Consider my two posts an open letter to the Executive Committee (EC) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and to SBC legal counsel where feedback and clarity are welcomed concerning the current text of the revised and updated SBC Business & Finance Plan (BFP) being brought before the messengers of the 2021 SBC annual meeting in Nashville, TN. For reference, you can find the current BFP on pg. 25 here and the proposed plan to be voted on in Nashville here.
First, know that I am certainly for business and financial stewardship, accountability, and transparency among the SBC and its entities for the glory of King Jesus, and know, EC members, that I am thankful for your work in putting together a revised BFP. However, there are a mounting number of reservations that need to be addressed concerning the means that are being employed in this proposal to accomplish the desired ends.
My concerns revolve around three aspects of the plan, two of which I’ll highlight in this post, and the third I’ll discuss in part two:
- Reservations Regarding Escrowing Cooperative Program (CP) Funds and Entity Reporting
- Reservations Regarding Trustee and EC Nominations
- Reservations Related to Sole Membership, Ascending Liability, and Seminary Accreditation
Reservations Regarding Escrowing CP Funds and Entity Reporting
The proposed BFP indicates that SBC entities should report compliance with the BFP to the Executive Committee and states that Cooperative Program funds may be escrowed until confirmation of compliance is received. The Executive Committee, presumably, or any other committee or group of Southern Baptists should not possess the authority to escrow CP dollars in the event an SBC entity fails to meet the BFP standards. If an entity does not conform to the BFP, the churches of the SBC should have the right to respond as they choose. Let the EC post publicly the compliance status of each entity; then let the churches decide what to do. Churches can certainly choose to withhold CP funds until entities come into compliance. Churches can send messengers to the SBC annual meeting to remove and replace trustees with those who will lead our entities to comply with the BFP. Messengers to the SBC annual meeting can modify the CP allocation budget to defund or reduce the budget of a non-compliant entity. Churches can give designated gifts to compliant entities. Churches can even continue to give to the CP if they wish, and churches who choose to give to the CP—even should the EC state publicly that an entity is not in compliance—should have their funds given to the entities they intentionally intend to support. The ~14 million Southern Baptists and ~50,000 churches of the SBC should be the arbiter of their own CP funds, not the limited elite in the EC or any other escrow body.
Ultimately, the SBC does not need a trustee board who oversees an SBC entity operating contrary to the BFP. The SBC does need BFP compliant entities. And escrowing funds is intended to give “teeth” to accomplish compliance. Yet, consider this: it is possible for entities in a very strong financial position to continue to exist with CP funds escrowed. Mind you, Guidestone and Lifeway are two SBC entities that receive no CP money, so escrowing CP funds is no threat to them. Escrowing CP funds does not offer a uniformly authoritative solution to achieve BFP compliant entities. The ultimate solution to the problem of rogue trustees failing to govern in the best interest of the SBC is their removal and replacement, which is a right that already belongs to the SBC.
Rather than adding another governance layer in a document outside each entity’s SBC-approved governing documents, a layer which may or may not be effective across the board, simply state in the BFP something along the lines of, “Any entity that fails to comply with the BFP may have its trustee boards (or perhaps the executive committee of the trustee boards if removing an entire board is problematic with seminary accreditation) replaced during the next SBC annual meeting” in accordance with the authority that already belongs to the SBC under entity charters and the SBC governing documents. Following the existing governing documents is all that the SBC needs to do to address rogue trustees and entities. We simply do not need another layer of governance to ensure BFP compliance.
Speaking of an escrow group, the proposed BFP is ambiguous as to who this escrow group will be. Section XXI states,
“To reassure the messengers of the Convention and cooperating Southern Baptist churches that the fiscal conditions set forth in this Business and Financial Plan continue to be followed by each entity and the Executive Committee, an annual confirmation by the organization’s board chair, chief executive officer and chief financial officer, should be submitted to the Executive Committee and made publicly available, asserting the entity is operating in accordance with the Convention’s expectations as described in this Business and Financial Plan, and specifically in accordance with the following items (see Attachment A for sample Confirmation).”
The plan continues,
“Weekly distribution of approved Cooperative Program Allocation Missions Budget funds will continue to be distributed as long as this annual confirmation is submitted by the end of January. In the unlikely event the confirmation is not received in a timely manner, funds available for distribution may be escrowed until this confirmation is received. Any questions regarding this document beyond the annual signed confirmation should be directed first to the trustees of the respective entity.”
Based on the referenced text, I assume that the EC will be the escrow arbiter as the one to whom confirmation reports are submitted. If so, I have reservations. The EC receives CP funds as part of their budget, just like many SBC entities do. Should an entity that receives CP funds and that has to meet the financial requirements of the BFP also be the entity in charge of escrowing funds? Placing the EC in charge of escrowing CP funds would be a conflict of interest. What if the EC is not compliant? Who holds the EC’s feet to the fire? If our SBC entities are going to have to report their BFP compliance to an outside group, each entity, including the EC, should be subjected to report externally. If the BFP is going to grant the authority to escrow CP funds, it sounds like the SBC perhaps needs a standing BFP Compliance Committee who reviews and evaluates all SBC entities for BFP compliance and who has escrow authority. And, worthy of consideration, would there be legal questions that arise when an escrow entity, who is not entrusted with any governance right over an SBC entity in each entity’s charter, is brought into the equation in a financial governance/compliance role?
All this seems like an extra level of bureaucracy that’s not only unnecessary, but also introduces a new set of problems.
Reservations Regarding Trustee and EC Nominations
Section VI of the proposed BFP adds additional requirements for trustee service. Generally speaking, this is a helpful step for the convention. But as currently written there are important situations left unaddressed that may hinder the convention’s rights. Section VI says,
“In addition to confirming the trustee requirements outlined in SBC Bylaws 15 and 16, the Committee on Nominations shall, prior to offering nominees to the Convention:
- Secure a criminal and sexual offender background check on the potential nominees.
- Require the potential nominees to disclose any potential conflict of interest they might have with the entity they may be nominated to serve.
- Require the potential nominees to complete an introductory orientation prepared and presented by the entity discussing the responsibilities of a trustee at a Southern Baptist Convention entity and confirming the potential nominee’s understanding of their responsibilities and willingness to serve. The orientation should include, but is not limited to: the trustee’s accountability to the Southern Baptist Convention, support of and cooperation with the Great Commission mission and the ministries of the Southern Baptist Convention, support the mission and purpose of the entity, faithful meeting attendance, support the entity’s policy based governance system, their fiduciary responsibility to the entity, and govern the entity and the relationship with the CEO.
- Confirm the potential nominees’ willingness to complete a trustee orientation provided by the respective entity prior to the first meeting
While it is not all that common, there have been instances where the SBC has voted from the floor of the SBC annual meeting to strike a Committee on Nominations trustee and/or EC nominee and replace with another nominee. With the new requirements for trustees listed in section VI of the proposed BFP (all fantastic requirements in their aims, mind you) I’m left wondering if messengers to the SBC annual meeting will be able to offer substitute nominations from the floor. If nominees from the floor have to meet parts A-D prior to nomination, it will be nearly impossible for messengers to make changes during the SBC annual meeting, especially if something comes up the day of the vote on the Committee on Nominations report.
After what we experienced a few years ago with the Committee on Nominations who at best made an oversight in failing to re-nominate a trustee wishing to serve a second term at the ERLC or at worst intentionally removed a trustee eligible for re-nomination for ulterior motives, the SBC should certainly not surrender its right to appoint vital trustees and EC members from the floor, especially if a last minute substitution who cannot immediately meet points A-D is required. If nominations from the floor do not have to meets parts A-D, now the EC has proposed a bit of a double standard for trustee and EC member selection, which may be intentional as a means to ideally vet as many nominees as possible prior to election while also allowing floor substitutions. If the EC is indeed proposing an ideal standard for Committee on Nominations nominees and an option where nominees can be made from the floor who may not meet the requirements of parts A-D, which I think is the aim due to silence on floor substitutions in the proposed BFP, the EC should clearly indicate so such that there is absolutely no confusion on the matter when the SBC votes.
A further issue exists with section VI. Why is the EC introducing trustee selection governance in the BFP when SBC bylaws 15-16 govern the Committee on Nominations and trustees? Rather than muddle where trustee governance is found by splitting it between the SBC bylaws and the BFP, let’s keep the governance in one place: in the SBC bylaws.
These are the first two areas where I have significant reservations. I’ll address the third area, which deals with legal questions surrounding sole membership, in part two.
Pending clarity, I encourage messengers to the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting to consider voting to refer this matter back to committee for further review and consideration until clarity can be provided. Changes of this magnitude require time for deliberation and careful crafting, and they should not be rushed.
Jon Canler is privileged to serve as the Church Administrator at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, KY. He is a graduate of the University of Kentucky (B.S. & M.S.) and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div.), and he holds a certificate in nonprofit management from the University of Texas at Austin. Jon and his bride Natalie get the joy of being parents to three boys, and the entire family avidly cheers for the Atlanta Braves.