Containing updates and revisions to interact with Dave Miller’s recent post, “Combating the Culture of Secrecy in the SBC: Trust the People!” this post was originally published at FromLaw2Grace on July 16, 2010.
“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. . . .” (Quoted from Penetrating The Lostness: Embracing A Vision For A Great Commission Resurgence Among Southern Baptists, Page 8, The Great Commission Resurgence Task Force Report and Recommendations to the Southern Baptist Convention in Orlando, Florida June 15-16, 2010)
Five months after approving the above recommendation as part of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force Report, how are we doing at “establishing a culture of trust, transparency, and truth among all Southern Baptists?” That’s what I thought. But, don’t just take my word for it. If Dave Miller’s recent post, “Combating the Culture of Secrecy in the SBC: Trust the People!” , and the subsequent comments responding to said post, don’t convince you that the GCR has led to more division and distrust among Southern Baptists, I am not sure what would persuade you.
Not that they will take any responsibility for the increased level of division and distrust within the convention, but the Task Force’s unilateral move to seal all of their records for 15 years has not been nearly as well received among grassroots Southern Baptists since it was ratified this past June. Although the Task Force called for transparency within the SBC, their subsequent words and actions to prevent the release of even a portion of their records has had the opposite effect.
After only 20 minutes of debate (I would encourage you to view the video here), messengers at the SBC’s Annual Meeting, at the strong urging of the GCRTF, voted to redefine transparency within the Southern Baptist Convention. No, a literal motion to change the definition of transparency was not acted upon by the messengers. But by affirming the Task Force’s after-the-fact decision to seal their own records, the practical definition of transparency has been radically changed — at least for now. The unilateral decision to seal ALL records of their proceedings and to oppose even the partial release of records set the table for the redefinition of transparency within the Southern Baptist Convention. For that, every Southern Baptist should be saddened.
However, not all are saddened. In fact, many rejoiced in the convention hall and many continue to defend what increasingly appears to be indefensible. Apparently many within the leadership class of the Convention are quite comfortable without providing so much as a “window of transparency” into proceedings — not deliberations (this was not a jury) — which have the very real potential to radically redefine what it means to be a cooperating Southern Baptist.
In order for grass-roots Southern Baptists to understand and comprehend the radical reprioritizing and redefining of our convention envisioned by certain leaders, I believe it is vital to start with the Task Force’s unilateral move to seal their records and the subsequent arguments advanced by Task Force members and others to support this decision. This, perhaps even more than the passage of the GCR itself, illustrates a continuing pattern of sickness and secrecy within the establishment of the SBC. And, for those who would argue that the Task Force was under no obligation to keep records or to release records, you simply shine light on a much heralded philosophy of governance that is used at the highest levels of government and that is emulated by leaders within our convention. More on that in part 2.
There were four main arguments advanced by the Task Force members and/or GCR supporters to defend sealing all the records. In the first part of a two-part post, I will address points 1 and 2. In part 2, I will address points 3 and 4:
- Time and Money would make it prohibitive to release even partial records of the Task Force Proceedings
- Past Precedent of SBC committees, trustee boards, or individuals where records were sealed
- Promises of Confidentiality made by GCRTF that would be broken if required to unseal records
- Future Committees would not make recordings of their proceedings if GCRTF records were unsealed
Toward the end of the debate on the main motion to unseal all the records of the Task Force, an amended motion was offered by Doug Hibbard. He moved that the
“President of the Executive Committee, in consultation with a representative of Baptist Press, Legal Counsel, and the Historical Archives, release selected portions of the committee record to provide a window of transparency while preserving the promised confidentiality.”
Dr. Danny Akin, President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a member of the Task Force, forcefully and eloquently spoke against this amendment to the main motion. In response, Dr. Akin presented four problems with releasing even selected portions of the records:
- Release of even selected portions would require massive man hours to accomplish
- Release of even selected portions would cost too much because of attorney fees and other staff exenses
- Release of even selected portions would lead to an arbitrariness as to who would decide what is released and what is not
- Release of even selected portions would force the Task Force to break their word regarding confidentiality that was promised to certain individuals (I’ll include #4 in part 2 of this post when I analyze the confidentiality/broken promises argument)
First, when reviewing documents and recordings of the GCRTF, there is no question that this endeavor will take time and money, although I know of at least one attorney (and I’m sure there are others) who would be willing to offer their services free of charge to review any materials related to the GCRTF proceedings. Will a review of all the materials — written, audio, and video — take time? Yes. Will this review involve at least some financial outlay? Most assuredly, although perhaps not as much the undisclosed amount of money spent on hotels, travel, and meals for Task Force members and their spouses, but I digress. While we all seek to be good stewards of the financial resources entrusted into our care, concerns about time and money should never prevent any of us, including our convention, from doing what we know is right!
Second, as to the arbitrary nature of who decides what is released and what is not, why not start with the minutes of the Task Force’s meetings. Surely there was a recording secretary for this group. Are we now being told that no written minutes of the Task Force’s proceedings exist or in the alternative, that if written minutes do exist, that NONE of the minutes can be released before the end of fifteen years? If the names of certain “confidential witnesses” are included in the minutes, simply redact (black out) the names from the record. The federal government does this all the time with far more sensitive and highly classified material. If our dysfunctional leaders in Washington can try to be open and transparent, surely the SBC can be held to a higher standard of openness and accountability.
Third, a reliance on past precedent was used by both Dr. Mohler and by Dr. Greg Wills, a professor at Southern Seminary, to argue for the sealing of all records. As a trained attorney (sorry CB :-)), I have a passing acquaintance with the use — or misuse — of precedent. Simply put, precedents are historical cases that contain similar facts, rulings, or reasoning that can be used in a present case to argue in favor of a particular outcome. Precedents are controlling on lower courts if issued by a higher court (i.e., the Supreme Court’s precedents are controlling on all Federal Appellate or District Courts), although precedents are not binding on a court of equal stature. For instance, past Supreme Court precedents are never binding or controlling on future Supreme Courts. Drs. Mohler and Wills relied upon the following three precedents:
- The sealing of records of the SBC’s Peace Committee in the 1980s
- The sealing of the Diary of William Whittsett, former President of Southern Seminary
- The sealing of transcripts from a 1958 Trustee Meeting
I am unaware of the context of the 1958 Southern Seminary Trustee meeting transcripts that were sealed. The nature of the discussions that were recorded were obviously of a sensitive nature. However, contra to what Dr. Wills says is customary, he could only cite one example of trustee transcripts being sealed. Perhaps there are others that he failed to mention. Regardless, this is neither a persuasive much less controlling precedent.
The sealing for 100 years of the private, personal diary of William Whitsitt, who served as the third President of Southern Seminary, is so dissimilar to the sealing of records from a messenger authorized Task Force that any reasonable and objective observer would not give any weight to this precedent.
That leaves the precedent of the Peace Committee. A first reading of this precedent would indicate some similarities between the Peace Committee and the GCRTF. However, on a closer reading, these two cases have less in common than what has been argued. First , the Peace Committee was dealing with known contentious issues that affected, not the methodology of the Convention, but the theology of the Convention. Second, the Peace Committee opened up all their meetings to a reporter from Baptist Press. And lastly, according to an article in North Carolina’s Biblical Recorder, (which, to my knowledge, has never been refuted):
“SBC President Johnny Hunt originally promised that all meetings of the task force would be open to at least one representative of Southern Baptists’ press, such as a newspaper editor or someone from Baptist Press. Instead, all meetings were closed.”
If true, then several questions need to be asked and answered. Did Dr. Hunt change his mind about the transparency of the Task Force proceedings? If yes, when did this occur? If not, was he overruled by the Chairman of the Task Force or by the entire Task Force? If so, when did this occur? Was it early in the process or at the end of the process? Was the Task Force unanimous in their decision to seal the records? Why did the Task Force wait until the week before the Orlando Convention to disclose they were moving to seal all records? I am unaware of any of these questions being answered by Dr. Hunt or anyone on the Task Force.
Finally, even if one could argue that the Peace Committee precedent was persuasive, it can in no way be considered controlling. And for the Task Force to use the Peace Committee — some of whom were well-known “moderates” — to now argue in favor of the sealing of the GCRTF records is a bit strange. Sort of like a conservative lawyer using the opinions of liberal Supreme Court Justices William Brennan or Harry Blackmun to support their case. You might have to resort to it, but it might turn your stomach.
The first two points that have been addressed are the weakest and least offensive of the arguments that were used to keep the records of the GCRTF sealed for the next fifteen years. Points 3 and 4, dealing with confidentiality and how future committees will operate, are much more egregious. Taken together, points 3 and 4 illustrate a philosophy of leadership that calls for transparency, but does the opposite. In part two, I will discuss how each of these arguments, if allowed to stand long-term, will lead to a more radical redefinition, not just of transparency, but a radical redefinition of what it means to be a cooperating Southern Baptist.
The Task Force, whether they realized it or not, has helped foster a climate of division and distrust within the convention. It did not have to be this way, but when you operate out of a philosophy of secrecy while publicly trumpeting transparency, most Southern Baptists are wise enough to catch the massive disconnect. I do not claim to be perfect in my analysis of the debate surrounding the sealing of the Task Force’s records. I am but one voice in this ongoing debate. You may strongly disagree with my conclusions and I encourage you to voice your opinion here at SBCVoices. Some may argue that this is all moot, that the convention has spoken and that it is time to move on. I will simply say that we cannot establish a culture of trust, transparency, and truth when we take actions that appear to run counter to what we say we believe.