Containing updates and revisions to interact with Dave Miller’s post, “Combating the Culture of Secrecy in the SBC: Trust the People!” this post was originally published at FromLaw2Grace on July 19, 2010.
Transparency and openness, whether in government or in a religious organization like the Southern Baptist Convention, is a principle which almost everyone agrees with in theory, but which is much harder to define in practice. Such has been the case in the SBC. In June of this year, the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force (GCRTF), after a year of meetings and discussions, presented its final report. One of the seven recommendations that the GCRTF asked the messengers to approve reads as follows:
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. . . .
I’m not sure that there would be many Southern Baptists who could argue with such a principle. The problem comes when we begin to define what it means to “work toward the creation of a new and healthy culture within the Southern Baptist Convention,” particularly when it comes to establishing a “culture of trust, transparency, and truth.” This was nowhere more evident than when the Task Force, a week before their recommendations were to be voted on, issued a press release informing Southern Baptists that all of the Task Force’s “deliberations” would be kept secret for 15 years. That the Task Force could include “Component Two: Making Our Values Transparent,” while at the same time moving to seal the records of their proceedings and then fighting on the Convention floor to prevent ANY records from being released, is not exactly the best way to create a transparent and open culture.
When messengers Jay Adkins and Doug Hibbard made motions at this year’s Convention to open all (or at least a portion of) the records of the Task Force’s proceedings, members of the GCRTF argued strenuously against the release of ANY records prior to 15 years. And that is exactly what they were — proceedings. The Task Force was not impaneled to act like a Grand Jury, listening to secret witness testimony and deliberating whether or not to indict a criminal defendant. This was not the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, hearing top-secret testimony from undercover government operatives.
The Task Force, in opposing the release of even selected portions of their proceedings, used four main arguments to defend sealing the records. The first two arguments were analyzed in my earlier post, Radically Redefining Transparency in the SBC: Part 1.
In the 20 minute debate during the Convention’s Wednesday morning session (video here), both Dr. Mohler and Dr. Akin raised the issue of confidentiality as a reason why the records of the Task Force should remain sealed for 15 years. Both stated that the GCRTF promised confidentiality — for an unspecified term — to those “invited leaders of Denominational Agencies and beyond,” and that to require the Task Force to release any records would cause them to break their word, something they were quite sure that no Southern Baptist would want them to do. According to Dr. Mohler, some of the proceedings where confidentiality was at issue regarded legally privileged personnel matters.
Several problems arise with the confidentiality defense. First, assuming for the sake of argument that promises of confidentiality were authorized to be made, the process should have been one of transparency and openness (as President Johnny Hunt promised), with very limited offers of confidentiality extended. Were these promises of confidentiality made in writing? If not, were these promises explicitly conveyed to the secret witnesses and a written record — perhaps in the minutes of that meeting — made contemporaneously to the offer of confidentiality? Dr. Mohler indicated that confidentiality was promised for “a term.” What was the promised term and when was it promised? However, just because confidentiality was promised does not necessarily mean that a summary of what was discussed — with certain information blacked out — could not be released to Southern Baptists as part of the official record. Despite my own objections to the Task Force’s use of confidential testimony, I do not believe that these agreements should be abrogated at this point. But, in the future, confidential testimony should be the exception, not the rule.
Secondly, what issues could this Task Force have been dealing with that were related to “personnel” that would have risen to the level of “privileged or confidential communication?” This Task Force did not have any authority related to personnel. There could have been absolutely NO witnesses that were brought before the Task Force over which they had any supervisory or employer/employee relationship. The only possible issues dealing with personnel would have been if the names of specific individuals were discussed in connection with current employment or future employment within any of the agencies or entities of the Convention. If agency or entity heads discussed with the Task Force any current employees, did they do this in such a way that the individual employee’s rights were protected?
Thirdly, the promise of confidentiality cannot cover the Task Force themselves. However, by arguing that promises of confidentiality were made that no one would want broken, the Task Force ingeniously blanketed their entire proceedings with secrecy, including their own internal discussions and any minutes or audio/video recordings from meetings where only the Task Force members themselves were present. With the confidentiality argument prevailing, ALL Task Force records are now sealed.
I now turn to the final argument used by the GCRTF to keep their records sealed. This argument offers the most insight into the philosophy of leadership that currently holds sway within the leadership of the SBC . This philosophy was expressed most clearly in the following two quotes from the debate:
The consequence of allowing unsealed records is that no future convention committee will indeed allow the recording of it deliberations and meetings because it would be compromised from the beginning. Dr. R. Albert Mohler, President, SBTS
If we vote to unseal these records, then future committees will be forced to do their work without the benefit of tape recorders and transcripts and we will lose forever the history of their important work. . . . Do not sacrifice history on the altar of politics. Dr. Greg Wills, Professor, SBTS
History has indeed been sacrificed on the altar of politics, but Dr. Wills is wrong when he ascribes the motivation of politics to those who would open the records of the Task Force proceedings for all Southern Baptists to see. In response to the assertion that future committees will simply not keep records if they will be forced to share those records, one must ask Dr. Mohler and Dr. Wills, “Why?” Why would future committees not allow records to be made of their deliberations? Who would force the members of these committees to purposefully fail to keep any records of their proceedings? After all, I thought the committees of the S.B.C. serve the churches of this Convention.
To argue that future committees will not want to operate in the open, with true transparency, is one of the most disturbing aspects of this entire debate and reveals a philosophy of leadership present at every level of government and present within the S.B.C. and some of her churches. That philosophy believes that the best form of government is that which is out of the public eye, that which is not subjected to the sunshine of a concerned constituency. Many leaders would rather conduct as much business as possible behind closed doors, out of scrutiny’s way. Those in power may say they believe in open government and transparency, but too often, their actions tear the very heart out of the concept of transparency. In the end, there really are only three kinds of leaders:
- Leaders who believe in transparency and openness and who lead accordingly
- Leaders who do not believe in transparency and openness and who lead accordingly
- Leaders who say they believe in transparency and openness — but really do not — and who lead accordingly
When it comes to leadership within our nation and within our Convention, I’ll choose door #1 every time. While we may disagree with the level of transparency and openness that should be practiced in any particular situation, “we must establish a culture of trust, transparency, and truth among all Southern Baptists. . . .” I believe that the GCRTF missed a golden opportunity to do just that when it moved to unilaterally seal all its records for 15 years. Others may disagree with my assessment. However, I think most Southern Baptists would agree that more — not less — transparency is needed urgently. Hopefully we can work together to accomplish Component Two in a way that does not radically redefine what transparency means. That would be a good place to start. I only wish it would have started with the Task Force themselves!