As the trustees of the Executive Committee prepare to meet this week, discussion has elevated about the responsibility of the trustees to the convention, with words flying around like attorney-client privilege, best practices, executive session, and the fiduciary duties of the Executive Committee. What follows is some research into the historical role of the SBC, how they spend the money of the convention, and the authority that has been given to them by the messengers.
Over the history of the EC as an SBC entity, the Convention has been clear that the Committee is to “act for the convention ad-interim. ” This statement first appeared in the 1917 SBC Annual, and versions of it have been in the SBC By-Laws since then. It is safe to say that this has long been the understanding of how the SBC EC is to function. But as the Committee of Seven pointed out in their report in the 70’s “acting for the Convention ad interim” is not the same as “being the Convention ad interim.”
Former EC President Porter Routh (1951-1979) understood this role of the EC and was determined not to overstep his bounds. He had 9 principles of administration that guided him as he served as Executive Secretary. Several of them related to dealing with the convention
I will speak only when the Convention has spoken, and I will not establish myself as the voice of all Southern Baptists.
I will provide full information on all matters before the Executive Committee to all the members of the Executive Committee and to all others who are party to the deliberations.
I will keep firmly in mind that the organization is no stronger than individuals who comprise the whole; therefore, I must keep my personal integrity, practice good stewardship, perform the work of faithful churchman, and live a lifestyle that does not separate me from the masses of church members.
The wording about the responsibility of the Executive can be traced back to its founding in 1927 as an official entity of the SBC. Started in 1916, the EC worked between meetings for the Convention, and then had it’s role clarified in the 1927 Annual Meeting. The annual that year records that “the Executive Committee be the Fiduciary Agency of the Southern Baptist Convention.…” (page 71) in order to hold and administer the funds given to the SBC. A fiduciary is defined as someone who holds a legal or ethical relationship of trust with another party.
In 1946 the fiduciary role of the EC was clarified as the by-laws of the SBC were given a major revision that year. In that revision the description of the EC was updated to say that
The Executive Committee shall be the fiduciary, the fiscal, and the executive agency of the Convention in all it’s affairs not specifically related to some other board or agency.
This exact same description and wording has been used since 1946 until today, with the exception of agency being changed to entity somewhere along the way. This means in part that the funds given to the SBC are to be distributed as the messengers have approved. The messengers have elected the EC in order to streamline the giving and receiving of funds. A budget is prepared by the EC for their internal operations, but it is approved by their trustees, who have in turn been approved by the messengers. And the overall budget regarding allocations to entities is approved by the messengers of the convention. The final authority always rests with the messengers.
All of this history goes to show that the function of the SBC EC has long been understood in SBC life. Anytime it has begun to drift away from those original charges, to act for the convention ad interim and to be the fiduciary agent for the SBC, the messengers have approved reports and actions that solidified the original functions of the Executive Committee as it began over 100 years ago. Even as technology and culture has changed, the basic function of the EC has stayed the same. As SBC Life reported, “the lead assignment given to the Executive Committee has not changed in over 100 years. ”
Over the years the fiduciary responsibility of the EC has been clarified and expanded as the Committee has reorganized. In the beginning years there was often a Secretary (President) of the EC and additional officers like a treasurer. Under Duke McCall in 1946-47 that was streamlined as the President of the EC became the Executive Secretary-Treasurer. That title was used until 1986 when Harold Bennet took the title of “President and Treasurer.“ In 1993 that title changed to “President and Chief Executive Officer,” which is still the designation used today. Even as the title has changed, the function of that office has stayed the same. The President of the Executive Committee serves as the treasurer, meaning he leads in maintaining the fiduciary responsibility between the EC and the SBC at large.
In a series of articles for SBC Life, EC legal counsel James Guenther described the function of the EC, and in them he explained the role of the President as treasurer.
The Executive Committee’s president is also the treasurer of the Convention by virtue of his office. Thus, the Executive Committee oversees the work of the Convention’s treasurer. The treasurer is accountable both to the Convention and to the Executive Committee.
The key wording is there in the last sentence, written by the EC’s own legal counsel. As the treasurer of the SBC, the President is accountable to both the Convention and to the Executive Committee and it’s trustees. These are not overlapping areas of accountability where the treasurer must choose whose interest they will serve first. Rather it all comes back to the messengers and the convention, who are the final authority and the final accountability for how the funds that they have given are spent.
For much of it’s life the EC has been open and transparent about their work. For decades it was common for them to conduct all their work in public sessions. In 1985 the EC went into executive session for the first time in more than 30 years with their counsel James Guenther in order to discuss a lawsuit. A cursory search of Baptist press articles reveals an increase in the use of executive sessions among many SBC and state entities starting around that same time. This could be due to the increased polarization of SBC life at that point, a desire to protect innocent parties or private details, or a growth in the use of standard business practices among entities. Regardless, historically the Executive Committee has been open and public about the work that they do.
The discussion over who represents Baptists and how they go about it is not a new one in Baptist life. There has long been discussion about just who it is that represents Baptists and gets to make decisions about spending money, polity, and more. Jesse Fletcher records in his history of the SBC that in both 1931 and 1946 messengers voted to ensure that every church had equal representation on the entity Boards, and that the decision making was not done by a select few.
This gives the small states much more proportionate representation and voting power than the big states. We do not go on strict numerical basis, and we are not afraid to trust any group of intelligent Baptists who have all the facts, and take time to weigh them, but it is not best for our policies and management to have the fixing and control of those policies and management in the hands of representatives who represent, say only 5 or 10 per cent of our total membership.
This committee who was tasked with revising the by-laws of the SBC went out of their way to make sure that the power of the Convention was not held in just a few wealthy churches or loud messengers. They wanted to ensure that the will of the messengers was always accomplished, and that no one or no entity could stand in the way of the will of the messengers. This applied to the Executive Committee as much as any others. In the early years of the EC, it was not uncommon to have members serve over a decade, with some serving over twenty years. The change in representation was to ensure that the power of the trustees did not rest in a few hands. This was less a reflection on the capabilities of those long term members as it was a desire to ensure that all churches were represented equally and the the voice of the messengers was heard.
As the Executive Committee prepares to meet soon, we should remember that the history of the Convention demonstrates that the final authority of the EC rests in the decisions of the messengers. Even as the EC has been given certain responsibilities, it stands accountable to the SBC “for its interpretation of the scope of its delegated authority and for its prudent exercise of that authority. “ As the EC gathers and acts out the duties assigned to it by the messengers, we would do well to remember that the EC is not a separate entity serving it’s own interests. Rather they are an extension of the gathered messengers of the convention, and the final authority always rests with the messengers.