4. Restoring Trust in our Trustee System

May 2, 2016

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

For quite some time now in Southern Baptist life, when controversial decisions have been made within our entities, I have heard our leaders repeat the mantra, “Trust the trustees!” But is it truly a prudent exercise of stewardship to bestow upon our trustee boards this kind of unlimited trust? Is it not possible that situations might arise in which we should not blindly trust the trustees, but rather investigate our processes for trustee selection and training and participation to make sure our leadership groups are functioning appropriately?

Within the past year, many Southern Baptists were stunned to learn that the trustees who serve on our International Mission Board have, over the past six years, expended $210 million in excess of receipts, liquidating real assets and draining reserves in order to cover the shortfall. That kind of deficit spending on operations would not be tolerated within our churches for more than one or two budget cycles. By waiting six long years to address the problem directly, we severely limited our range of solutions, and failed to apprise the people in the pews of the severity of the crisis until it was too late and we had to bring a fifth of our missionaries home—long before many had truly run their race.

Exactly what kind of oversight did these trustees provide in the decision to downsize our missionary force by over a thousand people? Did trustees help to create the plan? No, the plan was created by a handful of executive staff members at the IMB—one of whom was not even a Southern Baptist prior to his hiring. Did trustees formally vote to adopt the plan? No, they asked a few questions, and gave their tacit consent by their silence, but they never even voted on the matter, since their internal rules required no such vote.

What in tarnation is going on when a handful of leaders—each possessing roughly a year of experience with the IMB—can recall one-fifth of a missionary force supported by sixteen million Southern Baptists without ever subjecting their plan to a formal vote by the very Trustees who are supposed to be overseeing their operations? How does such a thing even happen?

Our trustee problem extends far beyond the IMB. A few years ago, ERLC President Russell Moore hired five new leaders in one day. While only two were Southern Baptists, all five were members of The Gospel Coalition—a group with ties to Moore. Why was there no trustee to ask the question, “Shouldn’t we be selecting Southern Baptists to lead the ERLC of the Southern Baptist Convention? I mean, we’re not the ERLC of the Gospel Coalition!” The trustees at NAMB need to take a good hard look at those partnership agreements with the state conventions and make sure NAMB is not overstepping its authority and harming relationships by nationalizing all church planting operations.

Increasingly, as I talk with Pastors and other interested convention watchers familiar with our decision making processes, they express concerns with a trustee process that is out of control and not functioning properly. Here is a list of just a few of the major concerns:

CANDIDATES—Too many of our trustees come from the large, wealthy megachurches and do not adequately reflect the typical SBC worldview.

ELECTIONS—Messengers do not really know the people nominated and thus, for the most part, simply adopt the slate presented.

NOMINATIONS—The possibility exists that some well-connected people behind the scenes are influencing the nomination process by feeding specific names to the nominators. We should explore ways to open this process up for everyone to participate more freely, leveling the playing field for those who are not part of such “behind-the-scenes” networks.

TRAINING—Although each board trains its own trustees, there should instead be a general training of all trustees sponsored by the SBC at large. This training should explain that their loyalty is not primarily to the institution, but to the messengers of the SBC who have entrusted them with this trusteeship. We must emphasize that, for all practical purposes, the only accountability for these entities is that which is provided by the trustees. If they do not ask the hard-nosed, uncomfortable and sometimes socially awkward questions, then no one will ask them at all. While the relationship between trustees and entity leaders need never become adversarial, neither should trustees be in the back pocket of executives.

HOSPITALITY—Some kind of cap needs to be placed on the hospitality budgets for trustee meetings in order to disabuse trustees of any sense of obligation toward entity leaders for providing them with luxurious dining and accommodations. Once an entity leader has provided all trustees with such gracious hospitality, the notion of objecting to that leader’s plans or strategies can almost be viewed as tantamount to ingratitude.

AGENDAS—Skillful leaders can manage their meetings in such a way that reports, prayers and expressions of appreciation practically crowd out any meaningful discussion of problems or concerns to be addressed. Some say these decisions have devolved into nothing more than “rubber stamps.”

In short, my concern is not that the Trustees have too much power, but rather that they have too little—or at least they are not exercising the authority they have been given to hold our entity leaders accountable. In our system of polity, if the Trustees do not provide checks and balances for our entity leaders, then no one will. And if they view their role as prayerfully supporting and protecting their leader and host, shielding them from criticism and signing confidentiality agreements to avoid sharing important information with SBC messengers, then the system has been turned upside down and simply will not work.

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 “Investigate the Southern Baptist trustee board selection process.” With 186 respondents, 79.03% approved of such an investigation. Let me be quick to say that my primary concern is not with the fine people who serve on such boards, but rather with the processes by which we select, train and involve them in our work. Since our trustee system is the only source of true accountability we have at our disposal, why not form a team of Southern Baptists who can explore and recommend various measures to protect us from the systemic problems addressed above?

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This article addresses Item Four 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: