How Does the SBC Work?

Beginning in 1845 in Augusta, Ga., the Southern Baptist Convention began with a laser-focused purpose: missions and education for the expansion of God’s kingdom. Made up of churches freely cooperating under those dual banners, the SBC quickly grew into the largest Protestant body in the United States and one of the largest in the world.

Though the purpose of the SBC is quite simple, its organization is not and can easily cause confusion.

Unlike most Protestant bodies, the SBC is not a denomination run from a central location. The headquarters of the SBC is found in the thousands of churches that freely cooperate together to form the convention, not in Nashville or Richmond or Alpharetta or Louisville. Not only do local churches cooperate to form the SBC, they also cooperate freely to form state conventions and local associations. In the same way churches cooperate freely to form local associations, state conventions, and the SBC, so local associations, state conventions and the SBC freely cooperate among themselves in ministry efforts. All four aspects of Southern Baptist life are fully autonomous to cooperate, or not, as they see fit. Local churches are unique in that they send binding instruction to the three other groups through messengers to each group, not vice versa.

POWERED BY THE PEOPLE

The Southern Baptist Convention is ultimately controlled by messengers (representatives) from local churches. Once annually, local churches elect messengers from within their body and send them to the convention’s annual meeting.

At the annual meeting, messengers debate and vote on SBC financial and organizational matters and public statements. They elect officers, trustees, and committee members. Arguably the most important matters discussed and decided at each SBC annual meeting are the election of the SBC president and of trustees for the 12 convention entities (International Mission Board, North American Mission Board, seminaries, etc.), the Executive Committee, and the auxiliary (Woman’s Missionary Union).

The president appoints the Committee on Committees, which then nominates the Committee on Nominations — which, if approved by messengers, then nominates persons to all vacancies on trustee boards and standing committees.

Elected officers and trustees represent messengers on their respective boards and work to hold the specific entity/committee/auxiliary in trust on behalf of the messengers to the annual meeting. The trustees ensure that the entities of the SBC remain faithful to our confession of faith and to their ministry assignments.

NO STANDING MEMBERSHIP

As a convention of churches, there is no standing membership in the convention because, according to our governing documents, the convention only exists two days each year during the annual meeting. There is, technically, no such thing as a Southern Baptist Convention church, like there is no such thing as a state convention church or a local association church. There are only Baptist churches who cooperate freely together to form the SBC, state conventions, and local associations.

The benefits usually associated with being in cooperation with the SBC (missionary funding, seminary tuition reduction, Guidestone access) are not set by the SBC but by the governing documents, administrations, and trustee boards of each entity. This, again, is where the importance of trustees is found, as they work to make sure the entities work on our behalf rather than their own behalf.

The SBC is indeed a group of like-minded churches, freely cooperating, to make up everything we know of as the Southern Baptist Convention. Without local churches, the SBC, state conventions, and local associations would not exist. The local church is God’s plan for the world, and He has seen fit to bless the work of thousands of those kingdom outposts as they cooperate together for missions and education in the expansion of God’s kingdom.

— Travis S. Kerns (Ph.D., Southern Seminary) is the associational mission strategist for Three Rivers Baptist Association in Taylors, S.C.