We are doing everything different this year in the Pastors’ Conference at the SBC Annual Meeting.
In the past, it has been normal to elect a president and then hear almost nothing about the PC until sometime in February or March when the slate of speakers is unveiled and promotion begins. We have pulled back the veil and included the average SBC pastors in every aspect of the process.
It was about this time last year when our little band of blogging brethren started a conversation about the idea of embarking on this journey. It all started with a private conversation I had with a highly placed convention leader (who shall remain anonymous) who told me, “You know that 96% of SBC churches average 400 people or fewer on Sunday morning.” It’s odd. We are a convention of churches of 75 and 165 and 325 and 220, but every leader, every speaker, every voice we hear comes from a church of 2000 or more – the approximately 180 “megachurches” in the SBC. These are good men and good churches – we determined from the beginning that anything we did was not going to be anti-mega, but it was going to be about demonstrating that there was a vast treasure of untapped potential in the smaller, average churches of the SBC.
I’ve been toying with the idea of a text-based Pastors’ Conference since at least 2011 – there’s a post here in the archives from back then. We fine-tuned the idea and announced it and lo-and-behold, Todd Benkert’s speech at the 2016 PC convinced enough people for a 55%-44% win. I remember sitting with Todd in the green room, waiting to be announced as the new president, and we were both overwhelmed by conflicting emotions – disbelief (did this really happen?), excitement at the opportunity, and a mind-numbing, bone-chilling fear that we had bitten off more than we would chew.
I was walking with a friend and ran into one of the better-known names in the SBC. He stopped, smiled at me, and said, “What have you done?” One person came right out and told Todd and me that there was no way that we could handle this – being pastors of smaller churches we just didn’t have the resources to do this.
And, I’m going to let you in on a little secret.
He was right.
I am not an administrator, an organizer, or a promoter. I preach on Sunday and everything else I do in the ministry I do because I have to so they’ll let me preach on Sunday. I am incapable of putting together a conference such as this based on my own abilities.
However, we believed we had a “vision” (not the kind that would offend you cessationists) that was biblical and important and we believed that what we were doing mattered.
It has become clear to me from the start that we were being blessed beyond our abilities. Let me share a few stories of things that happened. I cannot give you an exact time frame, since the days at the convention were pretty much a blur. But all of this happened right away.
1. Todd came to me and told me that through a friend he’d had contact with the Gettys who were willing to help us by doing music. Now, that’s like telling me that the Yankees were willing to put on a clinic for us. The Gettys are my favorite musicians – it’s not even close. When we received an offer from them to help us out (for free, if need be – thank God, that will not be necessary) it didn’t take me long to say yes. There is a report (from Brent) that I started dancing in the hallway. I don’t deny it. Again, everything is a fog during those days.
2. I received a text from a close friend saying, “I want to help you out with a gift of $XXXX.” It is the only unsolicited gift we have received, though others have offered help it is the only one we needed! This gift made such a difference. We had exactly $0 to start and none of us had churches with big bankrolls. We needed a meeting to get the ball rolling, so we planned a meeting in Nashville with the two officers, Dr. Paul Smith and Dr. Toby Frost, Todd (chief of staff or executive assistant, or whatever) and Brent Hobbs (overseeing all the technology). We met at the Executive Committee building in Nashville – more on this later. The money provided by this friend basically paid for this meeting. By the time we had other meetings, other funding had come in. The gift by this friend enabled us to meet and get the ball rolling on the PC.
This friend is part of the Voices community. I just want you to know, my friend, that if the Pastors’ Conference blesses anyone, your gift will have paved the way for that. You helped us when we had nothing. Thank you.
3. I received a communication from a friend who said, “You need to meet Dr. Mark Tolbert.” I did not even know that the Caskey Center existed. It is a part of the New Orleans Seminary and supports and encourages smaller membership pastors. This man brought the two of us together in Chicago – we went to see a Cubs game and then met for several hours to figure things out.
We were discussing not just a sponsorship, but a partnership – it seemed a natural fit. Todd and I met and discussed and we were going to ask for a certain amount of money from Caskey and from Dr. Tolbert to fund the partnership. It is clear that my negotiating skills lack a certain amount of sophistication, I suppose. Dr. Tolbert’s first offer was 50% higher than our initial negotiating position was going to be! We accepted!
The partnership with Caskey has been a blessing, and we hope that the content that they are preparing for the convention will be a blessing to you. They are not so much going to do advertising at the convention, but provide content to instruct and encourage pastors of average and smaller membership churches.
So, within a month of the convention, we had a financial partner, a worship leader, and hit the ground running on planning.
1. Our Team. Those who questioned my ability to carry this off as president did so based on the fact that my church did not have the staff to whom I could farm out the logistical and administrative work of the PC. They are right. My church has been gracious enough to release me for this work, but my two associates and my secretary have their hands more than full with church work and I’ve not asked them to pitch in.
What they don’t generally know is how awful an administrator I am. – they’d have been even more doubtful if they did.
But what they didn’t know is the tremendous resources I had.
I had the “Mighty Men” – a group of men who have pitched in to help. It’s a group of 11 men who were involved from the start. We agreed we wouldn’t preach (that’s killing me – I’d rather preach than do anything else!) but we’d do the work. I’ve mentioned Todd and Brent. Adam Blosser oversaw the preacher selection process and ran that very successfully. Every one of the men has pitched in as their schedules allowed.
I didn’t have a massive church staff, but our band of bloggers and buddies was willing to lay it on the line for the idea! This has never been about me. Todd made it clear in his nomination speech that I was a figurehead; we were nominating an agenda, an idea, a group. And these men have supported the agenda beyond what I could have hoped for.
2. Our Officers. I was elected president, but the VP (Dr. Paul Smith) and the Treasurer (Toby Frost) had been picked by the other candidate for the office. That could have been awkward. I will tell you that I could not have selected a better Vice President or Treasurer. They have been wonderful. Paul is a professor at the Gateway extension in the Phoenix area and he is a proponent of text-driven preaching. He’s been a source of great advice. Toby, a pastor in South Carolina, handles the money with the highest integrity possible.
I thought, looking back, that I probably should have suggested a VP and a treasurer to work with me. If one of you ever decides to run, it’s an idea. But I wouldn’t even consider changing out either of the officers, even if I were allowed to hand-pick someone.
God picked better than I could have!
3. The Executive Committee. Because our churches are not big, there were things we couldn’t do. So, we have formed a partnership with the SBC executive committee that is more substantial than in previous years. In a recent post, I mentioned that if anyone criticized Dr. Frank Page in my presence, they’d get a poke in the nose. People might have thought I was kidding. Try me! I’m a pretty big fan of the work of the EC.
As president of the Pastors’ Conference, I cannot express my thanks enough. When we told Dr. William Townes that we needed to meet soon, he rolled out the red carpet for us for that initial meeting. We met in their offices. They helped us formulate a budget, plan our work.
Naming names is a dangerous thing because you leave someone out who doesn’t deserve to be left out. But Bill Townes and Lynn Richmond have bent over backward to be helpful to us. Don Magee, who oversees the work of the SBC Exhibitor Hall, is also coordinating our conference. What a help he is. They have offered every form of assistance they could give. The SBC Foundation has also been extremely helpful.
You’d almost think the people of the Executive Committee want the SBC Pastors’ Conference to be a success!
4. Fund Raising. I’m not going to say much about this because it is still an ongoing process, but the Pastors’ Conference is costly. The SBC has helped out by allowing us to have exhibitors’ booths in the hall during the PC, and we can raise funds that way.
When I was first elected, it was the money that kept me up at night (that is not hyperbole). But the help of Caskey Center as a partner and the other sponsors who have come in has helped me greatly when I lay my head on the pillow.
5. The Preacher Search. That was both a blessing and a little painful. It was the most time-consuming part of our work – we’ve detailed that in other posts. Just picking 12 of my friends to preach would have been easier. The hard part was that I had several friends who got nominated but didn’t get the final selection. We met in St. Louis to make our final choices and it was a great couple of days.
I am tremendously pleased with our process and the 12 men we have ready to preach the book of Philippians.
6. Southwestern Seminary and the Colloquium. I can never argue again that Bart Barber never has a good idea. Sometime late last summer he gave me a call and suggested that we have a colloquium with the preachers at Southwestern! Bring all the preachers in, have them spend a couple of days working on the background of the book, a common outline, getting to know one another, and immersing themselves in the text.
One of the first letters I received after I arrived home from the convention has year was from Dr. Patterson. He was gracious and kind. He responded enthusiastically to this idea and put Dr. David Allen in charge. Early in February (actually, I’ll be traveling on Super Bowl Sunday) we will be down in Ft. Worth to spend a couple of days beginning the preparation process for preaching Philippians.
I am thankful beyond words to Dr. Patterson, Dr. Allen, and all of those at Southwestern who have set this up.
I am sure I’m forgetting something here that I need to say, so if you suddenly see a new point pop up, don’t be surprised. But we anticipate new blessings to come. We are about 5 months out and there is still a lot of work to do.
The main thing we will be looking to do from this moment out is promoting the conference to help people attend. Phoenix is never a highly attended convention and I’ve heard some dire predictions about attendance. But we decided from the beginning that it would be our responsibility not only to put on a good conference but also to promote it, to try to get people to come. We are working on some ways to do that.
The next few months will go by quickly. We expect to continue to see the hand of God and his blessing, as we have since that Monday in June when we were gathered in a Spaghetti restaurant in St. Louis and I received a call from John Meador’s assistant that eventually revealed that this responsibility was ours.
Our commitment remains the same as it was when Todd stood up to nominate our agenda – we are planning a conference in which Jesus Christ is exalted by the faithful proclamation of his word. If you don’t know the names of the preachers – fine. I only knew 3 or 4 of them before the search began. Our goal is that the name of Jesus will be exalted “Above Every Name” as we preach through the text of Philippians in 12 sermons over 2 days.
How can that be anything but a blessing?