Leo Endel is the executive director of the Minnesota-Wisconsin Baptist Convention. It’s a small, in fact, very small convention with 150 churches and about 20,000 total members scattered across the two states, most of which are in the metropolitan areas of Minneapolis-St. Paul and Milwaukee.
Outside of the small group of Southern Baptists in the state convention he serves, and the places he’s previously served, he is not well known. Obviously, that puts him at a disadvantage in the Southern Baptist Convention, where celebrity status is a key advantage in getting elected as an officer, and the numbers on the register board of your church are usually the primary credentials involved, and the person who makes your nominating speech will work them in somehow, though we know that the person being nominated would, if pressed, give the credit to the Spirit.
That’s why this nomination is different. Though 85% of the churches in the SBC are small, and they fall in the same category as most of the SBC churches in Minnesota and Wisconsin, the trustees and elected leadership of the denomination come from a relatively small power base of large churches. How does that happen? Generally, the convention’s business is conducted by messengers from the churches at the annual meeting in June, a two and a half day long business meeting with a few sermons thrown in to make it seem somewhat spiritual. It is a system that is almost as backward and provincial as the plantation system of the antebellum South once was, a blend of influences, favor granting, personal kingdoms, celebrity status and a governing system which includes both volunteer trustees who are either big money contributors in the churches, or their pastors, along with a heirarchy of denominational agency executives and staffs in jobs with lots of influence, platform face time, and perks. The president of the convention is the person who conducts the business sessions, and in addition to that task, nominates the members of the committee who choose every trustee of every denominational entity. And with few exceptions, the job has generally gone to a pastor with a measure of celebrity status who represents the genteel status quo of Baptist life, someone who looks good in a suit, preaches with a distinctively “suthun” accent, and leads a congregation that has a choir large enough to fill an entire section of seats behind the platform of a convention hall.
And three of the nominees this time around fit that bill. Leo Endel does not.
Endel has spent 17 years in the Minnesota-Wisconsin convention, far, far away from the genteel, provincial South, and that, in and of itself is an obvious indication of his committment and dedication to small churches and their work. The state convention’s budget is proof enough that his salary for doing this work is probably less than what an average SBC pastor would earn, and the results, while encouraging, and making note that on a per-capita basis, churches in the MWBC do a better job of evangelism than the average SBC church, are small and slow.
Business as usual has produced a denomination that has aged, that has difficulty reaching the younger generations, even in the heart of Dixie, and in congregations of thousands, and our membership and baptisms are on the decline. And while a single election of a president of the convention won’t change that, it might be a sign that there is a recognition of a change in the way we do business that must happen if the SBC is to have much of a future.