peoples, pastor, Trinity Baptist Church in Keystone Heights; Erik Cummings, senior pastor, New Life Baptist Church of Carol City; Jim Locke, senior pastor, Hillcrest Baptist Church in Pensacola; and Louis Egipciaco, lead pastor, Elevate Church in Miami.

This Convention represented the second annual meeting since J. Thomas Green was named as executive director-treasurer in May 2015 and brought a new vision to the Florida Baptist Convention that included a new philosophy in church planting and sweeping reorganization and downsizing of staff. Green led Florida Baptists to increase the SBC portion to the Cooperative Program by 10 percent, a vision which continued to be endorsed in this meeting.

Messengers approved a $30 million Cooperative Program for 2017 that will send 51 percent of the budget to the Southern Baptist Convention Cooperative Program and retain 49 percent for mission ministries in the state. The budget represents an increase of a million dollars—or 3.45 percent–over the 2016 budget, the largest annual increase in more than a decade. The budget continues the pattern of no shared ministries or negotiated funded included in percentages.

According to Mike Tatem, president of the State Board of Missions, the 2017 CP budget increases funding to the Baptist College of Florida, Florida Baptist Children’s Homes and the Florida Baptist Witness; reinstates theological education funding to New Orleans Baptist Theological as a CP funded item and provides additional ministry funding to encourage and support pastors, missions and ministries efforts and multicultural church ministers. It will also underwrite an additional ministry region within the state, bringing the total number of regions to six to more effectively serve Florida Baptist churches.

In response to a motion made by Tim Folds of Graceville during miscellaneous business, messengers asked the Convention’s Executive Director-Treasurer Tommy Green and newly elected FBSC President Stephen Rummage to draft a letter of appreciation to Franklin Graham for developing a national initiative in prayer.

Messengers approved the incorporation of Lake Yale Baptist Conference Center in Leesburg, changing its status from a Convention ministry to a Cooperating Ministry, similar to the relationship the Convention has with the Baptist College of Florida and Florida Baptist Children’s Homes.

The conference center, built by the Convention in 1965, has struggled in recent years to generate enough funds to cover operating costs and capital expenditures.

“Creating the new cooperating ministry would move the entity outside of the business and financial plan of the Florida Baptist Convention,” said Tatem, “and give Lake Yale an opportunity to generate income through solicitation of gifts from individuals and churches and would facilitate the ability to apply for grants from foundations and other organizations.”

A second round of approvals is required during the 2017 Florida Baptist State Convention. The new corporation is expected to begin operating Jan. 1, 2018.

In other business, messengers:

–approved a constitutional amendment to establish the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 as the guiding interpretation of the holy scriptures and defines the convention as a not-for-profit corporation;

–ratified last year’s decision that defined FBSC entities as “cooperating ministries;”

–celebrated the planting of 44 new churches; and

–approved a State Board of Missions bylaw change designed to allow committee structures to be formed and operate more efficiently.

The 2017 Florida Baptist State Convention will be held Nov. 13-14 in Miami.

By Barbara Denman, Florida Baptist Convention, Nov. 16, 2016