Willy Rice, SBC Presidential Candidate, Drops Out

By Bob Smietana
Willy Rice
Willy Rice, senior pastor of Calvary Church in Clearwater, Florida, delivers the Convention Sermon, Wednesday, June 16, 2021, during the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Nashville. (RNS photo by Kit Doyle)

A Florida pastor who was a leading candidate for president of the Southern Baptist Convention has withdrawn from the race after a crisis involving a former deacon at his church.

“The last few days have been very difficult and I’ve found myself in an untenable position of watching people I love in a church I love done immeasurable harm simply because my name was being considered for this office,” the Rev. Willy Rice, pastor of Calvary Church in Clearwater posted on social media Wednesday.

Rice was one of several candidates hoping to succeed current SBC President Ed Litton, an Alabama pastor who announced last month that he would not seek a second term as president.

The SBC president’s role is largely a bully pulpit — charged with promoting the work of the nation’s most prominent Protestant denomination, leading the SBC annual meeting and appointing committee members. Despite having little administrative power, the SBC president often has great influence.

In recent years, the SBC has faced a number of challenges: declining membership, battles over race and politics, and the aftermath of a major newspaper investigation that found hundreds of cases of abuse. This summer, Southern Baptists will review a report on how SBC leaders have dealt with the issue of sexual abuse in recent months.

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Rice became controversial after reports that his church had ordained as deacon a former schoolteacher who admitted having sex with an 18-year old student in the mid-2000s. That deacon also led a faith-based nonprofit and serves on a faith-based committee that advises Florida’s Legislature and governor.

This past weekend, Rice announced the deacon was stepping down and told his church the deacon’s past conduct could be considered abusive and ordaining him had been a mistake. The pastor also said the deacon had repented of his past sins and lived an “exemplary” life since.

Rice also said the church would change its leadership standards. Last year, Southern Baptists approved a resolution saying anyone with a history of abuse should be barred from being a pastor or church leader.

Robin Hadaway, a former SBC missionary, and Florida pastor Tom Ascol, who has long claimed liberals are taking over the SBC, remain as candidates for SBC president. More candidates will likely enter the race.

The denomination has faced a leadership crisis in recent years, with a number of high-profile leaders, including Ronnie Floyd, former president of the SBC’s Executive Committee, and former SBC ethicist Russell Moore leaving their posts amid controversy. Litton’s presidency has been largely overshadowed by “sermongate”— a controversy over sermons Litton gave in which he plagiarized other preachers. Litton has admitted he was wrong to use content from another pastor’s sermons without giving credit. 

Bob SmietanaBob Smietana is a national reporter for Religion News Service.

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5 thoughts on “Willy Rice, SBC Presidential Candidate, Drops Out”

  1. He is making the right choice but not for reasons for obeying Christ’s version of leading. There is ZERO institution in ANYTHING taught in the Bible. Or have you found it? There is a definitive form of leadership from Jesus and there are no titles and 100% mutual status as “you are all brothers.” Matthew 23:8-12. Do you know how clergy twist and trash this so they can wear a title Pastor or Elder? Try this: 1. Jesus is not against titles per se. He is only against arrogance and exalting. 2. Jesus is not forbidding dad’s from being called father by their children so we understand Jesus is not against titles.

    Do you buy that? They CONFLATE fathering which is God ordained with institutional titles which is God FORBIDDEN by this very instruction. God is forbidding BOTH titles and arrogance. Institution REQUIRES systemic “exalting” and “titles”, just like the Pharisees practiced so they can make demands on others and claim God made the demands. It’s time for ALL spiritual leaders to be content with mutual brotherly status. Clergy addicted believers have no idea of the spiritual power of mutual brotherly relationships in EVERYTHING. That means no 30-45 minute Bible lectures and only obedience to “meeting together” by God’s SPECIFIC “one another” instructions: Heb. 10:24-25, Col. 3:16 and 50+ additional “one another” instructions. There is MUCH more to say from the scriptures. If the SBC repented to obey the Word, there would be POWER from God among them. God guarantees that. Can you dialogue about these scriptures? This is not my opinion. I’m quoting Jesus. Just because all clergy disagree with me does not make it my opinion.

    1. What on earth are you talking about? you’re quoting the gospels but ignoring what Jesus said in the epistles. Pastor/elder is a role that God established to lead local churches. Deacons are servant positions so that pastors/elders can focus on the ministry of the Word and prayer. It isn’t about being “clergy addicted” — it’s about how Jesus himself directed churches to function.

      That said, what on earth does any of that have to do with one pastor running to help lead denomination in primarily administrative functions?

      1. Steve, thanks for the reply. I exposed how clergy twist Jesus. Did you not get it? They also twist the epistles to get titles, offices, and pay checks from the Bible. I can expose all those errors. Since you gave ZERO scripture for showing my alleged error, AND ignored the scripture I gave, it appears the scripture means little to you and is FAR below your value of traditions of men.

        “Pastor” is a bogus translation the ONE time it used. The proper translation is shepherd. But there is no title there so you don’t like it. Elder was a title for the Jews, but you want to REJECT Jesus and claim it’s a title. Did Paul EVER reverse Jesus? No. You have REVERSED Jesus. 1 Peter 5:3 tells us elders set the example. That means ALL THE REST of the saints imitate that “role” and do what he does. That makes for lots more example setting and imitation for a reproducing church rather than perpetual dependency dumb sheep needing sermons every week. Let’s talk more but please demonstrate that you value the Bible, more than traditions of men that make void the Bible.

        Mark 7:13 thus making void the word of God
        by your tradition that you have handed down.
        And many such things you do.”

        Luke 16:15 And he said to them,
        “You are those who justify yourselves before men,
        but God knows your hearts.
        For what is exalted among men
        is an abomination in the sight of God.

        1. Sorry I’m just replying, but I don’t even know where to begin…it’s the text of Scripture that has convinced me and virtually the entire history of the church that elders were a role clearly established in Scripture. However you translate it (pastor or shepherd) is not particularly important; but it’s clearly a role that is established in Scripture. you have a very novel view that Scripture simply doesn’t support. The Greek for elder (presbuteros) appears 19 times in reference to leaders of the church in Acts and the epistles. Yes it was a Jewish role, but one that was transformed into how Christ established that his church would be governed. That isn’t reversing Jesus; elders in the church were HIS idea. Elders do not set the example for the role of elders, they set the example in the manner of life. But the role is given by God to men to lead, particularly in leading through the proclamation of the Word. You need to go deeper into the Scriptures than just springboarding off a single word to make it mean whatever you want it to mean.

  2. Nice to see forgiveness thriving so well in the church. The same folk who tell everyone god forgives and who talk of restoration through Christ obviously don’t really believe it. Or rather they believe it applies to them but no-one else.

    If a man or woman is truly penitent then they have no hope or future in the church itself. No wonder numbers are dropping. The same churches who celebrate people coming through their doors are just as quick to show them the exit doors.

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