KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — An elder statesman who led three Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) entities for a total of 40 years says the denomination’s North American Mission Board (NAMB) is an obsolete bureaucracy that will likely have a diminished role or disappear altogether in the 21st century.
Duke McCall, 95, who retired from denominational work in 1982, says in a recently published essay that leadership missteps before 2006 add to NAMB’s vulnerability as a new generation of SBC leaders emerges in the first quarter of the 21st century. On the other hand, McCall says, NAMB’s successes have helped boost the growth of Baptist state conventions across the nation.
“These state conventions are a better alternative for domestic missions than a central organization,” McCall writes. “This has been obvious for at least 50 years in that most of the Cooperative Program funds sent to Atlanta for the North American Mission Board have actually been spent by the state conventions through various kinds of ‘partnership’ programs.”
McCall’s essay is a postscript chapter in Against the Wind: The Moderate Voice in Baptist Life written by Carl Kell.
McCall, who recently had a building named in his honor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., called the North American Mission Board a “wasteful funding mechanism” that “has served as a pressure device to keep state conventions in line with Southern Baptist Convention programs.” The board was established in a merger of three former SBC agencies in 1997,
“Thus the North American Mission Board continues to appeal to SBC leaders despite its clear obsolescence,” McCall says.
Kell said McCall originally submitted the essay and revisions in 2006-2007, before discussion that led to the appointment in June of an 18-member task force assigned to study how Southern Baptists can work “more faithfully and effectively together in serving Christ through the Great Commission.”
Meetings of the task force, appointed by SBC president Johnny Hunt, are not open to the press, but comments by individual members suggest looking at the role of NAMB is part of their thinking.
According to the North Carolina Baptist Biblical Recorder, Danny Akin, a task force member and president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, recently told visitors to campus that NAMB “is broke, and has been broke for a long time.”
Pastors quoted in a task force listening session at a North Carolina Baptist church described Southern Baptists’ church-planting method as “stupid” and said it involved “massive replication.” Al Gilbert, a member of the task force and former special assistant to the president of the SBC International Mission Board, said NAMB’s image is different in Old South states that essentially provide the agency’s funds than it is in northern and western states that depend on NAMB funding.
McCall says a few changes in the Cooperative Program — the SBC’s unified giving mechanism — would improve efficiency and greatly strengthen the Baptist state conventions. He said a major overhaul of the unified funding plan is overdue.
“Like the nation’s budget, it has been the victim of political changes until it reflects political power more than fiscal rationality or denominational strategy,” he says.
McCall says a revision of SBC strategy “looms in the near future, but the political stars are not yet in alignment.”
He says it would probably be about 2015, after at least three “new breed” SBC presidents have served their terms and made appointments to the convention’s committee on boards. Any effort before that, he says, “would come from impatience and result in little change, because the mindset at the end of the last century will still be in office.”
He suggests a target date for “a renewal of the Cooperative Program” for its centennial in 2025.
“Renewing the Cooperative Program with the new vision and emphases of the new generation of leaders will shape the life of Southern Baptists for the 21st century,” McCall writes. “This will be comparable to the birth of the Cooperative Program in 1925. It will not alter the theological focus, but it will determine whether Southern Baptists major on evangelism and missions (and how) or on theological education (which will affect theology) or on social work (which will maintain the present alliance with national politics.)”
Born in 1914 in Meridian, Miss., McCall played an influential role in Baptist life soon after he graduated as valedictorian at Furman University. Originally an aspiring lawyer, he surrendered to a call to the ministry age 21.
At 25 he served as pastor of Broadway Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., and at age 28 became president of the Baptist Bible Institute, now New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
In his early 30s McCall became executive secretary of the SBC Executive Committee. In 1951, at age 37, McCall became seventh president of Southern Seminary, the denomination’s oldest theological school. He retired in 1982 after serving longer than any other president in the school’s history.
From 1980 to 1985, McCall served as president of the Baptist World Alliance. In 1990 he and several others formed the Baptist Cooperative Missions Program, an alternative channel for funding Southern Baptist ministries, which soon transferred its resources to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. McCall’s memoirs were released in 2002 with the title, Duke McCall: An Oral History.
Against the Wind, published by the University of Tennessee Press, is third in a trilogy of books by Kell, professor of communication at Western Kentucky University, analyzing rhetoric of the conservative/moderate controversy that divided the Southern Baptist Convention beginning in the 1970s.
Kell’s 1999 In the Name of the Father: The Rhetoric of the New Southern Baptist Convention, co-authored with North Carolina State University professor Raymond Camp, won a national book of the year award in 2000. The second book, Exiled: Voices of the Southern Baptist Convention Holy War, came out in 2006.
In Against the Wind, Kell says that while there was no reason to label them “moderates” before the SBC controversy, there have always been men and women loyal to the Baptist ideal and rhetorical themes of freedom — Bible freedom, soul freedom, church freedom and religious freedom.
Kell argues that the men and women who came to be targeted for perceived “liberalism” and failure to conform to the prevailing fundamentalist perspective had roots in the post-World War II church culture, particularly in the youth-evangelism movement of the late 1940s and 1950s that helped swell the SBC’s membership. In later years a number of factors led many Southern Baptists away from the denomination of their youth, Kell says, and those factors continue to drive current and ongoing changes in the denominational drifts of the SBC.
McCall isn’t the only former SBC agency head questioning NAMB’s effectiveness. Larry Lewis, who was president of the Home Mission Board until it was combined with the SBC Radio and Television and Brotherhood commissions to form NAMB, called the merger “a step backwards” that “eliminated or marginalized some of our most productive entities.”
A newly released annual study of church giving conducted by empty tomb, inc., a Christian research and service organization based in Champaign, Ill., described the Southern Baptist Convention as having a clearly stated goal for engaging all of the world’s unreached people groups but lacking a strategy for raising new dollars to pay for additional missionaries.
The Great Commission Task Force is scheduled to meet Oct. 27 in Dallas with leaders of Baptist state conventions. Twenty-two of 42 invited state executive directors indicated they plan to attend. Bill Mackey of the Kentucky Baptist Convention will lead the executive directors in their presentation to the task force.
Two top SBC leaders — Jerry Rankin at the International Mission Board and Morris Chapman at the Executive Committee — have recently announced retirement dates. Ronnie Floyd, chairman of the Great Commission Task Force, issued a statement saying the task force’s assignment is not to pick their replacements, but that is up to each entity’s board of trustees.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.)