A little too much coffee and Roberts' Rules.


1 February 2021

Toward a Southern Baptist theory of fiduciary duty

by Jon

What good is a Baptist trustee?

This summer, Southern Baptists will elect a President. That President will appoint a committee. Then, the committee will appoint another committee. Then, that committee will present slates of trustees for each SBC entity. And at the next annual meeting, messengers will, by and large, approve those trustees.

What are those trustees supposed to do?

Well, everyone agrees they should meet. But what do they do when they meet? Their lawyers will say something like “they should fulfill their fiduciary duty.” If the trustees do something controversial, you'll hear people call for new trustees that “represent the Convention.” Another group might say to "trust the trustees."

But imagine you cleaned house and every trustee promised to “do their duty” and “represent the Convention.” Would things change?

Well, if “cleaning house” ever worked, it wasn't because people promised to live by these phrases.

Until recently, Baptist churches shared a fairly radical congregational polity. Even big Baptist churches -- Spurgeon's Tabernacle, RG Lee's Bellevue, Criswell's First Baptist Dallas -- gave ultimate authority to members. And those members held regular meetings and made important decisions. If you had to sat in monthly church business meetings for years, and approved enough budgets, there was a good chance you shared some similar understandings about Baptist theology and conventions. After all, someone had to explain why you should vote for all this money going to the Cooperative Program. SBC ministries had to make sense to people in the pews. And those people fiercly opposed religious hierarchy, even as they were compelled to reach the world for Christ.

In a time with strong, shared convictions about the Convention's purpose and limits, then an occasional “house cleaning” might do some good. It would have swept away people with concerns that don't reach local churches. Those concerns could be good or bad, but the sweep would tend to bring “new blood,” people fresh from the pragmatic concerns of the pews.

Of course, Baptists are all-too-familiar with entities “captured” by some other concerns. Southern Baptists in the 1960s and 1970s faced a Convention bureaucracy that opposed its churches on key theological matters. But entities can also be captured when they allow secondary goals to become primary goals. "Growth” is good in pursuit of the right purpose. But “growth at any cost” can cause sickness instead of health.

Having trained and worked with Baptist trustees for several years, I now see limits to the “house cleaning” approach. Fewer and fewer Baptist churches practice strong congregational polity. Nearly everywhere, pastors and laymen call “business meetings” and “Roberts Rules” archaic, unenjoyable, or a waste of time. So, laymen and pastors picked out of the crowd no longer have a common understanding of local church polity, or how cooperative program giving relates to Baptist theology.

Too often, we assume a shared foundation that isn't there. We often portray the Cooperative Program as a clever invention or fundraising method. And of course, the Cooperative Program is a fantastic method, but so is the Girl Scout's cookie sale. The Cooperative Program's genius is not just that it raises funds. Its genius is in the way it raises funds while solving needs and problems for particular churches with Baptist beliefs. Few of our trustees arrive understanding those needs, problems, or beliefs. Indeed, laymen are often nominated to “introduce them to the Convention,” or “help them understand how Baptists work.” Some nominees learn they're in a Baptist church only when they're nominated!

A “clean house,” then, might get rid of a board captured by friends of the leader. But it will do no good if they're replaced by trustees who think of their entity like the Red Cross; or Tesla Motors; or the Heritage Foundation. When those trustees are told to “represent the Convention,” they hear “you do you.” If they are the representatives of the Convention, then whatever they decide to do must represent the Convention. With no shared understanding of purpose, they may even get angry at criticism. After all, what right does anyone have to complain about decisions made by the lawful representatives of the Convention? It's all too easy to shoot back, “trust the trustees,” even when as the ship runs out of the channel and onto the shoals.

So if cleaning house doesn't work, what will?

Well, ideally, SBC churches would produce pastors and laymen with a strong, shared sense of polity and purpose. But we cannot assume that work is done in the pews. Our trustees and messengers need some understanding beyond “trust the trustees” and “represent the Convention.” Instead, we should agree that Trustees at every SBC entity have a fiduciary duty to conduct their ministry assignments in a way that builds trust in the Cooperative Program, as the best way to fulfill Jesus’ commands to churches, consistent with Baptist beliefs.

We'll unpack this over the next few weeks.