From 2000 to 2016, I have attended every single Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting—seventeen in a row! My impression is that the opportunity for genuine messenger involvement in such meetings is virtually nonexistent. Yes, the business of the convention appears to be open for discussion and participation, but this is really nothing more than a ruse. Virtually every initiative desired by leaders is scheduled and passed by the messengers. Virtually every initiative desired only by messengers is declined, referred, ruled out of order or defeated. This is rigged reality TV.
A Very Tight Schedule
The primary means of controlling outcomes is found within the convention schedule itself. Much of the time is devoted to music, preaching, reports, recognitions and other items in which the role of the messenger is simply to sit and listen. Given the plethora of conferences available for preaching and worship, one wonders why, if we are only going to set aside two days for a business meeting, we cannot manage more than about ninety minutes or so for motions and resolutions in which messengers have a slim chance to be recognized at a microphone in order to offer feedback to our leadership.
Sometimes, following a report, there is time for questions and answers, but here is how that always plays itself out. Once the first question is asked, the leader on the platform begins talking in response. By means of eloquence and skillful transitional sentences, the speaker may use all the remaining time in his reply. Occasionally, a second or third question may be asked. More than once, the question is so easy and clearly supportive of the speaker’s agenda that I have wondered if it was planted. When the speaker is finished answering, someone steps forward and says, “Time has expired. Thank you for your report.” And the beat goes on.
The Annual Meeting is a tightly orchestrated drama that pretends to have a certain spontaneity, but with the exception of candidate elections, almost everything else has been predetermined. The chair can rule motions out of order and various committees can refer or decline proposals. Rarely does the body manage to overturn such a ruling and bring such a matter before the convention, and even when they do, the trustee boards affected often continue their previous policy anyway. As a messenger, one is simply not empowered to have one’s ideas taken seriously or to be given a fair hearing.
Communication experts talk about meta-communication and the fact that most of one’s message is actually imparted visually. I have seen the following situation play itself out more times than I can count. In this theater of the convention, imagine a lowly peasant at microphone number seven, dressed in nice but casual clothes, lurking in poor lighting, whose shadowy image is magnified on the full screen for all to see. Like Oliver asking for more porridge, he dares to ask for the permission to speak.
Once granted, he must first introduce himself, in contrast to the glowing introductions received by those on the platform wearing their finest clothes and standing under the brightest lights, often coming to their microphones to the sound of the crowd’s grateful applause. At the floor microphone level, there is an annoying sound system delay creating a measure of mental confusion causing the speaker to pause and interrupt their cadence. This results in the stilted and slow speech pattern of a Southern Baptist at their first Catholic Communion service.
Regardless of the merits of one’s ideas, very few communicators can pull off a great speech from the floor of the Southern Baptist Convention under such conditions. The home court advantage is definitely with those under the bright lights with the image magnification making them larger than life and the superior sound system thundering their voices as they recite their rehearsed and polished responses regardless of the specific question that might be asked.
Those on the platform skillfully dodge questions by raising and answering similar questions they anticipated. Like politicians, their scripted words are so eloquent most people ignore the fact that they may not even answer the specific question. Soon, tweets of “boom” and “mic drop” are sent into cyberspace and the humble messenger simply wanting to raise a concern appears to have been a fool for daring to question the all powerful, all knowing leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention.
One cannot help but wonder if the Moderator knows which messengers are at which microphones and chooses only to recognize those voices from whom he wishes to hear. My understanding is that, in some cases, those coming to microphones this year not only reported their names and their church, but also what they intended to say. Is this a pre-screening of debate? With fourteen microphones from which to choose and a fifteen minute window for most items of business, it would be a relatively easy matter to manipulate the system in order to achieve the desired outcome.
It is worth mentioning that these scripted speeches may not simply be coming from the platform. This year, it is possible that the most memorable speech from the floor by a messenger was actually ghostwritten by one of the leaders on the platform at the time the speech was given. This cannot be proven, for it would simply be denied by both men, but if it is true, imagine how rewarding it must have been for that leader to hear his own words flowing from the mouth of a fellow Southern Baptist, almost like a puppet master pulling the strings on a marionette. I have long suspected that these meetings were scripted, but I had no idea this might so literally be the case.
Even if the rumor going around is untrue, a possibility I freely admit, we can at least imagine the possibility of ghostwritten speeches from the floor. Without saying it happened (since it cannot be proven) we can definitively say that it could happen. It is perfectly within the rules for one person to write someone else’s speech. There is no system in place to prevent a leader from handing his words to someone else, just as there is no system in place to prevent the planting of specific questions following a report. What if parts of the SBC Annual Meeting are quite literally being scripted? What if this extends not only to the words spoken from the platform, but also to the words spoken from the floor as well? If so, the existence of meaningful messenger participation can legitimately be questioned.
If you are a platform speaker at the SBC Annual Meeting, you can influence the work and future of the convention. However, if you are merely a messenger at the SBC Annual Meeting, matters are structured so that you have relatively little influence in driving the agenda or in making decisions. Measures need to be taken to restore the meaningful participation of messengers. We can hear sermons and reports in a variety of other meetings and conferences held all throughout the year. We only meet for business for two days. If we truly believe in congregational polity, maybe we should do a little more listening to the messengers. Maybe we should empower them to impact the direction of the convention to a much greater degree.
Transparency Agenda Survey Results
In a recent poll of SBC Today readers, we asked Southern Baptists to indicate if they “approved” or “disapproved” of the idea that we “Make the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting meaningful.” With 247 respondents, 82.19% approved of such an action, while 17.81% disapproved.
This article addresses Item Seven of the Ten Item Transparency Agenda. You may READ the Transparency Agenda or COMPLETE the survey yourself. To read the articles reporting results from the other survey items, see the links below: