Updated: Apr 1, 2021
To help trustees avoid pitfalls and perform at a high level in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), we need to reform our current system. An independent trustee training system is an essential reform. Trustee boards elected by messengers at the Annual Meeting of the SBC each year govern the twelve entities of the SBC. The entities include the SBC Executive Committee, International Mission Board, North American Mission Board, GuideStone Financial Resources, LifeWay Christian Resources, Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and six seminaries.
These governing Boards have enormous responsibility as they guide our entities to help SBC churches, associations and state conventions advance the Great Commission. They are charged to maintain the integrity of the agencies and hold leadership accountable to the churches of the SBC. They oversee entities whose budgets total a number approaching $1 billion and whose assets are many billions. The overseas assets of the IMB alone are enormous. Does anyone know the market value of IMB and SBC assets? I don’t, but I know it’s a huge number, with 10 or 11 digits, and SBC trustees are responsible to oversee those who administer these enormous assets. Trustees are not charged to represent the entity and its leadership. Nor are they charged to protect entity leadership from the consequences of mission failure, malfeasance, or the squandering of resources.
What are the pitfalls trustees face?
1. Suppressing bad news to keep the money flowing
A strength of nonprofits is donors who believe in the cause. Southern Baptists believe in biblical stewardship for the individual Christian. We also believe that churches, and organizations that serve churches have the awesome responsibility to steward the resources provided by God’s people with integrity. A danger trustees face is that of suppressing bad news to keep the money flowing. When a ministry fails, trustees can be tempted to “manage the bad news,” or even keep the bad news from the donor base for fear of a decrease in financial giving. This is never the right thing to do biblically and it’s not even the right thing to do strategically. Trustees must play the long game. Transparency and accountability are not only right but smart because the truth will be revealed. If donors learn that “bad news” was withheld from them, the offending organization will face a decline in donors and financial resources.
2. Group think to force conformity and prevent probing questions
Every trustee has felt the pressure of “group think.” Asking questions that leaders find uncomfortable is never easy. Challenging the direction or effectiveness of the organization is difficult – and so it is often not done. This is to our detriment. Courage, the courage of Daniel, David and Deborah, has always been essential in ministry and it’s needed on our SBC boards. We must have trustees willing to ask probing questions and stand alone, if necessary, to raise concerns that must be addressed.
Recently, an SBC trustee board unanimously affirmed its entity and leaders, despite reducing a key mission goal to 40 percent of what it was a decade ago, while spending an additional $50 million per year in an effort to meet 40 percent of the original goal. Remarkably, assertions have been made regarding the effectiveness of this agency, but no explanation has been given for obvious failure and a “shifting of the goalposts.” To be clear, I’m referencing the North American Mission Board, which in 2011 celebrated a goal of starting 1,500 churches a year, only to reduce that goal to 1,200, then 750, and now to 600, while tripling the annual budget from $23 million to $75 million. Don’t you think Southern Baptists deserve a reasonable explanation and an accounting for this? I do. The lowest five years in new church starts in our lifetimes are the last five years. Those who try to explain this away always fail to do so with data. They merely make assertions, supported at best by anecdotes. For example, if the church starting numbers in the first decade of the 21st Century were grossly inflated as some allege, why was our net increase in Baptist churches more than double what the second decade produced? The answer is clear for anyone willing to look at the data reported in the SBC Annual Reports. We were planting far more churches then than we are now. We planted more churches in the 1980s and 1990s than we are now, with far less money. Remarkably, the NAMB trustees are rich with assertions but poor in producing evidence to support the assertions.
Recent actions by the LifeWay Board also reflect what might be termed “group think” and a lack of will to hold leaders accountable. LifeWay’s recent defense of their former board chairman giving the outgoing president $1 million without informing any other trustee was essentially, “He did nothing wrong, but that won’t happen again because we’re changing policy.” Really? Nothing wrong? Why then is LifeWay attempting to prevent it from ever happening again? I guess that’s how an internal investigation works.
3. Lack of relevant experience and competence making boards ineffective
A former SBC trustee told me that he was the only accountant on an SBC board that oversees a huge budget. Individually, SBC trustees love Jesus, their church, and the mission of the SBC. These are essential qualities. However, more is needed on a trustee board. Financial and managerial competencies are essential in addition to a commitment to Scripture and the Baptist Faith and Message. Some of our entity boards have good balance on their board, but some do not. I say this based on recent and past actions of certain SBC boards. One recent example of this is the over-spending of the IMB 10 to 15 years ago, which severely depleted financial reserves and led to a reduction of nearly 2,000 field missionaries five years ago. Either the trustees didn’t know what was happening, or something in the board was lacking that could have led to necessary changes that would have prevented the pain of bringing so many missionaries home. I do know that the former president of the SBC Executive Committee said that he was unaware how financially dire the situation was at the IMB. His lack of awareness is disturbing considering the troubles developed over a number of years and did not happen suddenly.
What is the answer for improving trustee performance?
I believe at least three things are required to improve our trustee boards.
1. Trustee training that is independent of their respective entity
This could be administered by the SBC Executive Committee (EC). Additional training should be provided by each respective entity, but trustees must be made to understand their responsibility to SBC churches.
2. The EC taking a more active role in enforcing infractions of SBC Bylaws
To be clear, infractions do occur, and they have occurred in the past year. To date, however, the EC has rarely done more than “advise.” The EC has seemed to overlook infractions of conflict-of-interest policies among SBC entity trustees, for example. A more active EC could provide a “balance of power” with boards that sometimes operate in ways that are not in the best interests of the SBC. We have seen how the actions of one entity or entity leader affects the entire SBC mission’s system. This is inevitable to some extent, but harmful effects can be mitigated through a more actively engaged EC.
3. A press that does investigative and objective reporting, thus facilitating transparency and accountability
Baptist Press (BP) currently serves as the public relations arm of the EC and SBC establishment. Sometimes, however, questions need to be asked of our entities and additional information needs to be surfaced so Southern Baptists have a fuller understanding of performance and finances. Human nature being what it is, people report what benefits them and may “spin” their reporting. This includes our SBC entities. We need a press that asks questions and does some actual investigation and reporting. We sometimes hear leaders lament the content on some blog sites and social media posts. As I see it, some of these sites provide information that we are not receiving through BP. BP could play a bigger role in holding trustees accountable and thus improve trustee performance.
Key to reforming the SBC is to reform trustee training and hold trustees accountable to the SBC governing documents. The press has an important role as it shines the light onto what is happening in our entities and trustee boards. Jesus said that the truth frees us. Light helps us to see reality and determine what is true. When Southern Baptists operate in the light, with finances and performance fully exposed for all to see, and with the reasoning and decisions of trustee boards exposed as well, we will restore trust in the SBC mission’s system and write a beautiful new chapter as Southern Baptists advance God’s mission.