Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear and other convention leaders are leaning away from using the word "Southern" to describe their association or their churches, the Washington Post reports.
While the leaders say a legal name change for the convention would be too expensive, they say "Great Commission Baptists" better conveys the entity's mission.
For some people, the word "Southern" is closely tied to slavery and racism. The Southern Baptist Convention was formed in 1845 in the midst of a north-south division over whether Baptist missionaries should be allowed to hold slaves. Today, about a fifth of the organization's churches are led by black pastors.
The convention's member churches are free to call themselves whatever they like, convention leaders said.
If the word "Southern" is an obstacle to the mission of spreading the gospel, it should be dropped, said Gary Frost, a black Southern Baptist pastor.
"We're not holding on to symbols of the past," Frost said. "That's painful for some people. That's part of their heritage. When you learn that it's hurtful and hurt the spread of the gospel, you have to be willing to let go of them."
Nathan Finn, a Southern Baptist who is a university provost in South Carolina, said he is "not embarrassed to be a Southerner," but the term can be problematic for the convention.
"It's about what that word conjures up for people, especially people of color," Finn said. "They're saying: 'That name is a hang-up. When my people hear that name, they think slavery.' God forbid we keep a name that evokes that."
Convention leaders say the term "Southern" is confusing and sometimes inaccurate, as when the convention plants churches in the American north, or outside the country.
The pastor of First Baptist Church of Charleston said he supports dropping "Southern" from the name, although he is concerned some will see the move as an effort to align with the Democratic party or the Black Lives Matter movement, which it is not.
"Anybody who knows why we're trying to do this knows we're not trying to be woke," Marshall Blalock said, "and we're not trying to cover up the past."