The SBC Annual Meeting in 2021 is one that will be remembered in history as an important one for some time. While it’s easy to get lost in the respective highs and lows of the meeting, it’s also important to remember that the actions of the SBC when it gathers can have lasting actions. One such meeting happened in 1916 when the actions of one messenger still affect us today. The Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives records it this way.
In 1916, M. H. Wolfe of Texas proposed to amend the SBC Constitution “to create one strong executive board which shall direct all of the work and enterprises fostered and promoted by this Convention.” The report of the committee dealing with the matter was presented to the SBC in 1917 and urged that a “standing committee” be established to act for the SBC between sessions. This committee of seven would represent different parts of the Convention territory. It would arrange the annual meetings and was “empowered to act in an advisory way in all questions submitted to it on matters arising between the boards of this Convention.”
The result of that proposal was what we now call the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Executive Committee has not always been a part of Southern Baptist life. For the first several decades of the SBC the business got done through committees, meetings, and workgroups. The motion from the messenger from Texas led to the formation of a committee of seven people that would work to “to act for the convention during the interim … on all matters not otherwise provided for” and to advise convention boards “only on request.”
In the ensuing years, the scope of the work that the EC did was expanded to oversee the new Cooperative Program by overseeing the allocation of funds according to the recommended budget. The 1927 Annual records some of the changes to the EC.
“The Executive Committee shall have no authority to control or direct any agency of the Convention. But the Executive Committee shall have full authority to study the affairs of the agencies of the Convention, and to make suggestions, when deemed advisable, to the agencies, and to report its findings to the convention. . . “
In the early years leading the EC was not an easy task as the SBC struggled to get out from under massive debt. All of the SBC entities worked hard to become fiscally sound and responsible, aided in part by the growth of the Cooperative Program. David Roach recounted just how hard some of those times were.
So great were the pressures of this debt-laden period, McClellan wrote, that EC executive secretary Austin Crouch carried a resignation letter to each SBC annual meeting in case messengers’ frustration boiled over. “Happily,” McClellan noted, Crouch “never had to use” the letter and the SBC was debt-free by 1943, annual CP receipts having increased by 234 percent during the previous decade.
As the leadership of the EC changed over the years, the committee continued to carry out the work of the messengers, as well as lead in new initiatives. The SBC established relationships with new seminaries, established Glorietta Conference Center, and faced doctrinal issues that led to the formation of the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message. In the 1970’s they led in Bold Mission Thrust, and in the 80’s found themselves in the thick of the Conservative Resurgence. Since that time the EC has continued to lead the SBC towards outreach and evangelism, like the most recent Vision 2025.
The work and scope of the EC evolved over the years. After it’s formation in 1917, the function of the EC was changed in 1919 and 1926. Finally in 1927 it was constituted as a formal agency of the convention with a staff, an office, and an executive secretary. As time and circumstances dictated the work of the EC was amended to better serve the convention. There were two major reorganizations, in 1958 and 1976. In 1976 a “Committee of Seven” was appointed to “evaluate the committee in light of bylaw 9,” which at that time described the work and business of the EC. This committee consisted of Harold C. Bennet, Olin T. Blinkey, W.A. Criswell, C.R. Daley, Daniel R. Grant, H.H. Hobbs, and Alma Hunt. (no middle initial given for Mrs. Hunt)
The findings and suggestions of the Committee of Seven illustrated places that needed correction or change. They noted that there was “room for personal favoritism and cronyism in the selection of nominees” for EC board members. The orientation program for new members was found to be “helpful but inadequate,” and they suggested other SBC agencies provide perspective on the work of the EC and it’s relationships to the agencies. Another finding noted that the EC was strongly “staff oriented” at that time, not because of domineering but because EC members were not effectively carrying out their duties. Suggestions were made for “more careful study by Executive Committee members of background materials on major issues prior to Executive Committee meetings,” and “adequate opportunity and time in plenary sessions for discussion and questions on major issues before final action on subcommittee recommendations. “
Several findings of the Committee of Seven centered around the nature and responsibilities of the EC. One suggestion sought to strike a balance between the work of the EC and other agencies.
Caution should be taken to prevent even an unconscious trend toward undue centralization of authority in Southern Baptist organizational life. The usurpation of undue authority by the Executive Committee over the agencies of the Convention would be disastrous. At the same time, the agencies should recognize the need for the Convention to exercise reasonable review of their affairs. The authority of the Executive Committee should be kept in healthy tension with the authority of Convention-elected trustees of the agencies.
Another suggestion from the Committee of Seven noted that “acting for the Convention ad interim” is not the same as “being the Convention ad interim.” Still another noted that “The advisory role of the Executive Committee should never become a supervisory or managerial role. In cases where agencies do not agree on questions of cooperation and do not follow the advice of the Executive Committee, the Committee should make recommendations on these matters to the Convention. “
The recommendations of the Committee of Seven still have great bearing on the work of the EC today. Several of the suggested by law changes they gave are still in effect today, most of them reflected in the current by-Law 18 of the SBC. The messengers of the 2021 Convention sought to stay in line with the findings and suggestions of Hobbs, Criswell, the committee of seven, and the messengers of that convention, and even the work of the EC itself. Since 1917 the messengers of the SBC have consistently and uniformly agreed that all of the SBC entities serve on equal footing. The Convention of messengers have regularly sought to make sure that the power of final decision lies with the messengers. The recent actions of the 2021 Convention prove that to be the case. This is in accordance with both our baptist polity and bylaws, and with our understanding of the biblical nature and function of the church. These are the rules that we have chosen to govern ourselves with. They are not perfect by any stretch, but over the 100+ year history of the EC they have allowed the SBC to thrive, grow, and continue to share the gospel across the world.
If the messengers so desire, these rules can be changed at any time. But the history of the EC shows us that any authority they have is given to them by the messengers. This is one of the reasons why it’s important to remember that every decision made at a SBC Annual Meeting can have lasting consequences. It’s clear now that the meetings of 1916, 1958, and 1976 still have an impact felt in the SBC today. We won’t know what the effect of 2021 was until years down the road, but we can be sure that it will be felt for decades. It’s hard to tell what the future of the SBC might hold. But a proper understanding of the past can help guide us in the present.