(RNS) — Officers of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee have named Jonathan Howe to serve as the group’s interim leader.
The Executive Committee’s vice president for communications, Howe will serve in that role at least until the committee’s next scheduled meeting in mid-September. Executive Committee Chairman Philip Robertson said the group’s bylaws require a vice president to serve as interim, pending approval of the full board.
“For as long as I’ve been in denominational life, my chief desire has been to serve Southern Baptists. I appreciate the trust the board officers have placed in me,” Howe told RNS.
“I look forward to working with our state and entity partners, along with our Executive Committee members and staff as we continue to steward the resources Southern Baptists have generously entrusted to us,” he added.
Howe is the Executive Committee’s fifth leader in the past five years. He succeeds Willie McLaurin, who had been interim president since 2022. McLaurin had been in the running for a permanent role but resigned Thursday (Aug. 17) after a search committee found he had falsified his resume.
“In its effort to verify McLaurin’s educational credentials, the team learned from the schools listed that he either never attended or never completed a course of study. McLaurin also submitted at least two diplomas that were found to be fraudulent,” according to Baptist Press, an SBC official publication.
McLaurin did not respond to requests for comment. He did admit to claiming to hold degrees that he did not have, according to excerpts from his resignation letter published by Baptist Press.
The previous permanent president, Arkansas preacher Ronnie Floyd, resigned in 2021 due to controversy over the SBC’s sex abuse crisis. His predecessor, the Rev. Frank Page, resigned in 2018 due to misconduct.
David August “Augie” Boto, who served as the interim between Page and Floyd, retired in 2019. Boto is barred from ever serving a leadership role in the SBC due to a lawsuit settlement in Texas. He is one of the SBC leaders named in the 2021 Guidepost Solutions report for mistreating sex abuse survivors and for obstructing efforts to address the issue of abuse.
The committee also has experienced significant conflict in recent years, in particular over how to respond to the SBC’s sexual abuse crisis. Floyd and a number of committee members resigned in 2021 after losing a series of debates over a sexual abuse investigation.
Howe will work closely with the Executive Committee’s officers, Robertson said in a statement.
At their mid-September meeting, trustees will elect “a continuing interim president/CEO,” Robertson said. He also said trustees will hear a report from the presidential search committee at that meeting.
Searching for a permanent leader for the Executive Committee, which manages the day-to-day operations of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, has proved complicated. In May, the trustees of the Executive Committee rejected a previous search committee candidate — Texas pastor Jared Wellman, a former Executive Committee chair. Wellman’s candidacy failed in part because he had participated in search committee meetings in his role as chair. After the failed vote on Wellman, a new search committee was formed.
Some Southern Baptist leaders wondered at the time why McLaurin, who by most accounts had done a good job as interim, was not named to the permanent role. In July, citing “many endorsements from pastors, state convention leaders, and national entity heads,” leaders of a new search committee said they were considering McLaurin for the role.
Problems with his resume emerged in the vetting process.
“In a recent resume that I submitted, it included schools that I did not attend or complete the course of study,” McLaurin reportedly said in his resignation letter.
Details about McLaurin’s past remain unclear.
Before coming to the Executive Committee in 2019, McLaurin had been a staff member of the Tennessee Mission Board for 15 years. According to a spokesman for the Mission Board, McLaurin’s 2005 resume only listed North Carolina Central University. The spokesman said McLaurin’s references were vetted but not his academic background.
His Facebook page states that he studied at North Carolina Central University. His personal website makes no mention of his academic background. Neither does a biography on a blog that is linked to his website.
However, a 2019 news story announcing his hiring as a vice president of the Executive Committee reported that McLaurin claimed a bachelor’s degree from North Carolina Central and a Master of Divinity from Duke Divinity School. He also claimed a pair of honorary doctorates.
The Executive Committee did not respond to questions about McLaurin’s resume.
Randy Davis, president of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, told the Baptist & Reflector, a state Baptist newspaper, that he was profoundly saddened by McLaurin’s actions. The two had been friends and colleagues for years.
“Unfortunately, the situation in which we now find ourselves is beyond belief, and I am simply trying to process all that has happened, and the enormous damage inflicted by the fraud perpetrated on his resume regarding his educational background,” Davis said.
(This story has been updated to add David August “Augie” Boto.)