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Southern Baptists choose Johnny Hunt new president

Opening its two-day annual meeting, the Southern Baptist Convention elected a new president, Georgia megachurch pastor Johnny Hunt, a theological conservative. He is of American Indian descent, a biographical detail that might help the convention reach out to minorities.

Hunt, 55, said he will seek to reverse troubling trends, including a decline in membership. Hunt is a Lumbee Indian, a North Carolina-based tribe. Convention officials could not immediately confirm whether he is the denomination’s first American Indian president.

At a news conference, Hunt said radical change and leadership are needed. After five decades of declining growth, the SBC reported an actual drop in membership -- a decrease of about 40,000 people from 2006 to 2007. Seven out of the last eight years, baptisms have decreased, a more important statistic to many Southern Baptists than membership.

Hunt said he would try to unite Southern Baptists around common causes and use his experience mentoring younger pastors to reach out to a younger generation.

“We come across almost only for what we’re against when there’s so many wonderful things we’re for,” Hunt said.

The clergy sexual abuse scandal that struck the U.S. Roman Catholic Church has also touched the Southern Baptist Convention, although to a much lesser degree. The past two years have seen a few high-profile accusations against Baptist clergy.

In 2006, an executive committee panel began studying how to address the issue. Then, last year, Oklahoma pastor Wade Burleson proposed that the convention develop a database of those accused of or who confessed to or were convicted of sexual harassment or abuse.

The executive committee report, “Responding to the Evil of Sexual Abuse,” urges churches to conduct background checks using a U.S. Justice Department database of sexual offenders. It rejected establishing a new Southern Baptist database, arguing that it would be impossible to build a comprehensive list.