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Southern Baptist conservative targets missionary work

With control of the Southern Baptist Convention secure, one of its leading conservatives says he would concentrate on church growth if elected head of the denomination.

Paige Patterson, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, will be nominated as convention president at the denomination's national meeting in Salt Lake City in June.Observers say the promised nomination by a Georgia pastor for the post means he is virtually guaranteed victory.

Patterson says if elected he would work to baptize 500,000 new Christians in the United States and 500,000 abroad by 2000. Patterson said the convention also needs to start more local congregations to give the converted a place to attend church.

"Most people expect me to be concerned with doctrinal issues," he said. "We can never slumber on those, but that battle is over."

Patterson, 55, helped craft the takeover of the nation's largest Protestant denomination by conservative leadership in 1979. Conservatives believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, while moderate Baptists believe scripture is subject to interpretation.

"Because of Paige Patterson, the seminaries are headed by people who believe in the inerrancy of scripture and want to turn out theologically conservative ministers of the gospel who have hot hearts for evangelism and ministry," said James Merritt, president of First Baptist Church in Snellville, Ga., who has said he would nominate Patterson.

Although delegates to the convention, called "messengers," may pitch other names from the floor, observers say that's unlikely. Moderate Baptists have all but abandoned the SBC and don't attend its yearly meetings.

"Considering today's climate in the denomination, it's a done deal," said Toby Druin, editor of the Baptist Standard, the weekly newspaper of Texas Baptists.

Patterson's name has been floated for years. If elected, he will succeed Tom Elliff, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church in Del City, Okla.

Patterson said he had been courted for too long.

"It's never been one of my driving ambitions to be president of the Southern Baptist Convention. But that many people wanted me to do it, I felt I ought not to turn my back on them."

A native Texan, Patterson has headed Southeastern seminary since 1992. He will retain the job if he is elected president of the convention - it is an unpaid post.

At Southeastern, Patterson is credited with more than doubling the enrollment. The school had 1,495 students last fall, up from 698 during the tumultuous transition that preceded Patterson's arrival.

"He's able to stir and move students because he's so passionately committed to God and his word," said Allan Moseley, dean of students.

Others describe him as a visionary leader, a shrewd strategist and a graceful tactician.

Patterson was president of Criswell College and associate pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas at the time of the 1979 conservative takeover within the denomination.