Please Pass the Transparency | Part One

December 17, 2015

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

It is a difficult task for the average Southern Baptist layperson to obtain much in the way of detailed information concerning SBC entities and organizations. One would expect all such matters to be painstakingly reviewed by boards, journalists and messengers attending annual meetings. If information remained unavailable, one would expect the opportunity to contact the entity in writing and acquire the requested information. However, the fact remains that much of what takes place in the SBC simply happens behind closed doors with less than ideal transparency. We have secret documents, undisclosed salaries, poorly publicized channels of support and relatively unknown hiring practices.[i] There are entirely too many secrets.

This essay does not allege any kind of corruption or malfeasance on the part of our SBC organizations. Rather, it merely establishes that a level of secrecy exists that could, in theory, enable such malfeasance. It appears that our system of checks and balances is insufficient. In some cases the information is being withheld. In other cases the information is available but not widely disseminated. For example, the recent downsizing of our IMB missionary force surprised rank and file Southern Baptists with a cumulative $210 million record of overspending and the peculiar tactic of liquidating real estate rather than balancing each year’s budget. Though not exactly a secret, this practice (which had been going on for many years) had never managed to trickle down our communication channels to the people in our churches who were paying the bills. Unfortunately, various factors contribute to our environment of secrecy: a dependent press, secretive trustee boards, scripted conventions, dismissive communications and even trusting congregations.

1. Our Dependent Press
One expects totalitarian regimes to own and control communications in order to shape public opinion in favor of the ruling party. The Soviet Union infamously underreported the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster two days late after other nations had already uncovered the story. In the Iraq War of 2003, who could forget the comical Iraqi Information Minister and his bombastic propaganda lauding an Iraqi military being systematically dismantled by American forces? Apart from the basic issue of honesty, there is a systemic organizational failure whenever the fourth estate relies for its financial support upon the very organization it covers.

Such is unfortunately the case today at Baptist Press. These are fine people doing great work, but some mechanism should be in place urging them to cover all kinds of stories—the good, the bad and the ugly—without concerns that their probing might bite the hand that feeds them. I can hear the objections already: “Pastor, isn’t there already enough bad news in the world? Why encourage even more of it?”

My goal in promoting the financial and operational independence of Baptist Press is not to foster greater pessimism but simply to uncover the kind of truth that may be underreported in the interest of placating our faithful Southern Baptist donors. Make no mistake—I am glad we are not reading about scandals in Southern Baptist life. I am simply unclear about why this is so. Are we truly this squeaky clean? Or are we not uncovering, by means of investigative journalism, all of the stories and issues that might concern Southern Baptists if we only knew about them? Is Baptist Press a genuine news agency or has it merely become the company newsletter?

If Baptist Press has become the internal public relations arm of the convention, then who is truly functioning as the free press? Clearly, the rise of blogging in the Southern Baptist Convention is the direct result of this journalistic void. Over the past few years, SBC leaders on the platform have attacked bloggers incessantly. One gets the impression that this overreaction stems from the fact that the blogging world is outside of their control. SBC speakers and leaders frequently label as “misinformation” the opinions of bloggers that merely represent a different point of view from the party line. Bloggers have even more limited resources of time and money than do journalists. One cannot help but wonder how many crucial stories in SBC life are not even being reported in the absence of a vigorously free press.

2. Our Secretive Boards
Having served on three trustee boards in two different state conventions, I have developed a certain impression concerning the way such meetings are orchestrated. Generally, there is the provision of a nice meal and a time of fellowship. There is a generous amount of time devoted to prayer. Reports are celebratory. Expressions of appreciation are offered to employees for their outstanding contributions. The decorum is formal, polite and reverent—perhaps even a little boring. Items related to the budget are routine. New business initiatives rarely come from the floor, but are typically recommended by a subcommittee. Few, if any, questions arise among the trustees just beginning to process this new information. The awkward silence, clearly communicating the existence of unformed opinions, is instead interpreted as if it established a unanimous and undivided consent. There being little to no discussion, the matter is moved to a vote and the deed is done. In order to have derailed any part of the scripted meeting, a board member would have had to (a) form an immediate and strong opinion, (b) summon the courage to interrupt the silence and extemporaneously address a fairly large group of people, and (c) risk the social embarrassment that comes from being the oddball trouble maker. Why bother, right? Because life is too short to become the Wiley Drake of your Baptist trustee board, and even if one does speak up, everyone knows that the motion is going to pass anyway. Add to this predetermined process of decision making the fact that some boards even require the trustees to sign non-disclosure agreements regarding salaries and other information, and you have a recipe for secrecy that is practically guaranteed to raise no eyebrows and ruffle no feathers.

 

[i] The most noteworthy secret documents are the records of the Great Commission Task Force, deliberations responsible for charting our current long range plan, which are confidentially sealed in our archives and unavailable for viewing by rank and file Southern Baptists until the year 2025. The undisclosed salaries of two SBC leaders are rumored to be in the $600,000 to $700,000 range when considering all compensation, benefits and expenses—a shocking number unavailable to rank and file Southern Baptists due to the nondisclosure agreements signed by trustees. The poorly publicized channels of support refer to the direct support of missionaries by churches, in a manner circumventing normal CP giving, through two specific avenues that embrace the societal missions approach. The unheralded hiring practices include tapping at least four non-Southern Baptists for high-ranking leadership posts at two different SBC entities. (One was later terminated and offered an outside consulting role—an admittedly creative workaround.) Several other situations exist for which transparency and accountability could be vastly improved.