We were all stunned a couple of years back when David Platt stood before us and laid out, gruesome detail by gruesome detail, exactly what was going on financially at the IMB. In the previous 5 years, the IMB had overspent by 210 million dollars. Platt did several things right in that moment.
- He was open and honest about the problem.
- He did not try to scapegoat or pin blame. He was the new IMB president and it would have been easy for him to throw shade on previous leadership, but he did not do that.
- He presented a clear path to fix the problem and expressed his determination to do so.
His strategy to handle the budget deficit was not without its detractors, but the time to fight that fight is long past. The fact is that when the IMB was in difficulty, he stood up and looked us square in the eye and told the people who pay the freight exactly what was happening. In my recent dealings with the IMB over the issue of Platt’s work at McLean Bible Church, I found that openness, honesty, and transparency seem to be a continuing theme among the trustees there.
I believe there is something of a battle in the SBC world between the old world and the new. In the days gone by SBC work took place in (metaphorical, I hope) smoke-filled rooms where the SBC elite made their decisions and reported them to the hoi polloi. During the CR, we loyally accepted the decisions of that group of leaders who met and decided who the next president should be and where the battle lines should be drawn. We were loyal soldiers in the war. The business behind the scenes was meant to be kept behind the scenes. Rumors circulated, of course, and if you were “in the know” or friends with someone who was, you might know what was going on, but such things never appeared in Baptist Press or state papers and regular folks never knew about them.
Then, along came social media and BOOM! There is no question that those of us involved in the blogging world have been irresponsible, gossipy, belligerent, and whatever other negative thing you want to pin on us. But we changed the game. If you don’t believe that blogging has changed the game, drive to Nashville, knock on the door of the Executive Committee president’s office, and when you go inside, check out the nameplate on the desk. Frank Page was elected president in 2006 for many reasons, but a significant one was the hue and cry raised by bloggers about the shoddy CP giving of the leading candidate. Frank’s megachurch was giving 10% or more. He was elected in a huge surprise and became EC president a few years later (praise God). At the risk of being accused of self-aggrandizement, what we did last year with the Pastors’ Conference was only possible because of social media.
In the social media world, it is hard to keep secrets. Twitter, Facebook, email, blogging. Stuff gets out.
In recent days, I have been given several bits of information about SBC entities. Some of it was patently false and ridiculous (you can read that at other blogs). Some of it was true, but I realized that the entity trustees were dealing well with the issues I didn’t need to stir any pots. In recent weeks, I’ve been made aware of financial struggles at several of our entities. After playing investigative journalist for a few days and realizing that I lacked the degree in forensic accounting I needed to wade through all this stuff, I passed the information I had on to others and removed myself from the playing field.
But during all of this, from David Platt’s handling of the IMB issue to my recent experiences, I have formed (and confirmed) some strong opinions about the what is happening in the SBC, what needs to happen, and the keys to forging a brighter future for the SBC institutionally. I’d like to share some of my ruminations with you. Inevitably, someone is going to see this as directed at a particular situation. These thoughts have been forming for a long time. Perhaps recent events moved me to gather my thoughts and post them, but I am not trying to address a particular situation but the SBC in general.
- Everyone loses the blame game.
Unless someone is dishonest or incompetent, there is little to be gained from playing pin the tail on the donkey here. “It’s his fault.” “No, it’s his.” There were a couple of stories recently of churches being robbed by staff members or treasurers. That should be prosecuted. But when an institution is in danger, an honest look needs to be taken at what is going on and how it can be fixed.
Our church has been struggling financially. I have done extensive analysis and was able to identify several trends and reasons for this – some outside our control. But if we simply blame the farm economy, national trends, or rising healthcare costs, we won’t face the problems in our church’s ministries that we need to face. The blame game is easy and comforting, but not productive. No one wins the blame game.
Too often, when problems arise, our first response is to slaughter scapegoats instead of finding solutions. “It’s the Calvinists.” “Obamacare caused all the problems.” Scapegoating isn’t healthy. No one wins and everyone loses. Scapegoating is a form of dodgeball – avoiding the real issues that cause our problems. If someone plays the blame game, he is usually scared that he might have to shoulder the blame. It is a defensive act, not a productive one.
- It’s about Trustees and Trust.
“Trust the trustees” is not just a slogan in the SBC, it is a way of life. It is our system. We elect trustees and they run our entities. People are shocked when the messengers pass some resolution or motion and the Trustees do not immediately fall in line. That’s our system. We elect trustees. We approve their budget. But they are tasked with overseeing their entities. This was the strategy of the CR. Elect presidents who would appoint committees who would nominate trustees who would be conservatives and hold their entities doctrinally accountable. We elect trustees. Trustees run their entities.
So, our system works if our trustees work our system. If our trustees remember that their responsibility is to the convention and to the institution, and keep our trust, they do well. Sometimes, trustee boards either become hostile or they become rubber stamps. Both are destructive. An atmosphere of hostility between the president and the board generally paralyzes the entity. When the trustees are yes-men (or women) and do not hold the president and the administration accountable, the entity often goes astray.
My father was a board trustee many years ago, when there was conflict between the board and the president. It was widely reported that it was over convention politics, but my father, who was one of the key leaders on the board, told me that the conflict was much simpler. The president was used to having a board that served as yes-men and did what he told them. This new board was not doing that. The president was saying, “You work for me,” and the board was saying, “No, you report to us.”
No man prospers when surrounded by yes men. Trustees must find that sweet spot – being supportive of the president and administration while also holding them accountable. I do not envy them and that balancing act. Too often, leaders in churches and in entities come to view accountability as enmity. Those who resist accountability and insist on unchallenged authority exhibit a serious character flaw.
Our trustee system works if we work the system!
- Two plus two equals four.
Statistical analysis can be a difficult thing. A previous post by William Thornton revealed a fascinating numerical conundrum about the enrollment at SWBTS. Over a period of time, enrollment increased substantially, but FTE (full-time equivalency) numbers decreased. So, one person could look at the stats for this seminary and say, “Look how well we are doing.” Another could point and say, “Look, there’s a crisis.” Both would be speaking truth.
I don’t have any problem with an entity or its leaders trumpeting the positives or displaying optimism. Even in the middle of a crisis, God does wonderful things. But we must also be realistic. We can put our best foot forward, but honesty and integrity demand that in doing so, we never hide the other foot. We must tell the truth, the whole truth (good and bad), and nothing but the truth.
My dad used to say, “An informed people is a happy people.” Inform us. Obviously, there are things that must be held privately, things only the trustees should know. But if an entity is in financial difficulty, it seems that we ought to know that.
- Faith doesn’t bless folly.
How did the IMB get into such a financial mess? I do not believe there was a dishonest heart among those who guided the IMB onto those shoals. They were motivated by the lostness of the world and their desire to reach people. That passion made it impossible for them to face the reality of falling revenues. They spent reserves because they just didn’t want to bring missionaries home from the field. They overspent because they couldn’t face the reality of falling revenues!
The problems in our entities are generally (from what I know, and that isn’t much) not because of malfeasance or misappropriation or anything dishonest. Perhaps egos get involved at times, I don’t know. But people love their work and their institutions and they “believe” that God will provide and they push forward “in faith” refusing to see the reality that is forming around them.
When you are passionate about the work an institution is doing and love the people doing it, facing tough realities is, well, tough. But we must make tough choices before we run our institutions aground. Faith does not necessitate or bless foolish choices and it is time we stop blaming our folly on faith.
- There are no magic beans or golden geese.
What David Platt did at the IMB hurt. Missionaries lost their livelihood. The cause of world missions was not helped. But there was no golden goose laying golden CP eggs to fund our world missions programs. If Baptists didn’t give more we had to have fewer missionaries. He did what needed to be done. He reduced the mission force to what we could afford.
We’d all love to see a massive revival that brings tens of thousands, even millions of people into our churches and adds millions and billions to our offerings and to the CP. Glory. Hallelujah. But we cannot wait and hope for that. That is magic bean budgeting.
Entities must look at what is, what they have, and they have to do the best they can with that. They should most definitely seek God and trust God and think big. But there is a fine line between faith and folly and it seems that too often we’ve crossed it.
- You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.
Perhaps I am oversensitive, as someone who is known around the SBC as a blogger, but I grow weary of the potshots taken at bloggers during our annual meetings and at other gatherings. I understand it. Yes, there are some who report rumor as fact, who don’t check sources or make any effort to see that what they are told is factual. There are those who operate from anger and hate, simply attacking blindly and viciously. And yes, there are gossips.
But I think there is another reason why some of these folks are so ticked with bloggers and other social media. Knowledge is power and for a long time they had full control. They were in the know and we were on the outside. Now, a pastor of a small church can be “plugged-in” because of the power of social media.
- We shine the light where they want to keep things hidden.
- We challenge the spin that some wish could go unchallenged.
- We ask questions they don’t want asked.
Do we do it badly at times? Yes. Blogging has no universal code of ethics and there are times I want to cringe (sometimes when I look at what I have written in the past!), but we still perform a valuable service.
Here’s where I stand. I am not out to hurt or embarrass any of our entities. Not a one. If I get information about them, I will work with them to help them do what is best for the institution. I love and want what is best for the Southern Baptist Convention. But we are not serving anyone’s private agenda. If you are simply looking to spin the truth or keep things under wraps, to paraphrase the song, “You’ve NOT got a friend in us.”
It is not unusual that our entities would face financial trouble. In a discussion with our little band of buddies the other day, most of us admitted that our churches were having financial troubles. We don’t consider that to be a marker of great evil or we’d be self-condemning! But we must move past “blame the economy” and “blame Obamacare” to face issues head-on. Our system works, but only if we work it.
I have several friends who are trustees of entities and I know they take their jobs seriously. They are committed to making this system work. The balance between supporting leaders we love and holding them accountable is always going to be difficult.
But that is our system and if our system is going to work, we must work it.