Geoff Hammond’s resignation Aug. 11 after just two years as president of the North American Mission Board continues a three-decade pattern of leadership turmoil in the agency charged with establishing a Southern Baptist national missions and evangelism strategy.
According to former staff and observers with a perspective of 50 years watching the Home Mission Board and its successor, the North American Mission Board, the domestic missions and evangelism ship has not enjoyed a steady hand at the helm through the full tenure of an executive since the leadership of Arthur Rutledge, who retired in 1976 and died nine months later.
Bill Tanner followed Rutledge, a man Walker Knight, who retired in 1983 as director of the department of editorial services, called “pleasant but not decisive.”
Tanner led the organization for 10 years before tiring of the tensions inherent in a shifting political landscape and he returned to his native Oklahoma in 1987 where he led the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma until retirement in July 1996. He died in June 2007.
Larry Lewis, a leader in the “conservative resurgence,” was rewarded with the HMB presidency 1987-96 following Tanner. When he did not purge the staff as the new political majority of the Southern Baptist Convention expected of him they reorganized the SBC around him. He was left without a job when the Home Mission Board (HMB), Brotherhood Commission and Radio and Television Commission were merged, forming the North American Mission Board.
Norfolk pastor Bob Reccord chaired the task force to implement that merger and was named president of the new entity, a position he held until he was pressured to resign in 2006.
He was followed in 2007 by Hammond, who received a unanimous vote of confidence from his trustees in May and was forced to resign Aug. 11.
So it has been since 1976 that a president of the national missions entity has finished his tenure and departed on his own terms. Such instability at the top could lead Southern Baptists to question NAMB’s effectiveness.
Messengers consider HMB future
Southern Baptists historically have been attuned to measure their own effectiveness. In 1958 the Committee to Study Total Southern Baptist Convention Program, known as the Branch Committee, after its chair, North Carolina Executive Director Doug Branch, brought a series of recommendations to reorganize and strengthen the work.
Six of the recommendations pertained to the HMB and directed it to work cooperatively with Baptist state conventions. At that time some HMB services were redundant to state conventions and the HMB operated within states without consultation with the local state conventions.
Rutledge, then state missions director for the Baptist General Convention of Texas, joined the staff of HMB Executive Director Courts Redford, himself a strong leader, to direct that reorganization.
Rutledge created and tirelessly promoted the cooperative ministry agreements that still govern relationships between NAMB and state conventions. He became executive director when Redford retired.
Walker Knight, who preceded Rutledge to the board by six months in 1959, spoke to the Biblical Recorder from his home in Decatur, Ga. Knight, 85, is most noted for leading Missions USA magazine, the HMB’s flagship publication, to address race and other social issues well ahead of the pace Southern Baptist churches and institutions were facing them.
Knight said Redford was “a penny pinching and heavy fisted leader, but his heart was in the right place.”
National travel in that era was mostly by train. Redford often would return to Atlanta after midnight and sleep in his office, rather than get a hotel room or spend the time going home and back a few hours later.
Knight also recounted with laughter an ante-office Redford kept that he called “Memphis.” When his secretary fielded a call that he did not want to take she was to say Redford couldn’t come to the phone because he was “in Memphis.”
Rutledge succeeded Redford in 1965.
Rutledge was “soft spoken but had a backbone of steel” Knight said. “All the staff admired him.”
He did not have a big ego, and “his whole heart was in missions,” Knight said.
In June 1968 the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution stemming from a work commissioned to Willis Bennett, a sociology and religion professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His work revealed an urban crisis that required Southern Baptist response.
The highly regarded Rutledge was asked to coordinate Southern Baptist agency response to that “crisis in the nation.”
Thirty-year HMB veteran Don Hammonds, who retired in 1997 as interim vice president for the ministry section just as Bob Reccord was being elected as new president, said there is “no doubt” that Rutledge was “hands down the strongest executive” ever at the HMB.
Hammonds said one trait that made him a strong leader was that “he got people who knew something about what they were asked to do and he let them do it. He trusted his staff.”
Hammonds served several years with Rutledge, and was on staff during the full terms of Bill Tanner and Larry Lewis.
He and Knight both said Tanner’s reputation among staff was that the staff member who spoke to him last about an issue was the one most likely have his way. Tanner, who had come to the HMB from the presidency of Oklahoma Baptist University, was not necessarily pushed out, Hammonds said, but there was a general feeling his effectiveness was limited and his leaving was timely.
Others say he was a good executive, in that he encouraged staff and let them do their work while he presented the face of national missions. He came to the HMB with no missions administration background, and he left a position of national prominence for one with less.
Larry Lewis, president of a very small Baptist college, succeeded Tanner. He came to the post as the first leader elected to HMB since the recent conservative majority and carried with him the burden of high expectations to purge staff.
There was still significant moderate representation on his board, and his first several years were tumultuous trying to work with a divided board and a divided Convention, he said in an Aug. 13 interview.
Hammonds appreciated Lewis’ leadership because “he knew something about missions,” having been involved in church planting and in student work in Ohio, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Lewis’ three priorities were church starting, evangelism and ministry, Hammond said.
“Ministry” included the Christian social ministries, leisure ministries, chaplaincy and interfaith witness, areas that “always had more professions of faith than any other area” Hammonds said, but which were “lumped with evangelism” and diminished in the reorganization as NAMB.
Lewis wrestled with turmoil and a gnawing suspicion that the merger of three entities being proposed in the Covenant for New Century reorganization was a mistake. He wanted to be a “team player” he told the Recorder and did not want to appear to be afraid of losing his job, so he kept silent about his premonition.
Instead, he recognizes now that “my problem was conservative denominational leaders who thought I hadn’t been true to the cause,” of the “conservative resurgence.”
Wayne Allen, a Memphis pastor and key leader in the “conservative resurgence” movement, told a longtime denominational worker and son of an HMB employee, who prefers to remain anonymous because he is still active in denominational work, that conservatives were disappointed in Lewis, and that they were going to have to organize around him.
They could not oust Lewis because he had been their compromise candidate, but Allen implied that the impetus for the entire reorganization was to build a structure that would have no place for Lewis.
“I would hate to think that was true,” Lewis said. “But it may well be.”
Bob Reccord, pastor in Norfolk, Va., and briefly an evangelism staff member at HMB, led the reorganization task force that eventually would pull in the Radio and Television Commission from Fort Worth, and the Brotherhood Commission from Memphis. He eventually allowed himself to be elected president of the new organization, named the North American Mission Board (NAMB).
Nine years later, after several years of turmoil among staff, low morale, major initiatives opened to great fanfare then dropped, and questionable spending Reccord’s tenure closed with his resignation.
After just two years of Hammond’s tenure, he too was forced to resign. Three associates closest to him followed in resignation because there was enough sentiment on the board that they risked being fired if they did not resign, according to a source directly affected.
One of the fears for those who love NAMB and believe it has a vital purpose in evangelization of America is that Southern Baptists will become so disenchanted with the constant turmoil there that they will stop supporting it. It is particularly exposed as an agency since the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force has begun meeting to discover efficiencies and effectiveness in SBC spending.
NAMB board chair Tim Patterson, a Florida pastor, has already suggested one efficiency might be to merge NAMB and the International Mission Board.
His suggestion, the work of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force and the seemingly constant turmoil at the top may lead Southern Baptists to revisit their 1958 consideration of the domestic work.
Home Mission Board leadership history
The Home Mission Board was first located in Marion, Ala., and relocated to Atlanta, in 1882. The following men served as corresponding secretaries of the Board: Russell Holman (1845-1851; 1857-1862), T. F. Curtis (1852-1853), Joseph Walker (1853-1857), M. T. Sumner (1862-1875), W. H. McIntosh (1875-1882),
Isaac Taylor Tichenor (1882-1899), F. H. Kerfoot (1900-1901), F. C. McConnell (1901-1903), B. D. Gray (1903-1928), J. B. Lawrence (1929-1953), S. Courts Redford (1954-1964), Arthur B. Rutledge (1965-1976), William G. Tanner (1977-1987), Larry Lewis (1987-1996), Bob Reccord 1997-2006 and Geoff Hammond 2007-2009.