Spending God’s Money: it should have been better

I was hoping for more from Mary Branson’s book about her experiences at the North American Mission Board. Spending God’s Money: Extravagance and Misuse in the Name of Ministry is the long-anticipated tell all from the former marketing director for NAMB. Mrs. Branson was in a position that allowed her to see some disappointing examples of financial misuse. Unfortunately, she went beyond what she knew in writing the book.

The strengths of SGM deal with Mary Branson’s first-hand knowledge of some of the matters referenced in last February’s GeorgiaChristian Index story and the resulting board of trustees investigation. She paints a truly depressing picture of poor leadership, indecisiveness, and the use of missions money for personal advantage.

In a year when several staff members were let go for financial reasons, the executive staff is reported to have scheduled their annual retreat at a posh resort. NAMB spent $3,700 to send the Reccords to a London movie premier. A poorly considered conference for young adults cost the board over a million dollars instead of being a revenue enhancer.

She retells the story of extravagant travel arrangements and wasteful projects. Clearly, and this is not a new revelation, the Reccord administration went badly astray. Further, problems in the president’s office created a culture of privilege where legal and open, though unethical misuse of missions money was too common.

The book’s weaknesses have to do with the way she expresses a more general frustration with anyone who leads anything in the SBC. A quote from Randall Lolley saying that 35 people run the Southern Baptist Convention moves from opinion to fact in Mary Branson’s later evaluation of the SBC.

Mrs. Branson was “in the house” when employees sold books they probably wrote on company time back to NAMB. And yet it’s a big house and she does not know it so well as she thinks. She talks of a new VP who had “dreams of publishing” a book called Total Church Life. In fact this book was published four years before Darrell Robinson came to work for the board. For her to suggest that the publication of the book and the use of the book in conferences is an example of abuse is clearly wrong. Some abuse of work product likely went on and she gives other examples, but here’s a case where she does name names but gets the facts verifiably wrong and impugns a man’s reputation to boot. A reader has to wonder how many of her other first person accounts are also wrong.

For some reason, the excesses of the Reccord administration at NAMB are also attributed vaguely to other agency heads. One bit of hearsay portrays an unnamed agency head as “Bob [Reccord] on steroids.” It’s unspecific; so Al Mohler, Jerry Rankin, and Richard Land, as well as eight more agency heads, must take the same hit. Another tale implicates Larry Lewis, Bob Reccord’s predecessor, in the same creeping attitude of entitlement?and yet it’s admittedly hearsay.

Mary Branson also gives Bob Reccord’s salary and severance package but it’s modified by “word got out” instead with any claim of certainty or authority. As much as I think Southern Baptists should know those things, I don’t think publishing rumors is of any use.

It’s just so disappointing that SGM did not verify all that it seems to assume to be true. Now, that would be a useful book. If we have agency heads who live like Pharaohs, I want to know who and how. If the NAMB board gave away the farm in Bob Reccord’s settlement agreement, they should have to face it. That won’t happen if all we have is “some guy said.” As it is, the verified portion of the book is pretty thin.

This is a book that needed to be written. I think Mary Branson would be a useful source for some other writer but I don’t think she was the one to write the story. She had a personal agenda and part of it seems petty. It became clear that some of the things she considered misuse were pet peeves instead of unethical. She was personally offended that some above her did not take her expert advice in marketing. She did not like the executive leadership team raiding her budget for their unbudgeted projects. I understand that she’s annoyed, but it’s not news or scandalous that this happens.

Mrs. Branson also thinks that big agencies are not efficient or worthy. She advocates cutting back funding to “mega institutions” by 1 percent each year in favor of state/associational/local church projects until the institutions are less “mega.” Who are these other megas that depend on CP funding? Is funding hundreds of smaller denominational entities cumulatively more efficient than a big one? It seems her answers to the problem are not so well thought out. Her response to administrative problems seems to be to dismantle the whole thing rather than to fix it.

Here’s a value of the book for us all. Mary Branson seems earnest and idealistic in her love of missions and Southern Baptists. We have a lot of people like that in churches and denominational units across the nation. These folks know what is going on at work. Some of them know what the boss makes and they look at his expense reports. Many of them know when the people above them come back from lunch or go home. They see and evaluate the stewardship of missions money they give each month. That should be sobering to everyone who supervises anyone else in their conduct of Christian ministry.

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Correspondent
Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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