In just a few days the Executive Committee (EC) will present their annual report to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and at least a portion of that report will be embarrassing for them.
The official EC response to my motion regarding a possible conflict of interest related to the previous SBC law firm has been published… and it is utterly laughable.
I offered the first motion to be brought to the floor of the SBC last year in Nashville regarding what I, and some others, believed to be an apparent conflict of interest concerning our convention’s legal counsel. Although I had always understood the firm of Guenther, Jordan and Price (GJP) to represent the SBC and thus, by extension, the EC of the SBC, it had become apparent to me that GJP (along with former employee, Augie Boto and a few other now former EC employees) were more concerned about helping provide cover for the EC than it did the will of the messengers, even on occasion siding with the EC against other convention entities.
As a reminder, here is the original text of the motion:
“In light of concerns raised by legal counsel and seemingly contradictory opinions about matters facing the convention, I move that this body request that the Executive Committee study and report back to this convention at the 2022 annual meeting the question of whether or not there is an inherent conflict of interest with the Convention and the Executive Committee being represented by the same legal counsel.”
Just to be clear, I had always believed that the SBC and the EC should have the same legal counsel. It just makes sense. The EC serves (or is supposed to serve) the convention ad interim, so it follows that counsel should be the same. Unfortunately, for years, I have watched as the EC has grown more and more entitled and less and less a servant of the convention. Only recently did we come to find out exactly how much that had become the case.
Let me also admit that I suppose I could have been more clear regarding what the EC needed to investigate. When you read the response to my motion it appears as though all the retained firm considered in their “review” were the guiding documents themselves. It is clear they did not investigate any of the actual problems I presented to them during my address in the September EC meeting in Nashville. All they did was regurgitate the same line GJP argued before… there is no conflict.
Before you move on, you may want to take a look at THIS ARTICLE that gives a bit more background on my interaction with the EC.
The official response of the EC has been published in the Book of Reports (available HERE) and it is exactly as I expected it would be. A big juicy “nothing to see here.” Clearly this statement is from the lawyers but at this point the EC should have risen up and challenged this terrible take.
Here is the official response:
“The SBC Executive Committee reports it considered the relationship between the Southern Baptist Convention and its Executive Committee as outlined in the Southern Baptist Convention’s Constitution and Bylaws and sees no conflict of interest regarding legal counsel. Further, during its February 21-22, 2022, meeting, the SBC Executive Committee received as information that Friday, Eldredge & Clark, LLP of Little Rock, Arkansas, an independent firm with experience in Southern Baptist polity, was retained and conducted a review of whether or not there is an inherent conflict of interest in the Convention and its Executive Committee being represented by the same legal counsel. Their study also found no conflict of interest. Therefore, the SBC Executive Committee declines further consideration of the matter.” (page 18, number 3)
The problem with this response is multifaceted and let’s be honest, it is laughable on its face. Anyone with a pulse can point to a clear “conflict of interest” on full display in the ongoing train wreck that was the three meetings of the Executive Committee on September 21, September 28, & October 5. Also, this new firm (one of, I’m not even sure how many who were hired over those couple of months) hired (on the recommendation of former VP Greg Addison) to look into my question, had a front row seat to review this concern as GJP provided cover to the EC to argue against fulfilling what was the the explicitly stated will of the convention from our meeting in Nashville. At least one EC member, himself a lawyer, is on video stating that the EC doesn’t have to do what the convention directs them to do. Is he even a Baptist? 🙂
The fact is, the conflict of interest was larger and more far reaching than any of us originally thought it was.
Why the Motion
As I already have mentioned, there are a number of issues that lead to this motion. We have witnessed the EC grow more “powerful” over the years when it is not supposed to wield power at all. We do NOT have a hierarchical structure in our theological tradition. Our ecclesiological stream doesn’t allow for it. That goes for our entitles as well. My first introduction to the issue of what I am going to call “creeping hierarchy” was way back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s… specifically when the EC put pressure on all of the entitles to sign on to Sole Membership.
Anyone want to guess who kicked off this move? According to THIS PAGE , it was the “Executive Committee staff (who) began proposing adoption of the model to the various SBC entities.” You want to guess what two people initiated that move toward more centralization and thus more power for the EC? Yup, you guessed correctly, Augie Boto and James Guenther. They were the authors of THIS WHITE PAPER which was used to push all entities, including most forcefully NOBTS (a sister entity of the EC), into the adoption of Sole Membership back in 2003. I spoke on the floor of the convention two years in a row, that time in support of Dr. Kelley’s concern regarding sole membership for this very reason. EC overreach on a couple of levels.
How about the witch hunt by the EC against the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) on a couple of occasions? Including the introduction of an investigation (which it did not have the right to initiate on its own accord) against the ERLC. And that was in the wake of a rousing vote of confidence in the ERLC evidenced the previous year when a motion to defund the ERLC failed miserably. You can read all about that overreach HERE. Be sure to watch the video clip of the vote. And pay special attention to the part of the article that explains what the actual role is of the EC is. This was a clear display of EC overreach, again, this time against another entity but even more specifically. But it doesn’t stop there.
How about THE DEBACLE (and HERE and HERE) when the EC lawyers advised against our own Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary? This time in a move that ultimately, in part, brought a verdict which caused Augie Boto to lose the ability to serve on any corporate or non-profit board in Texas because of his unethical actions. Yes, it was that bad.
But all those things together didn’t hold a candle to the two giant and undeniable conflicts of interest perpetrated on the SBC which we’ve seen since September 21, 2021 in the form of (1) the EC lawyers advising the EC to choose against the ratified action of the full convention by urging the waiving of privilege and then in the most egregious act we’ve seen to date with (2) the lawyers and some staff who had the unmitigated gall to transgress the very spirit of what we as Christ followers are called to do in caring for the oppressed and afflicted as they, in apparently covering for themselves, led the EC to ignore and even keep important information from the EC regarding sex abuse allegations. Here, even the EC itselve was deceived.
And the EC comes back with “their study found no conflict of interest.” Give me a break. Seriously, its laughable. This motion is arguably more important now than it was when it was made a year ago. The entirety of the Convention should be dissatisfied with this response.
Honestly, I don’t know. The long time law firm who was responsible for guiding us in this direction and the EC staff members who were a part of this action are all gone. Further, I had the privilege this year of serving on the SBC Committee on Nominations and I can assure everyone who is reading this that our team will be presenting to the floor EC nominees who I believe will bring about a seismic shift to the EC membership which should likely, as one Tweeter recently requested, “Make the EC boring again!” So, what is there to do? Let me offer a couple of things.
First, how about a retraction from the EC regarding their confirmation that “there is no conflict of interest.” Everyone sees it. I’m honestly embarrassed for them.
Second, how about this. According to Chapter 2 of the Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct (Rule 2.1: Advisor) a Lawyer in Tennessee, in rendering advice, may “refer not only to law but to other considerations such as moral, economic, social, and political factors what may be relevant to the client’s situation.”
For heaven’s sake the Church of Jesus Christ has not only the responsibility in a civil society to treat others with the respect they deserve, but the divine command of God to care for the hurting and our own lawyers and a few EC employees were derelict in their duty to advise our own EC to speak to the moral issues related to Sexual Abuse.
In the “Commentary” section of that same Rule the text relays, “It is proper for a lawyer to refer to relevant more and ethical considerations in giving advice. Although a lawyer is not amoral advisor as such, moral and ethical considerations impinge upon most legal questions and may decisively influence how the law will be applied.”
I believe that the EC of the SBC should consider making the request of the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility to immediately evaluate GJP’s actions as it concerns a number of the above issues related to their counsel in these areas. I am no lawyer but I believe their actions might rise to the level of negligence which should be punitively addressed in some real way.
I am still thinking through how to interact with the deficient response of the EC to my motion in Anaheim in a few days. Especially now that there is actionable evidence to show a clear conflict of interest on the part of our now former law firm. I do intend to address it but I want to move forward in the most Christ-like and effective way. I would say another motions is in order but I already have another ready to go NOT related to this one. Well, not exactly, anyway.