I’m not running for anything so it doesn’t trouble me to write that my default posture on all things SBC is cold eyed, astringent skepticism. Maybe that is unfair to the hundreds, thousands of highly committed, loyal, servants who are employed by our entities or who serve as trustees of them. Still, I think I come by it honestly.
When artist Graham Sutherland was engaged to paint a portrait of the aged Winston Churchill for his eightieth borthday, the former Prime Minister asked him how he would approach his task. Sutherland said he would paint what Churchill gave him. When it was finished, Churchill didn’t like and later burned it. Sutherland, presumably unapologetically, said something like he worked with what he was given and did the best he could.
We Southern Baptists, when it comes to our attitudes towards denominational work, are shaped by what we are given and often what we are given is ugly.
For those with short memories, a few years ago NAMB was buying expensive ice sculptures for parties. This according to an expose book written by a former employee who was fed up with how God’s money was being used. That was long ago corrected and NAMB is on a much better trajectory with much more responsible leadership. The ice sculpture, an extravagance but a very minor expense, became a metaphor and not a good one.
Southwestern Seminary, long fallen from its position as the world’s largest seminary, had a presidential chef. Seriously.
Lawd! How is a pastor supposed to explain to workaday Southern Baptists, you know, the ones who pay the bills, support the Cooperative Program, and fund the seminaries that they’re paying for a presidential chef? Is this a Texas thing? So, hire a redneck cowboy to do some bbq. Maybe SWBTS had a workaround on this, the chef being paid from donor funds. Still, the optics are terrible and if you want a metaphor for the Southwestern mess, my candidate would be the chef not the #metoo. My second candidate would be the stained-glass windows.
Such was my stature in my first church I had an unlimited convention travel expense budget. I had asked the church treasurer, Albert the welder, how much I had to spend. His answer, “Whatever you think.” That’s unlimited, right? I’m a pretty good thinker when it comes to spending someone else’s money. I’m also a pretty good thinker about what is reasonable and proper. Before I spent money for a meal or for an airplane ticket, I thought about how that would appear to the folks in my church. That process was sure to clarify my thinking, and my spending. Once you get to denominational leadership, you no longer have to think like this?
Is it unkind to use the word “sycophants” in regard to our trustees and entity workers? Maybe, and I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it and I’ve seen it a good bit lately. I understand personal loyalty. I understand that such can cause one to squander their moral capital.
Sinecures? Ah, the ultimate expression of denominational power – being able to dispense jobs to friends. Maybe patronage is a better word but sinecures is alliterative. Whichever, is there a greater siren song for an entity head? I think not.
Is the problem that entities and trustees are so emboldened by silence and secrecy that they allow things to be done that they would not if they knew folks would know about them? Do they have such confidence in the steady stream of church dollars that they can expect that SBCers will give their money so they should shut up and leave them alone?
If it sounds a bit harsh then I offer as evidence an ugly stream of major trustee and entity failures.
- Whose fault was it that we had to jettison a thousand experienced missionaries to regain solid financial footing for our beloved International Mission Board?
- Who should be blamed for the Southwestern Seminary debacle where an individual trustee had to appeal to the assembled SBC that trustee decisions be sustained in their decisive though lamentably tardy action?
- Who was at the controls when NAMB had their two near catastrophic disasters and just about lost the goodwill and support of the Convention?
- More parochially, who in my wonderful state, should be blamed for the appalling long-running disaster that occurred in one of our colleges?
Trustees. Trustees. Trustees. Trustees.
If, individually, all of the folks who hold our entities in trust are great people, then how can it be that collectively they are responsible for repeated disasters? Too many sychophants? To many who are hoping for a future denominational job, or speaking invitations, or a larger church? Too many people who are just along for the expense-paid ride? Too many people whose ideas of servanthood go no farther than getting a resume enhancer and networking opportunities? Surely not.
Who is to hold our enterprises accountable if trustees are found untrustworthy for the task?
Disgruntled employees who not only talk but who write books?
Social media and, ugh, bloggers?
There are no independent news outlets in the SBC. Baptist Press does good work but is an in-house Executive Committee outfit and, I’m sorry to say it, they are usually slow to get to some bad news, although they are much better now than previously. State ‘papers’ are no better. I can’t put a number on it but I’m guessing that more SBCers get their news from social media and blogs rather than official outlets.
Often, when Southern Baptists want to know about some matters, they have to go to our ex-SBC friends over at Baptist News Global or to secular outlets.
Trustees have been touted as the genius solution for our cooperative work. They are instruments of accountability in the SBC and state conventions. They hold the institution in trust for us all. Why, then, do trustee executive committees and chairpersons fail in holding their leaders accountable and in speaking forthrightly to those who pay all the bills?
The answers are evidently above my pay grade.
For those who think strident voices on social media and self-important, rude, and bombastic bloggers are not the best place to air out much less to solve our problems, I agree with you. But we can easily be pre-empted by trustee openness and transparency. Maybe that should be tried.
The picture folks in the pews have of the SBC is the one given to them. They can’t be blamed if it is at times a very ugly picture. But it’s too valuable to burn. Let’s fix it.