ATLANTA, Feb. 11--A Snellville, Ga., pastor is in line to become the next president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the highest elected office in the nation's largest Protestant organization.

James Merritt, pastor of Snellville's First Baptist Church for 15 years, will be nominated for the influential position during the group's annual meeting, scheduled this year for June 13-14 in Orlando.

"I'm both humbled and honored to be nominated, but I haven't been elected yet," Merritt said Thursday. Merritt, 47, has been in the national Southern Baptist spotlight since 1995.

Jack Graham, a pastor in Dallas, said he would nominate Merritt. Graham said Merritt would be able to "build on the past strengths of the convention and launch us into the 21st century."

Another nomination is possible but not probable, said Lee Porter, the convention's registration secretary for 23 years.

The last year a Southern Baptist presidential election had more than one candidate was 1994. Presidents are elected for a one-year term but typically serve two consecutive years.

Merritt is aligned with conservatives who have controlled the 16-million member Southern Baptist Convention for the past decade.

He backed the Georgia Baptist Convention vote last fall to expel two metro Atlanta churches over their acceptance of homosexuals in leadership positions. Merritt has supported the SBC boycott of Disney over support of homosexual relationships, and a resolution that included a call for wives to "graciously submit" to their husbands.

"We have turned the denomination back from liberal trend to total fidelity to the word of God," Merritt said in an interview. "That's going to mean taking unpopular stands, and that may mean not being politically correct, but being politically correct is not our role. Our role is to be light in the darkness."

If elected, Merritt said he would use his position to develop leadership among younger pastors and to "re-energize" lay people.

The president presides at the annual meeting, the platform for resolutions that in recent years have sparked public reaction.

"The president has considerable influence, but it's indirect," said Herb Hollinger, spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention. The president appoints a committee on committees, which in turn recommends people to serve as trustees who set policies for Southern Baptists' six seminaries, two missions agencies and other institutions.

The Southern Baptist Convention president is often interviewed by media representatives, Hollinger added. His comments consequently influence the public's perception of Southern Baptists.

In 1998, Merritt nominated Paige Patterson, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., for SBC president. Patterson was elected and served two terms. He is ineligible for re-election.

The last Georgian to serve as SBC president was Charles Stanley, pastor of First Baptist Church in Atlanta, who presided in 1985-86.

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