Important moments in organizations are seldom easy. I was a teenager during one such season of the SBC’s existence. I was largely unaware of the events we now refer to as The Conservative Resurgence as they unfolded. Later as I walked the campuses of SEBTS, SBTS, and NOBTS as a student I heard the stories of those difficult days. They were crucial days that shaped us. Even though that season of Southern Baptist life was hard, God was working in spite of it. I was brought to Christ as a teenager and discipled in a Southern Baptist church during that time. I’ve served in SBC churches that experienced turmoil over styles of worship. I’ve served in SBC churches where there was tension and fear because of buzzwords like conservative and liberal being thrown around carelessly. I’ve served in SBC churches that experienced crisis because of failures of the church’s leadership. All were important moments where the future was shaped. All were hard seasons to endure. All were seasons where against the odds, in spite of our mess, God was reaching people.
We are currently witnessing a season of great difficulty unfold for Southern Baptists. It is not an easy season to endure, and it will likely get worse before it gets better. The world outside our SBC bubble has noticed.
It is also a crucial season of growth for Southern Baptists. The branch is being pruned. We must pray that God shepherds us through this valley, teaching us as we go so that when we emerge we will be more fit for the Great Commission work ahead of us. The next five years of SBC life may the most critical ever. We must pray that in the midst of our mess, God will save souls and use us, somehow, to disciple them.
In light of these difficult days, I feel compelled to offer seven confessions and suggestions to my fellow Southern Baptists.
Confession: In 21 years of adult SBC life, I have never attended a national convention. Why? Because most of those years were spent as associate pastoral staff. The common expectation for associate staff is that they stay home and “mind the shop” while “the pastor” goes to handle convention business. Now, as a church plant pastor, I can’t justify the travel expense to get there. As a pastor today, I am struggling to know how I can have a meaningful voice in my convention. I have not been discipled in the ways of SBC polity at all, and real opportunity seems out of reach.
Suggestion: Churches need to prioritize educating young members and ministers on SBC polity and give them real opportunities to participate. Churches with pastors who have attended the convention for years and have staff that never participate are failing in discipleship, and failing to invest in the Great Commission work of Southern Baptists. Our gatherings must become more accessible.
Confession: I’m very tempted not to go, and not to engage in convention polity because it seems like, unless you’re an insider it’s a poor investment of time and money. I’m tempted to believe that while the national convention makes negative headlines, someone needs to be home in the trenches proving with real love and action that Southern Baptists aren’t the cartoon caricatures we appear to be on CNN.
Suggestion: Our conventions need to better showcase and celebrate the Great Commission work that is happening across the world through Southern Baptists. We need to empower teams with tasks ahead of time, free them to act, and celebrate their success when we gather. We will replicate what we celebrate. We will also replicate what we tolerate, and for too long we have tolerated a system that at worst is broken, and at best is out of sync with the mission. I know organizational and committee matters need to be managed, but surely we can do better.
Confession: I cringe when we have “elections” for president of the SBC. The multiple candidates are usually great men who represent different generations and individually valuable persuasions within the convention. Without each of this summer’s candidates, we would be in more trouble than we already are. They’re both good men. Instead of this being a unifying experience, it is dividing. It feels as if we are not spiritually mature enough as a convention to select leaders in this way.
Suggestion: Break the presidency up into a team. Biblical churches have a plurality of elders with different gifts and perspectives. The wisdom of Scripture strengthens the church in this way. The team might feature new individuals every year that represent different generations and ethnicities within our churches. Why can’t the convention nominate and celebrate a plurality of diverse leadership that brings unity?
Confession: My perception is that the resolutions produced by each summer’s gathering, while theologically sound, are ineffective in contributing to our Great Commission work. It feels like a lot of talk to cover a lack of action. I realize that’s not universally true, but it feels that way. No doubt this summer will produce an airtight resolution against the abuse and mistreatment of women. It will be crafted to meet the standards of Robert’s Rules of Order but fail in meeting the standard of connecting with people who have been abused. The world would rather see us act than hear us talk.
Suggestion: If an issue would normally warrant a resolution, form a team that is tasked with a specific set of actions related to the issue. Empower and commission them to work, then publicly report on the results. Let our actions become our resolutions.
Confession: We are deeply committed as a convention to planting churches that follow a biblical pattern of New Testament government. That pattern builds trust and speaks to people’s hearts. We seem deeply committed as a convention to operating according to Robert’s Rules of Order, which is ineffective in building trust with those far from God and speaks to no one’s heart. Consider the following quote from a journalist at an Alabama news outlet (AL.com) who declares that she cares about the future of the SBC since she grew up in an SBC church: “The problem is that America’s largest Protestant denomination conducts itself like any political party or secular institution much of the time, and that makes [caring] really, really hard. And heartbreaking.”
Suggestion: We need to rethink our approach to the convention’s organization. Form a task force from churches that actually accomplish Great Commission work without the bureaucracy and red tape. Jesus said that the world would know we were His disciples by the way we love, not by the procedures by which we vote on things.
Confession: I feel like we can’t figure out how to practice real accountability for the purpose of generating repentance and restoration in our convention.
Suggestion: We need to be honest about the fact that our leaders are real people who do good things and mess up sometimes, too. When leaders get unhealthy, they should be removed for the good of the mission. Celebrate the good behavior, call out the bad, and move on. We can and should remove unhealthy leaders with repentance and restoration in mind. As Christians, we practice love that speaks truth and brings transformation. No leader in the SBC should be immune to church discipline as the Scriptures instruct. The world doesn’t need perfect Christian leaders; they need Christians who model how to transparently deal with their brokenness in healthy ways.
Confession: It is clear that we have a leadership succession problem. It’s true in our churches and our SBC entities on many levels. We talk about discipleship but refuse to raise up and empower leaders to actually have permission to lead. We want church members and young ministers to learn the ways of good sheep, but don’t you think about assuming the role of shepherd until … well, until you’re told you can. The result is people who are called by God and frustrated by man. These are people who want to do what they read the Bible telling them to do, but can’t because the generation of leaders in front of them only pay lip service to discipleship. If this doesn’t change, the SBC is in even bigger trouble than it already is. Its hard to be motivated to give and participate in a system one has no meaningful voice in.
Suggestion: We need term limits for official roles, and teams that hold current leaders more accountable to be discipling and genuinely empowering future leaders. Multiplication of a discipleship culture requires leaders who replicate the best of what Christ is doing inside of them and have a bold vision for sending. We need to create opportunities in churches and convention for pastors in their last years before retirement to use their position and experience to specifically invest in future leaders. Hanging onto position and authority out of fear, pride and financial need should not be tolerated in the church. Honoring and empowering experienced pastors to invest in future generations with confidence and security should be the norm. We can figure out a way to do that.
I believe that we can emerge from this mess a stronger convention that more closely resembles the church Jesus established than a big corporation. I believe that God will be redeeming people through this season in spite of us, and they will benefit from our faithful commitment to the mission. I also believe that we need to be willing to change the vast majority of the way we’ve always done things as a convention if we are to survive. God is great, and His calling is worth giving our lives and sacrificing our pride to. We need leadership that is willing to deny themselves and serve. The world is watching, and they don’t understand our hesitancy to give up systems that don’t work to make a difference. They don’t need the Southern Baptist Convention. They need Jesus, and the Southern Baptist Convention only exists to reach the broken with Jesus’ gospel. May we not fail in this difficult season to grow the way God wants us to, and the world needs us to.