Component Two: Making Our Values Transparent: We must also work toward the creation of a new and healthy culture within the Southern Baptist Convention. If we are to grow together and work together in faithfulness to the command of Christ, we must establish a culture of trust, transparency, and truth among all Southern Baptists. . . .
If we are to create this culture that the GCR Task Force envisions and that all Southern Baptists deserve, we must begin to take bold steps to make “trust, transparency, and truth” become a reality. The first step on the road to a more transparent and open culture is always the hardest to take, but take it we must if our Convention is to have any hope of continuing with the spirit of cooperative missions and ministry that God has entrusted to our churches.
After two posts (here and here) reviewing what I believe to be the the Task Force’s missed opportunity in the area of transparency, I want to share one way that a “new and healthy culture” can become a reality. If past is prologue, I do not believe that many within the leadership class of the SBC will rush to embrace this “better” way. There have been many others who have also called for our Convention to accept this way of doing “business.” What is this “better” way? VOLUNTARY DISCLOSURE OF EXECUTIVE LEVEL COMPENSATION AND BENEFITS PACKAGES AT ALL SBC ENTITIES, BOARDS, AND SEMINARIES!
According to current law, most 501(c)(3) non-profit corporations must file IRS Form 990. This financial disclosure form requires non-profit charities to report:
gross income, expenses, disbursements for exempt purposes, assets and liabilities, net worth, contributions received (including the names and addresses of substantial contributors), and compensation paid to certain employees (emphasis added). (ChurchLawToday.com)
However, there are certain non-profits that are exempt from filing a Form 990, even though these charities enjoy a favorable tax-exempt status which allows individuals to claim an income tax deduction for any contributions made to these organizations. Can you guess which groups are not required to disclose any financial information to the IRS (and the public)? That’s right — churches and other religious bodies:
Form 990 itself specifies that the following organizations are exempt from the annual information return requirement: (1) “a church, an interchurch organization of local units of a church, a convention or association of churches, an integrated auxiliary of a church (such as a men’s or women’s organization, religious school, mission society, or youth group), or an internally supported, church–controlled organization (described in Revenue Procedure 86–23) (ChurchLawToday.com)
I am most grateful for the tax exempt status that churches (including the one I pastor) and other religious groups (including the Southern Baptist Convention) receive from the government. I do not want the federal, state, or local governments forcing churches or religious bodies to disclose financial or membership records. Quite frankly, that is none of the government’s business! But, that does not mean that we have to hide behind the First Amendment or the “separation of church and state” when it is more transparency and openness that we seek.
Why do the trustee boards of the various SBC agencies, boards and seminaries — IMB, NAMB, EC, SBTS, SWBTS, SEBTS, NOBTS, MWBTS, GGBTS, ERLC, Lifeway, and Guidestone — refuse to release the compensation and benefits packages of their top executives? The same, worn-out reply is usually sounded from the halls in Nashville, Richmond, and Alpharetta as well as throughout SBC-land by supporters of the status quo — “What? Don’t you trust us? You voted for the trustees. Let them do their job of oversight and just trust them. If you really trusted leadership, you should not have to know what everyone makes?”
This is not a matter of lack of trust on the part of the membership of the SBC. It’s a matter of our trustees and those in positions of leadership, who are supposed to serve the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention, taking the necessary steps that will ensure that we are fiduciarily sound and above reproach. And, for the record, I do not know whether or not any of the high-level executives at any of our entities are “overpaid” or “underpaid.” I “trust” that they are compensated fairly, but not lavishly.
The call that I and others have made regarding transparency, including in the compensation and benefits packages (and even retirement packages) of top Convention executives, is not some vendetta against those in power. It is a call to create more “trust, transparency, and truth among ALL Southern Baptists.” When people from all walks of life — most of whom would not be considered “wealthy” — continue to give sacrificially to the mission and ministry of the Southern Baptist Convention, then I believe we have an obligation to ensure that their (i.e., God’s) money is being wisely spent.
Our moral and fiduciary obligations begin, by the way, at the local church level. When our members and others invest their financial resources to support the local church, there should be a high level of accountablility and transparency in our church finances. I would not call for this kind of disclosure on the national level if I were not a proponent of it on the local level. That’s why every member of my congregation not only knows what my compensation/benefits package is, but actually votes to approve it. No hidden jet leases. Everything’s out in the open. I know that’s a novel concept to some of the larger churches in the SBC, but to most grassroots churches that still practice some form of congregational polity, this is just a common sense (and transparent) way of doing church. And, while there may be some churches that have chosen (for good reasons) to be less transparent with salaries, a high level of accountablility is nevertheless demanded. However, the various entities of the SBC can in no way be considered churches and should therefore be even more transparent AND accountable to the churches they are supposed to serve.
I suppose that some (many) leaders within the Southern Baptist Convention will continue to ignore calls for transparency and openness in the area of compensation/benefits disclosure. They perhaps will use both a legal defense (“churches and conventions are exempt from mandatory disclosure requirements”) as well as a moral defense (“just trust your leaders without asking anymore questions”), all the while avoiding taking any positive steps in the right direction by VOLUNTARILY disclosing what the top executives of each of our SBC entities earn.
The demand for more transparency and openness — including a demand for OUR trustee boards to voluntarily disclose compensation/benefits packages for OUR Presidents and Vice-Presidents who serve OUR entities — will only continue to grow. We need leaders in our Convention who will lead their trustee boards to implement voluntary financial disclosure immediately! And, we need trustees who will serve the best interests of the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention by standing up to the entrenched powers and doing what is right! Remember, it only takes one to get a fire going!
After all, if the Boy Scouts (here), American Red Cross (here),, and even the dreaded ACLU (here) — all non-profits who must disclose compensation packages — can do it, shouldn’t the SBC? What “leader” will take that first step? Will it come from one of our seminary Presidents? Perhaps from Frank Page, President of the Executive Committee? Maybe a dark horse that no one expects (I can think of a few)? If the leaders don’t move toward true transparency, the grassroots will continue to speak out with their voices and eventually with their money!