An open convention

The most colorful Southern Baptist Convention meeting in years has come and gone, with appropriate hoopla, semi-accurate reporting, and wild guess predictions for the future. “Interesting” is too tired a word for this watershed meeting. Whatever the tone and protocols for next year’s meeting in San Antonio, it will be different than this year’s or last year’s or the year before. Let’s look at a few of the more prominent features of the 2006 convention.

The presidential race–Here’s the event that attracted the most attention. To hear some outside press, and some Baptist journalists, talk, the outcome of this race was to overturn the Conservative Resurgence and rebuke the movement’s leaders. Nonsense. The convention did not elect Dan Vestal or Cecil Sherman president; they elected an avowed inerrantist who affirmed the Resurgence. If Frank Page had been elected in 1990, moderate Baptists would have disliked him as much as any conservative. That’s not what this was about.

It was about CP giving. Talk about drive-in vote (Frank Page pastors in South Carolina) or nominators or when another candidate announced. All these factors mattered but the big difference was Frank Page’s church’s Cooperative Program giving. This happened in a year when state conventions and denominational agencies uplifted the Cooperative Program to an extent not seen in 30 years. Frank Page’s church regularly gives, without designation, three to five times as much as those of his competitors, by percentage, through their state or national convention budgets. That is not to say that Ronnie Floyd or Jerry Sutton pastor non-missionary churches, that is emphatically not true. It is to say that when we imagine having to withdraw missionaries or close seminaries because CP giving is declining, Dr. Page’s church is an exemplar in supporting the Southern Baptist way of providing for those enterprises.

A part of this outcome was also a desire for a more “open” convention. More about that later.

A record number of motions–Messengers, at least a group of them, came to suggest changes to the SBC. A record 31 motions ranging from restoring full privileges to an International Mission Board trustee to changing the way motions are handled by the Committee on Order of Business were introduced to the messengers.

A few of the motions seemed based on the mistaken notion that the SBC Executive Committee serves as arbiter or policeman between SBC agencies. Thus we heard a suggestion that the EC appoint a committee to investigate problems at the IMB and another that they look into the partnership between IMB and the North American Mission Board. Either a few messengers do not understand the role of trustees or they do not trust them to do their jobs. In any case, the Executive Committee is powerless to intervene in this way.

A motion alleging “manipulation” on the part of some agency leaders in the appointment process as well as in the affairs of other agencies, specifically the IMB, strongly indicates mistrust by some messengers of what they consider the status quo. Yet the referral of that motion to the IMB indicates the convention as a whole has not lost confidence in the trustee process.

It is healthy that we heard and debated some of these questions. It is healthy that everything did not pass unanimously during our two days together. It is not healthy if we forget how to lose, or win, a vote without being mean or giving up. A little controversy will remind us of this. This year friends, even husbands and wives, found themselves voting different ways on one issue or another. Not everything is a no-brainer or of ultimate importance.

Those pesky resolutions–The outside press really loves our resolutions. They don’t understand their non-binding but instructive nature but they understand the subjects more easily than when we talk about polity or doctrine. The issue that once again attracted attention before the convention, Christians in public schools, was a non issue when the Resolutions Committee made its report. Resolutions on immigration and the persecution of Christians in other countries likewise passed without debate.

The surprise was a resolution on the use of beverage alcohol. Our annual meeting, like most of our churches, had not addressed the issue in a while. A clash of generations and cultures arose briefly when the committee submitted a resolution discouraging any use of alcoholic beverages by Southern Baptist Christians. A few, led by Arlington pastor Benjamin Cole, spoke against the resolution, arguing instead for a prohibition of alcohol abuse–drunkenness. One messenger from New England spoke of drinking champagne at a wedding to avoid being rude. This was a sort of comment I have not heard in 24 years of convention attendance but it was not a solitary opinion.

The resolution passed, after gaining an amendment offered by our own Jim Richards encouraging all trustees appointed to our agency boards to be teetotalers. It was not unanimous but it was overwhelming. This issue will come up in a lot of churches this year. It should. Alcohol use and abuse is ravaging our communities, even our churches. What do you teach your church about alcohol use? How would you answer the earnest questions of a convert or young adult regarding a glass of wine with dinner?

Our best president—Bobby Welch was the favorite of our crowd of messengers. His plain but gentle way of conducting sometimes tense business items kept things from getting out of control. His prophetic messages (one extemporaneous when we got ahead on time) were delivered to people who needed to hear them from one who obviously lived them.

Dr. Welch’s gift to the convention was also hi time. He took two years, his last two years of pastoring, off to be our president. Not many could do that, or would think it important enough to pay the price. He went into every state and listened to everyone he could meet. He stuck to his message off evangelism regardless of what issue or question he was asked. He witnessed to all he met, trying to teach us that “everyone can.” A motion to elect him for a third term, though he certainly would declare it out of order, would have been enthusiastically received by the messengers.

Bobby Welch also gets the lifetime achievement award for the most creative use of amphibians, living and dead, in a sermon. Last year’s squashed and dried frogs and this year’s “deep water doer,” offered live at the SBC podium, will be remembered for years. How do you top that?

An open convention—Some deliberative bodies would have considered it a snooze because no one cursed or got punched. By our (higher) standards it was invigorating. The past few years have been a bit dull, and disquieting. We’ve had too little disagreement and too much control of the convention’s business in the past decade. Why attend when the outcome of most business seems predetermined?

It’s hard to imagine a deliberative body of 10,000, but if you give them all ballots and access to a mike you’d better be prepared for them to say what they think and then for them to change things from time to time. This is a unique trait of our denomination. We should safeguard it.

I expect some aspects of the Greensboro convention will be present in coming years. Expect more motions, resolutions, caucuses, and presidential candidates in the future years than we have had for the last 15 or so. This will be messy—democracy is messier than anything except anarchy—but it could also broaden ownership of the denomination to a new generation, maybe in time to give our future ministry together the significance it’s had in previous decades.

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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