Going into the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) annual meeting, one of the biggest questions was how much the messengers assembled would trust the SBC Executive Committee.
If this morning’s business in Nashville was any indication, the messengers have answered, “Not much.”
On June 11, just four days before the start of the annual meeting, the Executive Committee announced that it was hiring an outside firm to investigate its handling of sexual-abuse allegations within the denomination. After weeks of hearsay back-and-forth and the release of recorded conversations, an independent investigation is the right move. The question is whether the convention believes that the Executive Committee–initiated investigation is sufficient or if a more-independent investigation is needed.
The Executive Committee exists to handle the affairs of the denomination between annual meetings. The SBC is ultimately run by the messengers assembled at the annual meeting. No hierarchical structure exists beyond the local church. The Executive Committee is beholden to the messengers, and all of its recommendations must be approved by full convention votes.
The Executive Committee, aware of that procedure, ordinarily only brings recommendations to the floor that it knows will pass. It brought nine recommendations to the floor this year. The first sign that something was up was on Recommendation 4. That recommendation included a revision of the Executive Committee’s mission statement that read, in part, “The SBC Executive Committee seeks to empower churches to prioritize, elevate, and accelerate the vision of reaching every person for Jesus Christ.” A messenger, Spence Shelton from Mercy Church in Charlotte, introduced an amendment to change the wording of that part of the proposed mission statement to say, “The SBC Executive Committee seeks to serve churches as they prioritize, elevate, and accelerate the vision of reaching every person for Jesus Christ.”
This may seem like word games, but the messengers took it very seriously. Shelton argued, “We are a bottom-up, not a top-down convention of churches. . . . The churches empower the Executive Committee to serve us, they do not empower local churches to do that mission.” Shelton was greeted with applause. The amendment was adopted without objection before the recommendation passed.
That was a slap on the wrist. The response to Recommendation 7 was a full rebuke. That recommendation included proposals to increase the Executive Committee’s oversight of the finances of SBC entities. The entities are given significant independence within SBC governance, and entity has its own board of trustees to oversee its operations.
Brian Sandifer, a messenger from Indian Head, Md., spoke first against the recommendation. He pointed to a provision of the recommendation that would give the Executive Committee power to escrow funds for an entity if the entity does not comply with the Executive Committee’s procedure. Sandifer argued that provision ultimately would transfer the “power of the purse” from the entity trustees to the Executive Committee. Vance Pitman, a messenger from Las Vegas, added that an organization subject to an investigation into mishandling sex abuse should not be given more power: “With so many questions that are unanswered right now, I think it seems obvious to me that it’s not the right time to allow expanded powers of the Executive Committee and allowing them the privilege to escrow funds.” Both Sandifer and Pitman were greeted with loud applause by the convention.
The SBC’s six seminaries are each entities. Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, spoke on behalf of all six seminary presidents against the recommendation. He was greeted with the loudest applause yet. When it came time to vote and the chair asked for the votes in favor, there were audible laughs in the convention hall as hardly anyone raised their ballots in support of Recommendation 7.
The vote on Recommendation 8 was too close to be called from the chair. Messengers cast paper ballots, and the results will be announced at a later time. Having to resort to paper ballots on an Executive Committee recommendation would have been notable on its own had it not been overshadowed by the nearly unanimous rejection of Recommendation 7.
Messengers’ trust in the Executive Committee seems to be low. Pastor Grant Gaines introduced a motion that specified a very wide-ranging sexual-abuse investigation to be overseen by a task force appointed by the SBC president, which is constitutionally separate from the Executive Committee. Whether that motion will be approved by the convention is yet to be seen, but if the low trust in the Executive Committee that was demonstrated this morning is any indicator, the motion has a good shot.