Southern Baptists are unique among religious denominations. We don’t work under a hierarchical system of polity. There is no one “at the top” who dictates policy and procedure to local Baptist churches or individuals within those churches. We like to remind each other that “headquarters” is our local church.
The Southern Baptist system is based on voluntary cooperation. It depends on each local church to elect messengers who participate in the annual meeting.
Those messengers elect men and women at a variety of levels to serve in places of leadership. The elected trustees give direction to Southern Baptist organizations (seminaries, mission boards, GuideStone, LifeWay and ERLC).
The paid staff of these organizations serve under the trustees, yet the trustees do not function as micromanagers of the day-to-day operations of convention staff. Trustees set policy.
The staff has the responsibility to carry out those policies.
It is not a perfect system, but it is a very good one, and it has served us well. It has given positive support to our great commission purposes.
However, we need to emphasize that it works best in an environment of openness and trust. Openness comes from the entity leadership. Trust comes from the messengers.
This environment does not preclude the freedom of the messengers to ask questions. Time is reserved on the program of each year’s annual meeting for the exercise of this freedom.
Most of the time honest questions are raised. Sometimes the questions are more skeptical.
During each annual meeting the presidents of SBC entities are given time on the program to give their report. In his report at this year’s meeting in New Orleans, Thom Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, was asked a question about LifeWay’s sales policy. His answer is worth repeating.
“We take our work seriously,” said Rainer. “… when the conservative resurgence began, I was a foot soldier in it. And one of the things that concluded was that if we were going to change the Southern Baptist Convention, it must begin with the trustees. Not one messenger or one person with one opinion, but collectively agreeing that trustees will represent us and our entities.
“You see, you Southern Baptists have elected 57 trustees to represent you at LifeWay. … They are pastors, educators, directors of missions, homemakers, businessmen, businesswomen and so on. They have a common love for the Lord, the inerrancy of the Word of God and the commitment to you, the Southern Baptist Convention. They ask us the hard questions. They hold us accountable. … Please allow us to be represented by your trustees, some of the greatest men and women I have ever known. How do we decide certain books? How do we decide certain videos? How do we decide what we do? It is your trustees who hold us accountable. Trust the trustees. That’s how we make our decisions.”
We should thank Dr. Rainer for his excellent description of the SBC process.
Having worked within the process for several decades, I learned that most trustees are outstanding Baptist men and women. I’ve encountered a few who did not seem to fit. But they are in the minority.
Most trustees are dedicated to the goals and mission of the entity. Their purpose is to make that entity effective in Kingdom work. Their desire for service is not motivated by prestige or power, but to see souls saved and lives changed. Board members give their valuable time without pay to offer wise counsel.
Blanket accusations against boards or general statements critical of the leadership are counterproductive.
We are free to disagree, but we do not need to be disagreeable.
Remember that the SBC is made up of an eclectic membership representing believers of diverse backgrounds, traditions and methodologies. Our commonality is set by parameters within the Baptist Faith & Message.
Paul gave some thorough instruction to the church in Corinth to guide them through a time of serious division. He concluded his counsel, “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40, NKJ). That’s what Southern Baptists aim to do.