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.

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William Thornton

I agree with you about transparency, Rick, and have concluded that in most cases our trustee system is a collection of weak individuals who would rather eat and fellowship than ask questions and provide oversight.

Baptist Press does well as a publicity arm of the Executive Committee. It’s been decades since they were independent and aggressive as a news organization. I’d guess that your state newspaper is mostly the same, which leaves me to say that if you don’t like what you have, do what you can do fill in the gaps. No one is stopping you or SBC Today from formally asking SBC entities for the salary and benefit range of their CEOs. They may give a figure. They may not. You can report either and if the latter, then you can inform your readership of the nonresponse.

IMB reported most, perhaps all, of the overseas sale proceeds in their publicly available annual report. If you want to know the amount of direct gifts from churches to IMB apart from LM and CP, why don’t you ask them? If you want to know the amounts IMB received as fee-for-service from large churches for their direct church/imb programs, why don’t you ask.

What I’m saying is that I agree with you about openness and transparency. If you are going to complain, fine. I do a fair amount of that. You can do more than that if you aren’t worried about the consequences. Have at it.

    Rick Patrick

    William,
    Thanks for sharing your insights. I have already followed your excellent suggestions by asking our agencies a great many questions about a number of issues. Part Two will address their non-responsiveness and complete this portrait of nontransparency in the SBC.

Norm

Rick: Excellent observations. Thank you.
Baptist Press was not the friend of the Conservative Resurgence. Its leaders claimed objectivity. But as many observed first-hand, as did I, BP’s reportage of meetings, conferences, etc., that I attended left me wondering if the BP reporter I saw at said meeting actually was there. One claim made by for BP leaders Shackleford and Martin is that former Ex Dir Harold Bennett did not interfere nor manage their reportage. I had no way of confirming that claim, however. But I am now recalling that even Dr Bennett had confirmed this.
It is the nature of a bureaucy to protect itself. And if we are honest, even church leaders do this, too. Wheras I am not a proponent of disseminating information unnecessarily, I surely believe that those who subsist on our tithes are accountable to us; all other issues aside, this is an unassailable point. Sad to think we would have to mention that to get the info that belongs to us. One would think that those who know the Truth would tell us the truth, and do so both dutifully and willingly rather than to obfuscate the issues, pat us on the heads and tell us everything is alright. That approach is precisely what the Moderates used in their futile attemps to stave off the resurgence.
Same song. Different verse.

    Lydia

    “Wheras I am not a proponent of disseminating information unnecessarily, I surely believe that those who subsist on our tithes are accountable to us; all other issues aside, this is an unassailable point. Sad to think we would have to mention that to get the info that belongs to us. One would think that those who know the Truth would tell us the truth, and do so both dutifully and willingly rather than to obfuscate the issues, pat us on the heads and tell us everything is alright.”

    Bingo. This is an issue of character and integrity. And they forget they are “employees” and the trustees are not reminding them.. The SBC has become so top-down, I don’t see this changing unless the money dries up.

David R. Brumbelow

Back in the early days of the SBC Conservative Resurgence,
Baptist Press and virtually all the state Baptist Papers were against us.
A shining exception was the Indiana Baptist, and many conservatives, regardless of their location, subscribed to it.

Are there any state Baptist papers today that are doing more than others in being open and more balanced about some of these issues?
If so, who are they?

Also, thanks to SBC Today and Connect316 for your articles and information.

David R. Brumbelow

norm

Precisely, David.
Editor David Simpson, and later the Ledbetters, gave straight-up reportage. In that mix was editor Bob Tenery of the independent Southern Baptist Advocate who picked up part of the mantle. Clearly, that newspaper was the friend of the Resurgence and a proponent of truth. May the SBCToday blog and Connect316 organization be as effective in bringing the needed change that the SBC desperately needs. (Parallels abound!)

    Scott Shaver

    “Editor David Simpson, and later the Ledbetters, gave straight-up reportage.”

    Straight up shills for the CR boys along with their Southern Baptist Advocate friend Tenery. Another “newspaper” editor in this class was Al Mohler.

    “Proponent of truth” in this case is like saying MAD MAGAZINE was a scholarly treatise on adolescent psychology.

norm

On a lighter note, yet accurate, I believe the transparency has been passed.

    Scott Shaver

    Indeed Norm.

    “Passed” like a bad meal.

Joe Blackmon

Rick

Why would folks like Moore, Platt, and Stetzer need to be transparent? There is no way for regular folks who sacrifice to enable them to live very comfortably to hold them accountable.

    Donald

    Joe, it is always necessary to have real leadership if there is to be real change. Right now, I don’t know of any “leaders” who are seeking real transparency. Many attempts at a CR failed until the right leadership came together with purpose.

Lydia

“Joe, it is always necessary to have real leadership if there is to be real change. Right now, I don’t know of any “leaders” who are seeking real transparency. Many attempts at a CR failed until the right leadership came together with purpose.”

I always thought they worked for the SBC laity who pay the bills. They were to be “servants” as the SBC was led from the bottom up. The problem starts when they view themselves as leaders of those who pay their huge salaries. I realize few think that way anymore whether at church or in government.

    Donald

    Lydia,
    I’m not talking about positions and self-opinion, but real leaders.

      Lydia

      “I’m not talking about positions and self-opinion, but real leaders.”

      Jesus was a “real” leader and look at his modeling behavior which was serving others. Not real glamorous. The whole “leadership” shitck is a business. All adults with the basic mental capacity should be able to “lead” themselves. Perhaps we should start teaching that. We put way too much power and trust in the hands of a few. You will spend your life looking for a real leader that remains a real leader when they attain power and position.

Ruth Cook

We can discuss and pray, but the message the folks controlling this system will listen to is withholding money. The people in the pew need some way to monitor procedures and waste; property must not be sold under the table and the proceeds spent off the books. If this is happened, it is obvious we are ALL accountable to have something done about it. ~I am also not happy about the one dollar give-away of Glorieta and the possible sale of historic Baptist buildings in Nashville. This is TOO MUCH-and for the higher ups to say “just trust the trustee system” and “don’t worry….” WELL, we tried that!!

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