Can Pepper Hamilton Investigate NAMB?

Dr. Rick Patrick | Senior Pastor
First Baptist Church, Sylacauga, AL

On May 17, Kevin Ezell, President of the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, released a statement entitled How NAMB-State Convention Cooperation Agreements Work. The statement appears to be in response to the allegations made by Will McRaney, former Executive Director of the Mid-Atlantic Baptist Network, who posted several documents related to these controversial agreements on his website.

Just as Baylor University engaged the law firm Pepper Hamilton to conduct their recent blockbuster investigation, NAMB should be subject to similar scrutiny from an outside organization. Contrary to news reports of a petition calling for NAMB to investigate itself, 81 Southern Baptists have signed a Petition Calling For An Independent Investigation of McRaney’s charges. The rationale for such an independent investigation should be obvious. It would be foolish to ask the very Board of Trustees that did not even perceive the existence of a problem to investigate the matter themselves. If the Board wishes to look the other way, ignoring and dismissing the charges, they cannot truly be considered as an impartial review board.

The Principle—Connectionalism vs. Autonomy

Some may view this controversy as nothing more than a routine contract dispute between mission partners. Sometimes work relationships sour and interpersonal conflicts result in personnel changes. Disgruntled former employees occasionally strike back. Such a narrative would be a gross misreading of this situation. In fact, a much larger principle is at stake here—the nature of our Southern Baptist denominational polity and governing philosophy.

Among our Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian and Episopalian friends, it is common for the national or international religious hierarchy to issue edicts and rule over local and regional bodies by means of a federal power granted by their governing system. Popes and Bishops possess an almost limitless authority to call the shots without facing any charges of local or regional interference.

However, among Southern Baptists, this connectionalism runs contrary to our governing philosophy. We have never embraced a connectional, centralized type of authority in which national leaders are permitted to pressure state leaders to accept a federal agenda. In the secular political arena, many Southern Baptists recoil at the folly of nationalized health care or the federal educational guidelines we know as Common Core. Generally, we favor a more decentralized approach, believing the best decisions are made locally by those who are most familiar with each unique situation.

If NAMB is putting one ounce of pressure upon state conventions, if there is even a hint of a “my way or the highway” attitude being displayed, then Southern Baptists need to expose such national overreach and put an end to it. Such an approach is strategically unwise and represents a betrayal of our autonomous Southern Baptist governing philosophy.

The Partnership—Secrecy vs. Transparency

In addition to the threat of a growing connectional polity addressed in the previous section, two matters concerning stewardship and accountability are worthy of investigation:

1. Should the 42 partnership agreements become matters of public record for all Southern Baptists to view? 

I believe the answer to this question is a resounding “yes.” Taxpayers are entitled to know how their money is spent by the government. Investors are entitled to know how their money is spent in a business. Church members are entitled to know how their contributions are used in the support of missions and ministries. The so-called “gag order clauses” in these agreements should be eliminated. As a Southern Baptist contributor through the Cooperative Program and Annie Armstrong, I want our state convention leaders to be unrestrained in offering their opinions (both positive and negative) regarding the terms of these documents. Only by making these agreements a matter of public record can we provide the transparent disclosure of our partnership terms and guard the freedom of all parties to discuss such terms openly and without any fear of recriminations.

2. Which organizations—NAMB, the state conventions, or the churches actually paying the bills—should be entitled to determine whether these records are made public?

One might assume that NAMB wanted the agreements to remain private. However, Ezell’s statement reported that “NAMB’s preference has always been that these documents be available to anyone…” That’s good. If NAMB wants them public, who is opposing NAMB? We might assume that the state conventions wanted these agreements to remain private, but that would only be partially correct. Ezell stated, “…the agreement includes a sentence stating ‘confidentiality’ because that was the stated preference of some of the conventions.” (emphasis mine) While we were not told which state conventions preferred such secrecy, at least Indiana is off the hook, since they gave permission for their partnership agreement to be made public. With all due respect and gratitude for the great state of Indiana, since they are the ones doing exactly what I believe needs to be done, their disclosure begs the question: “Who decided that state conventions have the authority or discretion to make these matters public or to keep them private?”

As a matter of stewardship and accountability, we need to be perfectly clear in identifying the true investors in our SBC money trail. Yes, spiritually speaking, the money belongs to Jesus. But since both NAMB money and state convention money starts out as church money, and since our Baptist polity places the local church at the top of the hierarchy and not at the bottom, then the organizations who truly possess the right to read the fine print are the local churches of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Just as Cuba Gooding, Jr., taught Tom Cruise to shout, “Show me the money!” in the movie Jerry Maguire, the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention must teach both NAMB and our state conventions to shout, “Show me the agreements!” Like a star athlete and his agent, we may be partners, but the church plays the role of the athlete, generating the income and possessing the right to switch agents at any time for any reason. When it comes to the stewardship of missions money, as the Pastor of a Southern Baptist Church, the buck stops at my desk and not at the desk of the State Convention Executive or the President of the North American Mission Board.

The Problem—Allegations vs. Denials

Having explored our need to guard against connectional polity as well as our need for greater financial transparency as we steward our missions giving—a transparency, I might add, that all Southern Baptists are right to take more seriously in light of IMB expenditures $210 million greater than receipts over the past six years—let us move to the most central concern of the controversy at NAMB, namely, the charges by at least two respectable witnesses that President Kevin Ezell threatened to withdraw from the Mid-Atlantic Baptist Network the missions money forwarded by Southern Baptist Churches if certain actions were not taken by the network.

1. The Allegations by Clint Scott and Steve Wolverton

Let me point out that these two witnesses are not simply guys we found on the street. These are Southern Baptist Pastors whose testimonies deserve to be treated as credible enough to warrant further investigation. The first witness, Dr. Clint Scott, is the Pastor of the First Baptist Church of New Castle, Delaware. On May 2, 2016, Dr. Scott posted the following remarks in the comment stream at SBC Today:

“I support Dr. McRaney and believe that a great tragedy has taken place within our SBC community. Dr. McRaney had the total support of the Network and his leadership team shortly before his controversy began with Dr. Ezell. It has been stated to me personally by Dr. Bill Warren that pressure was being placed on the Network by Dr. Ezell through the withholding of financial support needed to honor budgeted items. This controversy was simply over the hiring of staff within the Network and the appointment of church planters within the Network without the consent and blessing of Dr. Ezell… Dr. Ezell and NAMB should be held accountable before this happens to more of our trusted brothers in the fight for the souls of men!”

The second witness, Rev. Steve Wolverton, is the Pastor of the Canton Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland. On May 1, 2016, Rev. Wolverton posted the following remarks in the comment stream at SBC Today:

“Speaking as a pastor in the Mid-Atlantic Baptist Network, I wholeheartedly support Dr. McRaney’s allegations… [Dr. Ezell’s] juvenile threats to terminate funds within a year, and sooner, if Dr. McRaney, or anyone else in the Network, even so much as acted in any way he didn’t deem cooperative, are repugnant… Dr. Bill Warren personally told me that Dr. Ezell had convinced him that as long as Dr. McRaney remained the State Executive the funding was at risk. He then told me that he did not feel he could risk losing the funding and potentially losing staff so he did what he felt he had to do… Even allowing for the most gracious interpretation of events, Dr. McRaney was given an unreasonable two weeks to address a list of invalidated and uncorroborated concerns; he was then terminated in a single board meeting a few days later. There were no legal, ethical, or moral concerns involved.”

2. The Denials by NAMB and MABN

An article by Seth Brown in the Biblical Recorder recently covered this controversy. According to Brown, “Both NAMB and MABN (Mid-Atlantic Baptist Network) deny the claim that Ezell forced McRaney out of his position.” The article goes on to state, “In addition, no convention leaders have publicly substantiated McRaney’s accusations against Ezell.” This second notion, however, is highly debatable, in light of a Christian Examiner article citing Randy Adams, Executive Director of the Northwest Baptist Convention, who said, “To me the accusations are very serious allegations and the specifics of those allegations, I think, require a response. They have basically just dismissed [McRaney’s accusations] without dealing with the particulars of the allegations.”

Conclusion

In handling these allegations against NAMB, Southern Baptists find ourselves facing a true dilemma. We have good, respectable Christian people on both sides of this issue making truth claims that absolutely contradict each other. Either NAMB is pressuring some state convention leaders or they are not. The facts of this case are in dispute, and the North American Mission Board has shown no interest in addressing these allegations.

In the complete absence of an internal investigation, there is no other way to arrive at the facts than to conduct an external investigation. Among the matters requiring examination is the very reticence of the NAMB Trustees to take these allegations seriously. Frankly, since IMB Trustees allowed a pattern of overspending to continue through six budget cycles, one wonders about larger concerns with the way our trustee system currently functions. Specifically, if our trustees are responsible for holding our entity executives accountable, then who is responsible for holding our trustees accountable?

This duty clearly falls upon all Southern Baptists—hence, our grassroots petition calling for an independent investigation. Who can say whether the allegations of Will McRaney, Steve Wolverton and Clint Scott are valid or whether the denials of any wrongdoing by Kevin Ezell and NAMB are legitimate? Presently, it does not trouble me that we do not have all the answers. What really troubles me is that we are not even asking the questions, and we have not enlisted any impartial third party to do so.

These are very serious charges. They deserve to be taken very seriously.

If you wish to join the 81 Southern Baptists who have signed this petition, simply add your name in the comment stream of the Petition Article HERE.