First, the disclaimer. I’m on the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) Leadership Council. Which by the way, and contrary to the belief of some phone calls I have received, has no authority or power at the ERLC but is a group of about 80 people who were nominated / chosen to “receive intentional investment from the ERLC and serve as ambassadors for the organization.” You can read more about the Leadership Council HERE. I suppose it should be said that I have come full circle in my appreciation for the ERLC as I once argued it should be dissolved. I no longer think it should and you can read about how I came to that realization HERE. Also, for those who’ve not read it, William Thorton wrote a good piece about this topic. He always beats us to the good stuff.
Yesterday the Executive Committee (EC) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) made a move that I will argue was a significant overreach as it relates to the ERLC. Some would say they overreached in a couple of areas but I’d like to focus on one area in particular.
According to Baptist Press (BP) the SBC EC moved to “create a study task force to ‘review the past and present activities’ of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.” You can find the full BP article HERE.
I have a few serious questions regarding this action. 1) Why was this action taken, 2) Why was the action taken by the EC without referral to or at least in council with the Board of Trustees (BoT) of the ERLC and 3) Regardless of the outcome, what are the implications of the findings of this ad hoc task force
Mike Stone, Chair of the EC admitted that this act is similar to the one taken in 2017 when they moved to “monitor the activities of Southern Baptist entities in relation to how their activities might adversely affect the Cooperative Program and churches.” That inquiry noted 14 churches that withheld CP funds over entity concerns. No action was taken against the ERLC at the time and at the following convention meeting in Dallas in 2018 the body loudly spoke to the issue of the work of the ERLC when it overwhelmingly voted down a motion made to defund the Commission made by who I assume was one of the disgruntled pastors. Remember THIS…
First, from where did this new concern arise and why is this action necessary? Like many of you, I have heard the non-stop Twittersphere haranguing that Russell Moore is a leftist, liberal, Muslim sympathizer who is pro CRT, women pastors and for gay marriage. Not a single one of those statement are true, by the way. Yet the barrage of lies and spread of disinformation doesn’t seem to stop. Where is this coming from? Why is it continually being charged? Why the big deal being made now? Especially when just a year and a half ago the issue appeared to be settled. Where is Moore making these supposed concerning statements or causing such serious division? In what way are the employees of the ELRC not fulfilling the tasks given by the direction of the SBC? Take a look at the impressive and seriously “conservative” legislative agenda of the ERLC HERE. To whom does that look “leftist?” Give me a break, man!
I suppose one might be inclined to suggest “Well, Jay, this is the reason we need the task force, to have answers to these questions.” But my question remains, why is this being done? Has something new come up? I mean, I’m on a conference call with the ERLC leadership once a month and I’ve never heard a single thing that has given me cause for concern. I’ve only marveled at the work being accomplished and have stood in amazement at what God is doing through the ERLC. The men and women of the ERLC are not only doing their jobs well, they are doing those jobs with tremendous integrity and with skill and excellence and most importantly, Jesus is being glorified.
Further, who brought this up in the EC? I suppose we won’t know the answer to that question since the discussion happened and the action taken was done in executive session. Which leads to another question, why was this done in executive session? Such a resolution does not require action in executive session? I’m trying to be charitable here but I am inclined to ask if there is someone in the EC that has an axe to grind. Maybe not, but this whole thing looks a bit hinky to me.
Why Not the Trustees?
Here is a second concern. If such an act is necessary (and I am not the least bit convinced it is) why was the traditional action of referring such a request along to the Board of Trustees not implemented? If such a motion was offered from the floor of the SBC it would likely have been referred to the BoT if not ruled out of order by the presiding officer. That is what we do… we allow the trustee process to run its course. Further, who knows better what the ERLC is actually doing than the BoT, the very group charged with fiduciary oversight and adherence to stated tasks?
Rather, the EC Chair has been given carte blanche authority to appoint a “taskforce” to investigate. Stone has assured readers of Baptist Press that, “This is not a governance issue. This is a budget issue related to their fulfillment of their mission and ministry assignment.” But in what way will they investigate? Differently than they did the last time? How will they proceed? This is clearly some sort of act of oversight. In what way do they understand the Constitution and By-Laws (something I have a great amount of background in) give them any sort of authority over another SBC entity? Especially as it relates to CP giving. Again, considering the overwhelming support the ERLC found at the 2018 convention after earlier “concerns” were lodged, I believe this action of the EC is not only unnecessary but also out of bounds.
Allow me to explain. Granted the EC is tasked with a few responsibilities in relationship to the other entities, while, and this is paramount, NOT being in a position of authority over any of the other entities. Stone suggested that the By-Law articles which apply in this case include (the BP article listed 18.E.6 but I assume they meant 18.E.7):
- (18.E.7) To present to the Convention a comprehensive budget for the Convention and for all its entities, which budget shall include the budgets of all the entities of the Convention whether or not they receive Cooperative Program funds, as reviewed by the Executive Committee. The Executive Committee shall recommend the amount of Convention funds which may be allocated to each cause. It shall not recommend any direct allocation of funds for any entity or institution for which the Convention does not elect trustees or directors.
- (19.E.9) To maintain open channels of communication between the Executive Committee and the trustees of the entities of the Convention, to study and make recommendations to entities concerning adjustments required by ministry statements or by established Convention policies and practices, and, whenever deemed advisable, to make recommendations to the Convention. The Executive Committee shall not have authority to control or direct the several boards, entities, and institutions of the Convention. This is the responsibility of trustees elected by the Convention and accountable directly to the Convention.
- (18.E.13) To maintain an official organization manual defining the responsibilities of each entity of the Convention for conducting specific ministries and for performing other functions. The manual shall cite the actions of the Convention that assigned the ministries and other functions to the entity. The Executive Committee shall present to the Convention recommendations required to clarify the responsibilities of the entities for ministries and other functions, to eliminate overlapping assignments of responsibility, and to authorize the assignment of new responsibilities for ministries or functions to entities.
Notice the place of CP funds in article 18.E.7. The EC helps to set the CP allocation budget for the entities but it appears, acording to the press release, that the EC assumes that it has some sort of punitive power or at the least a sort of “you must do this or that in order to get funds” type of responsibility over the entity. Let’s be clear, there is NO provision for that view in this or any other article in the constitution.
What of article 18.E.9? This text posits that the EC helps to keep the communication lines open between the BoT of the entities and the SBC at large. Here’s the rub… neither of those groups are involved in the EC’s stated action here. The BoT has not been tasked with any stated charge and the SBC has not suggested a concern nor has it initiated such an investigation.
Finally, there is article 18.E.13. The EC is to keep a manual of the tasks charged to the entities. The only action the EC has here is to help with clarifications. To keep duplications in check and intercede where there is confusion about tasks in between the BoT and the SBC.
As an aside (but pertinent to the whole), what I am most afraid of is that this act is exactly what Dr. Chuck Kelley warned the convention about in 2003-4 when the Sole Membership issue was at hand. Regardless of whether or not you believe Sole Membership was the right call, I believe Dr. Kelley’s concerns here were spot on. Now let me be clear, I love Dr. Kelley but he and I have disagreed on a number of occasions about a number of issues. During the Sole Membership debate I stood firmly behind him even to the degree of speaking on the floor of the convention reiterating his concerns. Notice a bit of what he warned us about in his paper The Baptist Way: A Personal Perspective from 2003:
“The Southern Baptist Convention put all of its entities on a level plane with no entity, from the Executive Committee to the Annuity Board, above or below any other entity. There is no pyramid of leadership in the SBC with a CEO at the top. In addition, the SBC chose to exercise its institutional ownership rights through decisive influence on the entities rather than operational control of the entities. The decisive influence of the denomination is established and maintained through convention-elected Trustees operating within the guidelines of a convention determined ministry assignment and a convention-determined business and financial plan, in accordance with the parameters established in a convention-approved charter and funded by a convention-endorsed budget. As long as they stay within these SBC parameters, the duly elected Trustees of each entity exercise complete control and supervision of entity operations. They hire the entity president, approve his vision for the entity, oversee how the entity goes about fulfilling its SBC ministry assignment, and maintain the fiscal integrity of all entity operations.” (The Baptist Way: A Personal Perspective, pg 2)
“The entities have an SBC-assigned ministry, but each entity seeks a vision from the Lord on how to fulfill that ministry and feels accountable to the Lord for accomplishing that vision. Each entity knows it must operate within the guidelines established by the SBC, but each entity is also fully aware that its day-to-day operations must be in accordance with the teachings of the Bible.” (3)
“Each entity is responsible for its own ministry, but not for any other SBC ministry. There is no one person or board of Trustees in charge of everything for the Convention, lest there be a temptation for one person or board to control the agenda of the Convention. For example, although we have six seminaries, each one has a separate president and board of Trustees, and each one has a distinctive vision about how to prepare God-called Southern Baptists for the ministry. Thus no one person or board can control theological education in Southern Baptist life.” (3)
“Primary responsibility for institutional oversight goes to the Trustees selected by the Southern Baptist Convention for each entity board. Maintaining the decisive influence of the SBC on its entities in perpetuity thus requires a vigilant process of Trustee selection that consistently produces entity Trustees who are committed to maintaining SBC parameters as a sacred trust.” (6)
“A bigger problem also looms in my mind:… Human nature being what it is, it is quite possible that this new form of control will encourage an individual or group, intentionally or unintentionally, to attempt to exercise a higher level of central control over the entities. There are reasons why Southern Baptists have always taken human nature seriously.
As I was preparing the final draft of this paper, an editorial from The Pathway, official news-journal of the Missouri Baptist Convention came across my desk. The editor told Missouri Baptists that a committee of the SBC Executive Committee recently considered closing or dramatically changing Midwestern Seminary. When asked what would be done if the Midwestern Trustees did not agree with the committee’s suggestion, those who represented this committee said the Executive Committee would simply ask the Convention to replace the entire Midwestern Trustee Board with people who would agree with the suggestion (The Pathway, July 29, 2003, p4-5).
To my knowledge this stunning suggestion is unprecedented in Southern Baptist history. Knowing that Midwestern Seminary had already made the SBC the sole member of its corporation, these members of the SBC Executive Committee were assuming the power of sole membership made it possible to change an entire Board of Trustees at one Convention. Whether they were right or wrong in their interpretation, such a suggestion would not have been made prior to the sole membership strategy.” (10)
And my personal favorite…
“If Jesus tarries, one can almost hear the ironic comments of a future church historian looking back on this era in Southern Baptist life and noting that “After a long and passionate struggle to fill every SBC board with Trustees they trusted and every entity presidency with known conservatives, the heirs of the Conservative Resurgence exchanged the historic Baptist principle of a trustee- based organizational autonomy for a connectional polity that would tighten direct denominational control over the entities. Having seen God do a miracle once, Conservatives changed the rules lest they have to count on a miracle again.” (11)
Kelley was very concerned that there would be a move toward centralization. His words from 2003 are prophetic. There has been a move toward centralization and in our current splintering that only will lead to a smaller and smaller tent.
What the EC has done in giving birth to this act without trustee oversight nor act of the larger SBC body is itself divisive but more importantly it sets a bad precedent that the Constitution and By-Laws of the SBC clearly do not allow.
What are the Implications?
Finally, what will be the implications of the work and ultimate findings of this taskforce? As already noted, they do not have the authority to enforce a punative act against the ERLC by withholding CP funds. Let me remind you there is NO place in the By-Laws where such action is allowed. They do not have the authority to make the BoT do anything or to make any changes. They are not working on behalf of a motion, resolution or directive of the body at its annual meeting. Rather, they are taking an area of authority not ascribed to them by the By-Laws of the SBC of “reviewing the past and present activities” of another entity that is constitutionally on the same organizational level as they are.
Let’s say there are no substantive findings of mishandling tasks or reason/cause for the concerns leveled at Dr. Moore and the ERLC. Will they be openly vindicated by report from the EC? and how long will such a vindication last? Will the EC take up another baseless charge 2 years from now?
Near the conclusion of his paper, Dr. Kelley expressed his greatest fear of this sort of centralization and over sight expressed by the Executive Committee when he noted:
“it creates the potential for direct control of the denominational structure in a way unmatched in our history. Suppose the Executive Committee recommended the SBC authorize them to exercise the sole membership rights of the Convention, and it was approved. Suddenly the foundation for a leadership hierarchy is in place. Entity leaders would feel a greater accountability to the Executive Committee, which is always functioning, than to the messengers of the SBC who function only two days a year… It is conceivable that soul membership could one day give a person or persons who gained control of the denominational structure a voice louder than the voices of our churches. ” (13)
Let me just remind the EC that there is a form they send to churches which allows any church who chooses to do so, to designate CP giving to any one of or all of our SBC entities. The many of us who appreciate the current leadership and direction of the ERLC have the right to designate an even larger portion of our gifts to that entity. It would behoove the EC to be as concerned about that possibility as you seem to be about a few folks that might currently be withholding funds out of unfounded complaints and political frustrations. I suppose you do know, we can even designate funds away from the EC, don’t you? Just want to make sure you are aware of that particular freedom that our voluntary cooperation as Southern Baptists affords us.
I am praying this is resolved quickly. If not, I promise you a motion of support and affirmation of the ERLC will be presented in Orlando.