The simultaneous transitions in leadership at five of our 12 SBC agencies is the most significant thing that’s happened to our denomination in 20 years. Add to this the fact that three of those transitions were precipitated by varying degrees of controversy. You could say three of five were involuntary. Two of the involuntary transitions resulted in disappointment or hurt among the leaders’ or institutions’ partisans. The men and women in these search committees have a great deal of influence over the future of our convention. They deserve our prayer support, our deep gratitude and our closest attention.
I’ve seen 29 transitions at our 12 (it was 19 prior to 1997) SBC institutions since I began editing a Baptist paper. Of those, 17 were accompanied by controversy, even compulsion to leave. Most of the transitions disrupted the work of the institutions and almost all of them resulted in big changes in staffing and vision. Leadership changes in churches and institutions can be “two steps forward, three steps back” events for the ministries. The current transitions in the SBC institutions will result in impactful course changes for those important SBC ministries. That’s why I say those search committees, and the boards to which they answer, deserve our closest attention.
It matters who will lead the International Mission Board, the Executive Committee, Southwestern Seminary, New Orleans Seminary and LifeWay Christian Resources. You have had opportunity to see how the personal beliefs and style of SBC agency leaders affect the work we attempt to do together. The differences I saw between Keith Parks, Jerry Rankin, Tom Elliff and David Platt at the IMB resulted in changes in missionary strategy, missionary accountability, financial strategies and relationships with SBC churches. Our missionaries currently on the field could see changes in what they do and even where they do it, based on the theology and vision of that next leader. That has happened multiple times in the past 30 years. The swerving strategies we’ve seen in world missions may be less pronounced at the other four agencies, but in their own ways they will impact the way our churches do worldwide cooperative ministries. How can we hear them?
First and last, we should pray for them. Pray in a focused way so that the attitudes, actions and discernment needed will manifest themselves in the election of God-ordained leaders for our SBC work. Pray for boldness. I’ve seen a couple of times when a board acted out of fear and soon regretted the decision. These search committees are getting a lot of advice, even pressure. It will take courage for them to sort out guidance from other kinds of inducements. Pray for guidance. These processes often surprise everyone as a leader rises out of “nowhere” to be just the right one. That is no more the work of God than when the expected person is elected, but it does remind us that this is a spiritual process, not just an employee search. Pray for energy. Imagine adding monthly meetings, along with some between meeting research, to your schedule. These folks serve Southern Baptists by overseeing our institutions. Now a few have the added responsibility of locating and nominating a high-profile leader from among millions of constituents.
We can also encourage them. In some cases we know search committee members personally. In every case, we can know their names and the institutions they serve. If need be, send a note to the headquarters and ask them to forward it to search committee members. Encourage them with a kind word, a call to some action you believe appropriate, or maybe a verse of Scripture. It can seem like thankless work. It can also seem like work in which too few people are interested.
We can support the institution’s work in the interim. I’ve been disappointed to hear folks saying they’ll no longer support this or that because a leader left. I understand that some transitions are shocking, others heartbreaking. But it’s a lot like a church that changes pastors—those who leave probably had less interest in the ministry than in the leader. An SBC agency, like a church, has a life both before and after a particular leader. In our day, the next leaders of any of our ministries are not likely to make 180-degree turns in theology or practice. Turning your back on an institution because a leader departed makes it all about your preferences.
Doing these things will make a difference. These actions give proof to our claim that we care about the future of the SBC and it global ministry. These transitions are significant and each has its own specific drama. But they are also opportunities to see each ministry move into a new era of effectiveness as a leader with his own style takes the reins. Those who are doing hard work and seeking God’s men to lead us need to know that the rest of us are not standing around watching. It’s our work, too.