Trustees, who needs them?

I heard a quip once that since nine of 10 people who die do so in a hospital, one might lengthen his life by staying away from hospitals. That’s a problem with statistics — they are open to interpretation, or misinterpretation.

I thought of that this week as I considered the current dust ups at our mission boards. The crises at the North American Mission Board and the International Mission Board are distinct but related in that they are both centered on the trustees of those two organizations. As with hospitals, I don’t think it’s fair to blame trustees for all the troubling things that happen in their midst.

The trustees’ role in controversy is more obvious at the International Mission Board at the moment. The board seems to be in disagreement with the administration and, to a lesser degree, with itself. IMB President Jerry Rankin’s candid talk with a group of Baptist editors underscored the differences he has with recent board decisions regarding missionary candidate qualifications.

The trustees voted by a better than three-to-one margin to implement a policy to disqualify missionary candidates who speak in tongues or use a “private prayer language.” Dr. Rankin argued against the policy before and after the vote. But the vote wasn’t even close. Neither would it be close if the entire convention voted on that same matter. The trustees, in this case, represent what Southern Baptist churches do and think. That representation is what Southern Baptists need trustees to stand for.

But the North American Mission Board trustees are also on center stage in their own way.

A major report in The Christian Index, the Georgia Baptist Convention’s official news journal, alleged significant problems in the way NAMB does business. Some think Bob Reccord, the agency’s president, is the culprit. Others blame the reporter for what is admittedly a flawed and unfair report in many ways. The real criticism is of the agency’s trustees, though. They are responsible for setting NAMB policy and employing executive leadership.

The critical report has been broadcast very widely, far more widely than NAMB’s effective response. Regardless, enough questions have been raised so that the trustee board needs to address them.

These stories are developing, but my point is that the best hope our mission boards and seminaries have for resolving a crisis is through the trustees. They speak for the owners (SBC churches) and help the employed leadership of the agencies discern the will of God on the most important decisions they make.

Admittedly, trustee boards can be less than the sum of their parts. I’ve served on boards and served under boards in several settings. A body made up of outstanding and godly people is sometimes less than glorious as a whole. Internal politics, the fog of public deliberation, and the relative ignorance of individuals who only come to town two or three times each year?all conspire to diminish the potential of their governance.

What’s the alternative for the SBC, though? Imaginable options include either an imperial executive (absolute power with all its potential for good and evil) or a committee made up of a larger body (the convention) even more susceptible to confusion. Some of us seem to lean toward the latter option.

What do we do when we are unhappy with an agency’s leadership? This happened when Southwestern Seminary’s board fired their president in 1994. Students were mad at the board, as were alums, newspapers and faculty members at Southwestern and beyond. Some called for firing the board and one motion was submitted at the SBC to accomplish that.

The response at that time was very similar to the current response by some to the disagreement between Jerry Rankin and his board. Some want the board fired by a committee of the whole convention and others want Dr. Rankin to have his way. We are quick to reject the trustee system when we disagree with their actions. Why not reject it?


The executive of a denominational entity is accountable to the messengers of the churches that make up the SBC. The most immediate way this is implemented is through the convention’s elected representatives. Long term, the convention votes with its feet and money. An organization not truly accountable to its constituents will die slowly. So accountability expressed through a rotating and diverse board of constituents is a useful reality check for those whose ministry sometimes insulates them from the owners/consumers.


There is often wisdom in the perspective “outsiders” bring to plans and policies initiated by staff members. The counsel might be part of that reality check when a good idea is not a realistic one. It is also a means God uses to reveal his will for the agency. Important matters are more often revealed to us corporately than individually. Spiritual gifts, our experiences, and our different roles are given largely for the benefit of those around us.


Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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