Month: October 2003

Baptist way requires diligence

This issue of the TEXAN includes information on two important discussions taking place among Southern Baptists. They are related and worthy of your attention. Articles beginning on pages 6 and 7 deal with our polity–how we work together. An article on page 13 summarizes the report of the Funding Study Committee of the SBC Executive Committee. Read those stories if you haven’t already.

First, let’s look at the polity issue. New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary President Chuck Kelley is responding to charter changes requested by the SBC Executive Committee that would explicitly affirm the authority of the SBC over the seminary. Two things prompted this request. First, the Conservative Resurgence, wherein Southern Baptists responded to theological drift in their institutions and were able to turn them back around over a 25-year period. The Executive Committee seeks to ensure this accountability to SBC churches exists for future generations.

The second trigger for the charter change proposal was the actions of several institutions owned by state conventions to remove themselves from accountability to the churches that built them. The Executive Committee would also like to guard against this possibility.

No one disagrees with their intent. Kelley has questions about whether the action is necessary as well as if it will have unintended consequences. He uplifts instead the need for real oversight on the part of the convention as exercised through the trustee system. Though not his main point, it is important.

People chuckle at the complexity of our bureaucracy sometimes. One quip says that only Southern Baptists would need a committee on committees. It is complex because what we do is tricky. Forty-some thousand self-governing congregations have formed into hundreds of self-governing local associations, two-score self-governing regional and state conventions, and one self-governing national denomination. And all these autonomous bodies work together to varying degrees. We are not independent of one another but neither do we hold any authority over one another. When we band together to do missions and theological education we must do it in a way that honors the autonomy of the churches and the accountability of the entity without so encumbering the entity as to make its mission impossible. So we depend on trustees from the churches who have authority to make policy for our entities. Trustees are the crucial connection between churches and the entities.

The Conservative Resurgence was necessary because trustees became too trusting and the churches assumed things were just fine. Institutions in some state conventions have been able to remove themselves from the oversight of the convention for the very same reason. The Resurgence is the story of returning that vigorous oversight to our 12 national entities. We will need another reformation in the future if we don’t maintain oversight worthy of the term. Either that or we will need patches and safeguards to keep institutions from going rogue. Though idealistic, continued and alert oversight is the better solution.

While a discussion of polity will address how we work together, our cooperative giving is a big part of why. When we refer to building or supporting a worldwide missions campaign, we are often talking about giving. The report of the SBC Funding Study Committee should be a wake-up call to our churches. All the way up the Cooperative Program chain the trends are going the wrong way. Families are giving less, by percentage, to their churches. Churches are keeping a larger percentage at home, and some state conventions respond to their own budget crunch by passing on a smaller percentage to Southern Baptist work worldwide.

It’s a vicious cycle downward also. Churches may lose confidence in the state convention because they give less beyond the state; families see the church keeping more for its own use and are instructed regarding their own priorities. Shortsighted priorities are contagious. It’s hypocritical for a state convention to ask churches to support the Cooperative Program while decreasing their own giving beyond their borders in order to maintain their own ministries. I have never seen a state executive director suggest that churches should do the same. At the same time, I can’t imagine a pastor affirming a family’s decision to decrease their offering in order to re-sod the lawn. “God knows what you need, have faith,” he might say, and truly so. The church must teach this by example as well as by exhortation.

From the far end of the funding chain, our agencies would do well to let their good stewardship be known to all. Make sure Southern Baptists know what you are doing, how you are doing, and what you have planned. A much greater degree of openness in board and staff action would serve this cause well. Some things need to remain confidential in any organization, but not very many. The best way to get grassroots Baptists to trust an institution is to tell us what it’s doing, even (especially?) when things aren’t going as planned. The Funding Study Committee mentioned openness as necessary to CP renewal in the churches.

Kelley cites funding and oversight as the glue holding an institution to its constituents. In the state conventions where institutions have seceded, both of these elements were so weak as to provide little incentive for the entity to tolerate the complexities of accountability. In the SBC, one element has been strong during times when the other was not so strong, thus giving us the ability to reestablish the integrity of our relationship. If we are doing right, both will be strong at the same time.

That’s the connection between the two issues, our own involvement.  A trustee who considers it an honor to serve is correct, but it is also a responsibility.  A trustee who considers his role a perk or reward is not doing it right.  We must have trustees who are willing to learn and to ask and to support the institution regardless of popularity or career.  Our polity will remain strong only if we seek trustees for our institutions who will carry the convictions of our churches into the board and stand bravely for those convictions.  That’s why it will always be important who we elect as SBC president and who he appoints to the Committee on Committees and who they appoint to the Committee on Nominations, and who they appoint to serve on trustee boards.  if we are lazy in our task, Southern Baptists will lose something important.

I’m concerned that we won’t wake up in time.  The funding study committee is right in declaring an impending crises (actually, the crisis is more real than impending).  The Executive Committee is correct in their concern that we hold on to our institutions.   They don’t seem to be assuming that we will maintain adequate oversight through the trustee system.  Chuck Kelley is also right to see the proposed remedy as potentially troublesome, and not just for New Orleans Seminary.  Our leaders are warning us and response must be more than reactive and episodic.

The price of freedom is not paid by just a few, and not only on rare occasions.  Similarly, vigilance is not maintained if consigned to designated watchmen during times of ease.  All who enjoy the blessings of freedom are its constant keepers, for good or ill.