There’s been some discussion lately about the appropriateness of employees of SBC entities serving as messengers to the SBC Meeting. Much of this was sparked by a post on Twitter from Tom Buck.
If the votes of SBC employees were removed from the vote in Nashville… and only the votes of everyday SBC pastors and church members were left… Mike Stone would’ve won in a landslide.
— Tom Buck (Five Point Buck) (@TomBuck) August 12, 2021
While it’s impossible to know the truth of Pastor Buck’s statement without assuming the motives and votes of all the employees and pastors he mentions, it did get me wondering about if this had ever happened come up in the past. The SBC Constitution is very clear about who may serve as messengers, and makes no mention of employees of any kind. Article 3 simply states that “The Convention shall consist of messengers who are members of Baptist churches in cooperation with the Convention.” There of course caveats about what exactly a participating church is, but there are no mentions about what might disqualify a person. If you are elected by your church, then you are eligible to serve as a messenger.
In the 1846 Annual both JB Jeter of Virginia and J. Hartwell of Alabama were listed as messengers. This is notable as they were serving as presidents of the Domestic and Foreign Mission Boards, respectively, at that time. While those positions changed frequently in those early years, this shows that since the beginning of the SBC entity employees have also been messengers to the Convention. In 1861, two years after the founding of Southern Seminary, both founding faculty members Boyce and Broadus were listed as messengers to the annual meeting. It might could be said that the convention has greatly grown since then, and the number of potential messengers has increased. But it can also be said “that’s how we have always done it,” for better or for worse.
My research showed that this issue has been brought up over the years, and even came to a vote of the messengers in the early years of the Conservative Resurgence.
In 1980 at the SBC Annual Meeting in St Louis a messenger named Kenneth Barnett (N.M.) moved that Article III of the Constitution (on Membership) be amended by the addition of a designated number 5 to read as follows:
“No salaried official of the Convention or of the agencies of the Convention or its commissions, or any state convention agency or institution, or any individual who receives more than 50 percent of his salary from Cooperative Program sources shall be eligible for election as a messenger to the Convention.”
The motion was referred to the Committee on Order of Business for scheduling in a later session. When it came up for discussion, the Alamagordo, N.M. pastor who proposed (Barnett) was the only person to speak in favor of it.
Barnett’s reasoning was that the amendment would eliminate possible conflicts of interest by placing denominational workers “outside the arenas of politics.” The Baptist Messenger of Oklahoma reported that the “proposal was defeated overwhelmingly” and continued to say that
“Herbert Sennett of Columbus, Ohio, urged messengers to vote against the amendment. Sennett stressed the importance of Baptists’ belief in “the autonomy of the local church” and asked the messengers, “Are you going to deny us the right to choose the messengers we want to serve as representatives from our church?”
Robert Naylor, the former president of SWBTS, reported in his book “Memoirs of a Messenger” that he was “horrified that it reflected so little understanding of our Baptist polity.”
It is not a new thing at all for messengers to the SBC meeting be employees of entities or receive CP funds. This past year in Nashville we saw entity heads and employees speak from microphones about motions and resolutions, one of them run for president, and others serve the Convention in different ways. A brief glimpse into the past show numerous ways that national and state employees have served the convention faithfully.
The decisions at the SBC meetings have always been made by the messengers, not by a select few who desire to control things to engineer a desired outcome. A historical perspective reminds us that the will of the messengers cannot be overcome. While we might not agree with the decisions that every convention makes, we cannot cry foul or claim that the vote was corrupted by anyone else. To do so implies that some votes count more than others. Our only polity shows us that every vote counts the same, no matter who it comes from.
Pastor Buck has helpfully clarified what he meant by his tweet in a comment below. He believes employee votes should count, but wanted to note the difference between the SBC employees and the average church member in the pew.