Trust the Trustees.
It is not just a suggestion for Southern Baptists, it is a way of life. You can gripe and moan and rage and resolve and move, but in the end, the direction of the entities of the Southern Baptist Convention is set by the Trustees. Even our actions at the SBC Annual Meeting have far less control over these entities than we think. We approve the budget and we elect the trustees, but the trustees are entrusted with the oversight of the entities. People have railed about the injustice of entities that don’t bend and bow to SBC resolutions. They don’t have to because entities are not ruled by SBC resolutions, but by their trustees. The esteemed Dr. Bart Barber could jump on and give a better explanation of this, or if the Rev. Dr. Augie Boto is out there he can chime in. But our duty is to elect trustees and then they run the show. Whether we trust them or not, we have entrusted our entities and our denomination’s future to their wisdom.
That is why the most important task of an SBC president does is not appointing task forces or coming up with SBC mottos or themes. It is not giving speeches or even chairing meetings. His most crucial task is appointing people who will nominate people who will nominate trustees. Long after his tenure is gone the effect of his work remains, for good or ill. Some presidents have not understood that and they did not pour their all into the trustee selection process.
If the SBC is to run well, we must have boards of trustees who understand their positions and execute them faithfully.
My father was chair of one of the two main committees on a key entity back in the late 80s when the effects of the Conservative Resurgence were being felt. About a year after he left, the president of the entity was gone and a new leader was brought in. Everyone assumed that the source of the struggle was conservative/moderate politics – and that was certainly the narrative. But I remember Dad coming to visit us after a board meeting one time and venting to me a little. He said the problem wasn’t denominational politics but the fact that the entity president (whom Dad was friendly with, even though they were on opposite sides of the denominational divide) didn’t understand how the trustee system worked. “He thinks that the trustees work for him. He believes we should take our marching orders from him and do what he says. That’s what the previous boards have done. Now, we are holding him accountable and setting standards, and he absolutely refuses to submit in any way.”
Obviously, there were deep waters swirling all around that controversy, but there was an issue at stake. The trustees must know what their job is and how they are to carry it out or much trouble can result.
I had the opportunity recently to have a long conversation with the chairman of one of our boards of trustees over a potentially incendiary situation. I asked some friends just before that phone call to pray for me because I had a bad attitude about the whole thing. After a 36 minute discussion, I hung up confident that this situation would be handled well because the chairman of the board knew what his role was and was doing it faithfully. I hope every one of our entities has a man that competent in the lead chair! I came away comforted that a difficult situation was in the hands of the right man! (Don’t bother asking me, I’m not going to tell you.) Having a great trustee chair at the helm makes all the difference.
I have also seen times when I was not as confident about the work of trustees as they led their entities. This is not meant to be exhaustive, but I’d give the following suggestions. I’d love to serve as a trustee, but I won’t get to since Iowa doesn’t get board representation until we grow significantly. But I’ve been involved in many similar (though smaller scale) roles here in Iowa. I’d give the following thoughts.
1. The trustees’ primary role is to represent us by seeking the best interests of the institution they serve. They are there on our behalf to make our entities work.
2. The trustee ought to support and promote the institution which he or she serves. Any criticism of that entity ought to be private, except in the most extreme of circumstances. No person who holds malice toward an institution should be elected as a trustee.
3. The trustee is not there to serve the president and staff of the entity, but to hold them accountable and to encourage them toward success – all for the best interests of the entity. The idea that trustees must rubber stamp the ideas and plans of the president is dangerous and detrimental to our system. They ought to listen and be supportive of the ideas of the president, but they are well within their rights to push back, feed back, or just plain say no.
4. Trustees ought not to try to micromanage their entity. The president and staff are there to run the entity. The trustees are there to set guidelines, develop policies, oversee budgets (which staff produce). Trustees can err by being too passive and not holding their entity accountable and they can err by being too active and controlling, attempting to micromanage the work of the staff.
There is often tremendous pressure in our convention’s life to go along, not to speak out or go against the flow. When a person is elected as a trustee he or she is responsible to speak out, to ask questions, to raise doubts, to give contrary opinions. That is essential to Baptist life.
I heard a story recently about a mega-mega-mega church (not in our fold) had new leadership and they replaced everyone who had been part of the previous administration with people who were loyal to the new leaders. The reflex to avoid negative opinions, to treat questions as criticism, to demand conformity and quiescence – that is not godly, not Baptist, and ultimately destructive.
I am thankful for good trustees. We have entrusted the life of the SBC to them. We have little choice but to “trust the trustees.” In point of fact, there are few roles in the SBC more important.