"So the Thursday after I was elected, I get a call and a voice on the other end says. 'This is the White House, and the President would like to speak with you.' So I come to the phone, and I think it's one of my buddies playing a joke. I get to the phone, and I say, 'Who is this?' And someone says, 'This is the White House. Would you please hold for the President?'
"'Yeah, right,' I say. Sure enough, "Hail to the Chief" begins to play, and the President picks up the phone and says, "So, Dr. Luter, how does it feel to be the most popular president in the United States?"
That is the moment Dr. Fred Luter knew that the Southern Baptist Conference (SBC) presidency was a big deal.
Prior to his historic election as the first African American to service as president of the SBC, Dr. Luter was your average mega-church pastor. He took the helm of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans back in 1986, transforming the fledgling 50-member congregation into an 8,000-member phenomenon.
Dr. Luter was the featured guest preacher Wednesday evening at Bellevue Baptist Church during its "Awesome Wednesday Nights in August." Every year, the usual Sunday night service is held on Wednesdays. It is a common practice among Southern Baptist Churches, according to Dr. Luter, with most churches sponsoring "Awesome Monday Nights in August."
Since his election two months ago, Dr. Luter has been on a whirlwind circuit around the country, preaching and teaching in his new role as the denomination's national president.
"We're a church, open to all people, welcoming new members of all races, creeds, and walks of life," he said.
"We want to be relevant as people of God, striving to make a difference through the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Southern Baptist Church is writing new chapters in its history."
SBC & history
The SBC is the world's largest Baptist denomination, boasting 45,000 churches with more than 16 million members. It was founded in 1845 at a regional Baptist annual meeting. Southern members split from northern Baptists after being restricted from sending missionaries to spread the gospel. Slaveholding states were being penalized, and many of the southern Baptist members were slaveholders.
After the Civil War ended two decades later, African-American congregations founded independent regional, state and national conventions. The predominantly African-American National Baptist Convention is the second largest Baptist convention.
As early as the 1940's, the SBC had sought to shed its race-tinged origins. Later in the 20th century, the denomination reached out to new members among minority groups. Although most member churches are in the southern region, there are member churches all across the country.
In 1992, Dr. Luter became the first African American elected to the executive board of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. Three years later, the SBC issued a formal apology for slavery, Dr. Luter sitting on the commission appointed to draw up the document.
The zenith of his career was a unanimous vote, also historic, to the president's office.
"I'm just a street kid from the Lower Ninth Ward," said Dr. Luter, noting that he was no heir-apparent to ministry. There were no preachers in his family tree.
"If you knew my family, you would know why there were no preachers," he said. "My parents were divorced when I was six years old. My grandparents were divorced. There was a cycle of divorce in my family. I told the Lord that I wanted to break that cycle. I wanted to break it for my children."
Dr. Luter and his wife, Elizabeth, have one son, 27, and a daughter, 30. His son serves as Youth and Young Adult Pastor at Franklin Avenue Church.
During last year's annual conference, Dr. Danny Akin, president of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.Car., made it publicly known that he was nominating Dr. Luter as SBC president at this year's annual meeting.
Dr. Luter had just won an impressive election to the organization's second-highest office, 1st Vice President. True to his word, Dr. Akin made the nomination official this past June. He called Dr. Luter a "much-loved and much-respected pastor who can be elected on his own merits, regardless of color."
So many aspects about the historic election have convinced Dr. Luter that "it was a God-thing."
"Usually, there are three or four candidates for president on the ballot," said Dr. Luter. "But this year, no other nominations were made. I ran unopposed, and that almost never happens. I believe it was by God's design – the right person at the right time. I was elected right there in New Orleans, my hometown. I am so blessed. I will never forget it."
The SBC: What's ahead?
While there is great prestige in serving as SBC president, there is very little power associated with the post, according to Dr. Luter. The president has the authority to make appointments in the national convention, but each church operates largely as an autonomous body.
"My office does not interfere with individual governance issues of local churches," said Dr. Luter. "Mine is a position of influence. And that influence is exercised through the appointments I will make during my two-year term. Our governing statutes prohibit women from taking traditional leadership positions, but many Southern Baptist churches have ordained ministers serving on staff. There are even churches that have women pastors. Those kinds of decisions are made by local church bodies."
For Dr. Luter, the highest priority now is to understand why the SBC membership numbers are dropping.
"There have been fewer new members, fewer baptisms; our numbers are down about 1 percent. I must figure out why, and began to take steps to remedy this decline," he said.
"We as a church must become more relevant in the lives of people. People need relevant solutions to their issues – spiritual, material and physical. I believe we can offer that kind of relevance in today's Southern Baptist church."