Much has transpired since my visit to the Executive Committee (EC) meeting in Nashville last month. I originally wanted to get this article written and published earlier but it became clear that the Sexual Abuse Task Force’s work and the response of the EC was a far more important issue (although I would argue these two items are related). Thus, I decided to hold off publishing this article until things finally came to a head after not a small kerfuffle and a third and final motion from Jared Wellman ultimately passing the EC to waive privilege. Since then things have devolved even further with numerous EC Trustee resignations and then yesterday it was reported that the long time SBC law firm of Guenther, Jordan and Price has “withdrawn” as the legal counsel to the SBC and the Executive Committee. According to their letter they blame the waiving of privilege for the dissolution of that relationship. This is strange occurrence indeed, as it is my understanding that attorney-client privilege is engaged to protect the client, not necessarily the lawyer, but I digress.
We have had what I will call a Counsel Crisis for some time now. It’s been years in the making in my estimation, hence the reason for the motion, but the culmination for me was after the motion was made when the EC hired a second high powered DC law firm to advise the EC to act against the will of the SBC messengers to waive privilege after our own long time law firm had advised the Trustees to act against the will of the messengers and to vote against the waiving of privilege. Then the EC hired a third law firm to investigate the substance of my motion regarding whether or not there is such a conflict of interest. Friends, things are a mess, but now after the resignation of our counsel, I have hope for a path forward.
I spent September 20th & 21st in Nashville at the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) September Executive Committee (EC) meeting and as most of you know, it was a crazy couple of days which extended into a crazy couple of weeks.
The reason for my visit to the September meeting of the EC was to speak to the Missions and Ministry subcommittee on behalf of the motion I made this past June. Suffice it to say, this motion was far less important than the Gaines/Parrott motion which sought to initiate an investigation of the EC regarding its handling of sexual abuse allegations. So, while most folks were prepared to give attention to that motion, mine, albeit a distant second in importance, ultimately has garnered some attention for itself.
The Text of my Motion from June
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.”
The motion is relatively self-explanatory. But allow me to give you a bit of background. Many of us have been deeply concerned about certain actions of the EC for a number of years and the apparent cover provided through recommendations received from our attorneys. My personal concerns go back to the Sole Membership issue and the scuttlebutt at that time that some at the EC had apparently suggested that the convention consider shutting down one of our seminaries. I don’t think it is ever appropriate for the EC to have anything to say regarding an attempt to exert control over another entity and honestly, I STILL have significant issues with Sole Membership.
As most of our readers will know, the EC is one of 12 distinct entities of the SBC and they are tasked with serving on behalf of the SBC ad interim (meaning they temporarily oversee the work of the convention while the convention is not in session. Keep in mind, they are not THE SBC ad interim, they are simply tasked with jobs to do by the SBC, ad interim). They have no power of their own. They carry out tasks given to them from the annual SBC meeting each June as corresponds with their explicit ministry assignment. In fact, the SBC is the Sole Member of the Charter of the EC just as it is the Sole Member of the Charters of all 12 entities. I assume at this point most of our readers are aware of all of this.
Over the last couple of years it has appeared to many interested Baptists that the EC has stepped over its ministry assignment boundary lines. You might take a moment to do a quick search on this site of the multiple articles expressing concern over the EC’s overreach. Ultimately, it appears to me that our legal counsel has helped to enable this shift in the essence of the EC from servant of the Convention to its overseer. This is NOT the way.
Appearance before the Subcommittee
My trip up was a last minute decision. After I had received a letter explaining when and where my motion would be taken up, I had decided not to attend. My 21 year old son Quint convinced me otherwise on Sunday afternoon. I booked a flight and after I posted a Tweet asking for a place to crash, some good friends each privately invited me to stay with them so I picked one and I was on my way.
Tuesday morning I asked Chairman Showers if I could speak to my motion. He obliged. The following is the text of my address to the Committee on Convention Missions and Ministry.
My name is Jay Adkins and I am the Pastor of FBC Westwego Louisiana. I have come today at my own expense while also taking time away from coordinating disaster relief efforts in my home of New Orleans because I believe this to be an important issue. So, thank you Mr. Chairman for the opportunity to address this subcommittee regarding the motion I made at this year’s annual meeting in Nashville.
My motion is as follows…
“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.”
When I made this motion in June, I could not have anticipated that we would be here, today, as the Executive Committee contemplates how to implement the clear wishes of the messengers to this summer’s annual meeting.
I did not realize, when I made my motion, that the Executive Committee would go on to retain the services of another set of attorneys, rather than rely exclusively on the longtime counsel of Mr. Jordan and Mr. Guenther.
I also did not realize until yesterday just how many lawyers currently serve as Executive Committee trustees.
We are a convention of churches of course, NOT a convention of lawyers. And God knows, Southern Baptists don’t need lawyers to have a conflict. But today we find ourselves in the midst of a significant conflict. And I believe it is a conflict owing DIRECTLY to the exact issues that my motion seeks to address.
Admittedly, I am not an attorney. I am only a pastor, But a few things were clear to me when I made this motion:
- The SBC is a Georgia Corporation. The Executive Committee is a Tennessee Corporation. I learned this more than 15 years ago from Mr. Guenther himself during the dispute between my alma mater, New Orleans Seminary and the Executive Committee regarding sole membership.
- Number 2, I know that the SBC, as the sole member of the Tennessee Corporation, is the owner of the Executive Committee.
- I also have noted couple of concerning actions of this Committee in recent years including questionable legal advice ranging from (1) this committee initiating an “investigation” of which the Convention did not approve, to (2) now what appears to be legal counsel given to this committee to reject the stated action of the body that owns it.
The Southern Baptist Convention is now in a moment of crisis. A conflict of unprecedented scale and potentially irrecoverable polity disintegration has gripped our convention.
My motion is simple. I want this committee to report back to the convention whether or not a conflict of interest exists between the legal duty that Mr. Guenther and Mr. Jordan have to the Convention…and the services they render to the Executive Committee.
Mr. Guenther has publicly stated there is no conflict. But that is not a matter for Mr. Guenther to decide. It is a matter for this committee…and ultimately the Southern Baptist Convention to decide.
Since the Convention requested the Committee to act on my motion, my concerns about the possible conflict in the present arrangement have grown. My questions have multiplied. For instance…
- When did the members of the Executive Committee last review the contract with Mr. Guenther’s firm?
- Does Mr. Guenther’s firm charge the same rate for the Executive Committee that it does the Convention?
- Do members of the committee review — on even an occasional basis — the invoices Mr. Guenther’s firm submits for his work on behalf of the convention and the Executive Committee?
- Has the Committee ever even asked the question about a potential conflict between Mr. Guenther’s firm serving as counsel to both the Convention and the Executive Committee?
These questions were exacerbated yesterday as I listened, completely stunned, to one committee member, in open session, publicly state that the Committee is not duty-bound to adhere to the will of the messengers who elected them.
This is not the way I have known Southern Baptist polity and governance to work. The EC is tasked with Ad Interim not Ad Infinitum action on behalf of the SBC.
My assumptions were always that it made sense that the SBC and Ex Com would share counsel but due to recent actions of this committee it is clear to me that should no longer be the case.
And to learn that this line of legal argument, which appears to be a perversion of our historic system of trustee governance, is being proffered by the same lawyers who are paid by the Cooperative Program is disconcerting at best. That the convention is paying lawyers to advise an entity we own to dismiss the clear and legal action taken by our convention messengers is unconscionable.
As I said, I am pastor. I am not a lawyer. But I have served our convention in various capacities, I have served our state convention as a trustee for one of our Baptist colleges and I’m on the front lines of leadership in our associational work. I am familiar with what is at stake here.
The Committee’s determination to retain another set of lawyers to advise in this current crisis is a step in the right direction, I suppose. Albeit, I am completely confused as to how it came about and why the rest of the members of the Executive Committee were not aware of it.
This appears to me to be a tacit admission that my questions…and those of many Southern Baptists…are both timely and legitimate.
The only path forward is to undertake a serious review of the present arrangement and possibly implement a process of regularly revisiting policies governing the way the Executive Committee retains counsel.
I eagerly await your report to the convention in Anaheim.
What Happened Next
With that said, I took a seat and Greg Addison, Executive Vice President of the EC explained to the subcommittee that action had already been taken to secure a law firm from Arkansas to be a “third party” to bring back a recommendation regarding the motion. A THIRD law firm?!
Upon hearing the engagement of a third firm, a few of the committee members appeared concerned. Keep in mind that just the day before there had been quite a ruckus in the general sessions (and from what I understand, in executive session as well) regarding the influence of the lawyers in this deliberative process. I think they were also concerned that the staff had already made this move without engaging the subcommittee in this decision. At least that is the language that was used in the subcommittee meeting, however, the same language was not used in the general session. There were good questions asked from the members of the subcommittee and then the full body and I appreciate the questions and their service.
By the way, I now understand that third law firm from Arkansas who had been engaged to be the “outside third-party” to consider the conflict of interest, has also withdrawn from our engagement with them. I’m not sure what’s going to happen now with this motion.
Let me be clear. Ultimately, it is my position that the legal counsel of the Southern Baptist Convention SHOULD be that of the Executive Committee. Because the EC should be functioning as a servant of the SBC… not as its overseer (advising against the will of the messengers). If the EC would take on its assigned tasks (and that alone) then I believe it is right and good and helpful for both to share counsel. The overreaching way the EC has been functioning and the cover provided by legal counsel IS the impetus for my motion. The concerns many of us have regarding this conflict of interest would disappear if there were no actual conflict taking place between the will of the messengers and that of the EC and if we had new legal counsel who served us and did not try to manage our cooperative work. With the resignation of Guenther, Jordan and Price I am now hopeful such a course correction might be realized.
Let’s get this fixed ASAP.
P.S. Is it inappropriate for me to say here that I am really excited to be serving on this year’s Committee on Nominations? 🙂