Compelled by recent scandals and a sense that reform was overdue, about 500 delegates unanimously approved constitutional changes that restrict the power of the president, clarify the denomination's goals, and revise its membership structure. "It's not only revolutionary for our body," remarked the Rev. Wendell Griffen, an Arkansas Appeals Court judge who headed the revision committee. "How often do you see a leader voluntarily relinquish power like this?"
The National Baptist Convention's national president, the Rev. William Shaw of West Philadelphia, had been urging a move away from the denomination's imperial style of presidency since 1999, when he was elected on a reform platform. That was the year the denomination's previous president, the Rev. Henry Lyons of Florida, was convicted of pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars from a fund for several churches damaged by arson in the late 1990s, and for embezzling millions of dollars from companies wanting to do business with the denomination's membership.
More than 30,000 delegates are attending the organization's annual session at the Convention Center. The convention will run through Friday. Mr. Griffen said that one of the most important and symbolic reforms was a measure that reduces from 29 to four the number of members that the president may appoint to the denomination's board of directors. "It's a biggie," he said. "Can you imagine the Pope giving up such power?"
The delegates also approved constitutional revisions that require a longer and more layered review process for any future changes to the church's constitution. In the past, Mr. Griffen said, presidents effectively controlled the revision process.
Changes approved yesterday also stipulate a 30-day transition period after a new president is elected, and require the outgoing administration to give the new president a clear accounting of the church's fiscal, legal and structural status. "It just wasn't spelled out before," Mr. Griffen said. "When [Dr.] Shaw came into office, it was very difficult to find out what the accounts were. It was very difficult to get information."
Dr. Shaw was not available for comment after the constitutional changes were approved.