The Rev. William Rice, senior pastor at Calvary Baptist Church, has been elected to a one-year term as president of the 1-million-member Florida Baptist Convention.
"It's an honor," Rice said. "I will be leading 3,000 Baptist churches and missions."
Rice, 43, said he wasn't expecting to be nominated for the job this soon in his career.
"This is something that came up real quick," he said.
A little more than a month ago, Rice received a surprise call from the convention's past president, the Rev. Ken Whitten of Idlewild Baptist Church in Tampa, who asked him if he would consider accepting the challenge.
"My first thought was reluctance," Rice said. "I thought there would be a lot of guys better-qualified than me."
But more than 1,600 Florida Baptists who attended an annual meeting in mid November at McGregor Baptist Church in Fort Myers disagreed, unanimously electing Rice, who ran unopposed. He will be eligible to run for a second term next year.
"He is a fine, fine guy, a very conservative preacher," said Glen Owens, assistant executive director of the Florida Baptist Convention. "One thing that will make him a good president is (his experience). He's been in the Panhandle and the Tampa Bay area. This gives him a flavor for the people of the state."
Owens also said one of Rice's goals is to "try and draw the younger pastors and the older pastors together," and he likes that idea.
If he succeeds, it won't be the first time that Rice has helped draw together different parts of a community of faith. Rice was hired to lead Calvary Baptist in 2004 after more than two years of bitterness that began with the retirement of the church's longtime senior pastor, the Rev. Bill Anderson, in 2002.
His replacement, the Rev. Jerry Tidwell, took over that year. He didn't last long.
After Tidwell's departure, his assistant of nine months, the Rev. Ken Alford, was named interim pastor. But some church members revolted, citing Alford's resignation from a church in Brandon in 2002 after admitting to a moral indiscretion. He withdrew his name from consideration.
A nationwide search for a permanent minister brought Rice, a former Calvary Baptist member who was then senior pastor at Hillcrest Baptist Church in Pensacola. He will continue to lead the congregation as he heads up the convention.
Rice helped heal the congregation and negotiated its move from its downtown location to a new $22-million complex at McMullen-Booth Road and Drew Street. Since relocating to the new site, the church has seen a 39 percent increase in worshipers and has about 4,500 members, said the Rev. Skip Dvornik, the executive pastor.
According to the Florida Baptist Convention Web site, during the annual meeting at which Rice was elected, "messengers," or elected representatives of Florida Baptist churches, approved a $41-million budget, a nearly 7 percent increase over last year's budget.
It also said the convention's immediate past president, Hayes Wicker, and its executive director and treasurer, John Sullivan, asked the faithful to continue to help stop abortions, do what they can to block stem cell research and sign a state constitutional amendment petition that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
Rice knows he's stepping into a tricky time when it comes to religion and politics. He said he thinks "the Republicans missed the mark in this election, and they took for granted the support of the evangelicals." He said the Baptist membership will continue to "speak on the big issues of the day, the moral issues."
"But I do not want to see the church be overly politicized and not (owned) by any party or politician," he said. "I think faith is something that should be talked about in the public arena. The cause of the church is greater than politics. It's the cause that will last.
"As long as we point people toward Jesus, we'll be okay."
Eileen Schulte can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
"He is a fine, fine guy, a very conservative preacher. One thing that will make him a good president is (his experience). He's been in the Panhandle and the Tampa Bay area. This gives him a flavor for the people of the state."
Glen Owens, assistant executive director of the Florida Baptist Convention