The Southern Baptist Convention must restore the practice of traditional congregational polity, especially when it comes to the creation, staffing and reporting of our leadership structures. With each passing year, we have grown more complacent in our commitment to congregational polity, having practically surrendered to a style of church government more suited for elders and bishops than congregationalists.
In each example below, I will first state a principle of leadership I consider to be consistent with traditional Baptist practice. I will then offer one example to show how this principle has been ignored at some point during the past few years. Finally, I will comment on the future of the issue, either recommending a solution or offering a warning. My goal is not so much to rehash the past as it is to learn from it so we will not make the same mistakes again.
In describing the ideal congregational political philosophy, I will mention no names, but will only refer to the convention’s offices or positions, intentionally depersonalizing the issue. I am truly not demeaning the people involved, many of whom have earned my profound respect, although at times I must necessarily point out the kinds of procedural grievances committed by our convention’s officers that I wish to see redressed. My purpose is not to attack people but to articulate principles, in order that my one SBC voice might urge Southern Baptists to stop drifting into authoritarian waters and return to the humble congregational course that will steer our ship to calmer seas.
1. STACKING THE DECK
No leadership group should become a Central Committee possessing the power of all the other committees combined.
Imagine in your church if someone wanted to combine the Finance, Personnel and Property Committees into one all powerful leadership structure. Would you be a little nervous? That represents an enormous consolidation of power. Most Baptists would consider it wise to decentralize that power, sharing it among a variety of leadership groups reminiscent of the same balance of powers upon which our national government is founded.
This principle was ignored when the Great Commission Task Force was formed. Like a Finance Committee, it created new ways of reporting our missions receipts. Like a Property Committee, it proposed a strategy for many new church plants. Like a Personnel Committee, confidential interviews were held with employees who were promised such secrecy that records had to be sealed for fifteen years. When there is an Everything Committee, no other leadership group really matters.
- In the future, we must resist the temptation to allow one committee to do the work centrally that ten committees should be doing separately. If each individual idea is truly worthy, it will survive on its own without being attached as a rider to an enormous piece of omnibus legislation, most of which passed without the kind of significant deliberation upon the convention floor that would be appropriate for each individual item.
2. PACKING THE COURT
No one individual, even and especially the President of the Southern Baptist Convention, should function as a Committee Selection Czar.
This principle was ignored when the President of the Southern Baptist Convention was asked to appoint the entire Great Commission Task Force. The office of the President of the Southern Baptist Convention does not need to be given more power. This office already possesses all the power necessary to influence the convention through the standing committee appointment process, although even this significant power is somewhat measured since the term of the Presidency is shorter than the terms of board members. In other words, no single President generally appoints the entire membership of a board or commission, and that is as it should be. In the case of the Task Force, however, one man unilaterally appointed an entire leadership group. Frankly, the convention has duly elected committees fully capable of making such nominations. Any committee formed by such a group of people is much more likely to include a wider representation of the entire convention than is a committee appointed by only one man.
- In the future, no one individual should choose all the members of a leadership structure. It is said that one can determine the outcome of a legal trial if one merely chooses the members of the jury. We must no longer allow this specific task to be a one man show.
3. KEEPING IT REAL
The names we choose for our leadership structures should reflect their true identity and function.
Let us not play with structural labels like “blue ribbon task force” or “advisory panel” when what we are really forming is in fact a committee. This leaves us open to charges that we are sidestepping the conventional channels for creating a leadership structure, such as asking a committee to nominate the members. We must also learn to call these committees by a subject that accurately reflects the reality of the work they are doing.
This principle was ignored when the “Great Commission” Task Force was formed, ostensibly to be something of an “Evangelism” Committee to explore ways we could better share our faith and win the world to Christ. However, in hindsight it is clear that the Task Force did not really concern itself very much with gospel presentations and evangelistic strategies, but focused instead primarily on shifting denominational priorities, changing our missions metric, setting goals and functioning exactly in the manner we would expect from a “Long Range Planning Committee.”
- In the future, we must have the courage to call things what they truly are. If the denomination will not support an idea identified accurately, then so be it. Whenever we slightly misrepresent or vaguely describe the nature of a group’s work, it leaves us open to unnecessary criticisms. No Southern Baptist should ever have to wonder if the term “Great Commission” is being used merely in an effort to promote a new slate of denominational priorities. After all, was not the previous set of priorities equally intended to spread the gospel message and reach the world for Christ? While it is certainly fair to debate the relative merits of two different priority lists, it is not right to identify only one of them with the Great Commission, as if the other one possessed no such concern for the lost at all.
4. KEEPING YOUR COUNSEL
While convention officers are encouraged to seek the advice of godly men and women, if they form a private advisory group for their own benefit and on their own authority, then this group should report to them alone without appearing to be an official body of the convention or attracting any media attention.
This principle was ignored in the forming of a Task Force to advise the President regarding a possible denominational name change. We can all agree that we are accountable to our Maker. Since the President formed this body, they are accountable to him and him alone. They should report back to him and him alone, not on the convention floor and not in the media. Not only has this leadership structure NOT been formed by the denomination, but the denomination (a few years ago) voted specifically to DENY its formation. This offense flies in the face of congregational polity. It is analogous to the Pastor who asks the church to form an ad hoc committee, and upon seeing that motion fail, proceeds a few years later to create his own committee anyway, announcing this action to the church in the weekly bulletin. Realizing the need for cover, he asks the Executive Deacon Committee to approve the measure, which they do by a split vote in an effort to keep the peace.
- In the future, we no more need a one man show to create committees than we need a one man show to staff them. If we allow this to continue unchecked, then what mechanism exists to stop a Southern Baptist Convention President from forming a half dozen private committees, apart from convention approval, announcing their decisions in the press and telling messengers to expect their reports the following June? Frankly, there is enormous power in the ability to create a leadership structure. This is why congregations reserve such a right for themselves. It is also why those who believe in and practice congregational polity foster a healthy respect for that right.
5. SHOWING YOUR WORK
As every sixth grade math teacher knows, you must not only get the right answer, but you must also show clearly how you got it.
This principle was ignored by the refusal of the Great Commission Task Force to reveal the record of their meetings. By sealing this record in the Southern Baptist Archives for fifteen years, they prevented concerned Southern Baptists from exploring their process. These are the very messengers who gave them their authority in the first place. The Task Force avoided their accountability to messengers by appealing to a confidentiality apparently promised to those who might lose their jobs if the record were made public. When one considers the body count of all those who did lose their jobs as a result of the report’s implementation in Baptist life, it is sadly ironic for this excuse to be given as the primary reason for keeping the record of the Task Force meetings a secret.
- In the future, we must never again seal records that prevent Southern Baptist journalists, historians, scholars and all other interested parties from observing the work of a leadership structure that Southern Baptists commissioned in the first place.
No matter how articulate or trustworthy our leaders may be, no one is above the public scrutiny afforded by congregational polity. While our polity is biblical, wise and traditionally Baptist, it only functions properly when we insist upon following it. By not stacking the deck, we give no committee too much power. By not packing the court, we allow no individual to choose all of a group’s members. By keeping it real, we call our structures by names that truly define their work. By keeping our counsel, we refuse to legitimize publicly and officially the suggestions of our privately selected advisers. By showing our work, we reveal with full transparency the record of our deliberations and actions, submitting these humbly to those at whose pleasure we serve and to the reporters who faithfully journal our endeavors.
Restoring conventional polity will not be easy. New precedents have now been set. New powers have now been assumed. Some may even be willing for the convention to function increasingly under the authority of a leadership style far more authoritarian than traditional Baptist polity allows. But I, for one, am not yet prepared to exchange my ballot for a bishop or my vote for a vicar. If a committee is to be formed, let me participate in forming it. If it is to be staffed, let me assist in staffing it. I want to help assign the work. I want to help name the work. And when it’s all over, I want to read the minutes and review the work.
Mostly, I want our convention’s officers to understand that I do love them, honor them and appreciate them for their service to the Lord. I pray for them and acknowledge that they, no less than I, desire only to seek God’s heart and to do His will. However, when the time comes to establish, humanly speaking, the organizational hierarchy of our Southern Baptist Convention, then I want them freely to admit that the messengers are at the top while the officers are at the bottom. Because this is true, speaking as a messenger, I give them my permission to restore the conventional polity we Southern Baptists have come to expect and to cherish.