Tuesday, May 13, 2008

On the Virtues of Closed Doors

It's not every day that I quote Amy Grant favorably (please direct your hate mail to...), but one interview she gave contained a real nugget of wisdom, IMHO. Asked about criticism she had received for something she had done (I think it had to do with her crossover project that she released with Peter Cetera), Grant offered a viewpoint of criticism that struck a good balance, I thought, between the foolish refusal to listen to criticism (which can often help us to grow) on the one hand, and the foolish practice of listening to all criticism immediately (which will paralyze us, robbing us of productivity).

It was Grant's analogy that I thought was truly profound. She compared her entertainment career to the painting of a great work of art. An artist, Grant said, can't set up the easel, squeeze out the paints onto the palette, pull out a brush, paint a single stroke, and then step back and ask the world, "What do you think?" before painting stroke two and repeating the request for criticism. No, Grant observed, sometimes you just have to dive into the canvas and paint. Then, later, when the painting is done, that's the time to request and evaluate criticism of the finished project. The painting of the masterpiece rightly takes place behind closed doors, and then its exhibition and evaluation come publicly when it is finished and ready for showing.

There's a good reason for this—every painting is a mess at some point in the process. I love to watch the PBS show "The Joy of Painting" with the late Bob Ross. He was a bit quirky and odd, but I think his show is entertaining. In a mere thirty minutes (minus network time), Ross paints an oil painting from scratch. There's always a point about ten minutes into the show where I find myself staring at the screen and saying out loud to nobody in particular, "Well, he's messed up! He didn't mean to pull that paint all the way over there. That's not going to look good at all."

Of course, when the end of the show comes, the painting always looks precisely as it should. That's why Bill Clinton would make a horrible painter—you can't build masterpieces with daily opinion polling.

Recently I began to work to build support for the Resolution on Regenerate Church Membership. RCM is a principle that matters a great deal to me. Although I am not the author of the resolution's wording, I am thankful to be able to do my part in carrying it forward. Malcolm Yarnell wrote the original draft of this resolution. When he did, he approached several people and asked them to suggest revisions or indicate whether they could support the resolution. This all took place in 2007, quite some time ago. As I began my efforts to bring the resolution forward this year, my first task was to contact all of the people who had already seen and tentatively affirmed the resolution in order to learn whether they were still in support of the resolution and willing to lend their support as the process went forward.

It is a selective culling of this conversation, carefully trimmed to put forward a false impression, that Wade Burleson released in a recent post. Later, Nathan Finn published a post declaring that there are no more secrets in Southern Baptist life.

I am posting today to say that, if there are no more secrets in Southern Baptist life (presuming that the email exchange I initiated qualifies as a "secret"), then we will be much the worse for it. There's a reason why authors don't publish their first drafts. There's a reason why you pastors out there work on your sermons in the privacy of your study before you proclaim them from the pulpit. There's a reason why Christ's own commanded procedure for the most serious bit of business a church might consider—the exclusion of a member by church discipline—is a process that begins very secretively before it becomes a public spectacle down the line.

The reason for all of these things is quite simply that ideas need to mature, facts need to be checked, proposals need to be vetted, and negotiation needs to take place, in the vast majority of cases, before the whole world gets caught up into some public show about something. I'm a big proponent of congregationalism, but the very worst form of congregationalism takes place when somebody stands up in a public meeting and throws upon the floor some question that neither the congregation, the moderator, nor he himself has ever really pondered before. These moments typify the phrase "the pooling of our ignorance." No, I'll take every time the person who has given careful thought to what he wants to do, has sought the advice of others, and has brought to the congregation a thoroughly considered and well-worded motion for the body's perusal.

Secrecy in the wrong places most certainly can be a problem. Other than exceptional cases, the convention and her entities ought not to be able to act in secrecy and ought not to be able to cover up past actions. Here's a brilliant idea: We ought to arrange to have a free and open meeting where all of our decisions are made in full view of the public with all of our churches having an opportunity to participate. People ought to be free to work privately before that meeting to decide what is the best thing to propose, the best way to explain a proposal, or the best person to advocate for one thing or another. But when the hour arrives and the time comes for Southern Baptists to make their final decisions, those decisions ought to take place in an atmosphere of open discussion and free debate. Now THAT would be a system that would combine the strengths of private preparation with the strengths of open discussion and decision-making. We ought to put together a system like that.

Oh wait a minute…that's the system we ALREADY HAVE.

Or at least it is the system we ought to already have. I'm troubled by rumors I heard in this discussion that, unlike at SWBTS, at some of our entities the salaries of entity heads may be a closely guarded secret kept even from trustees. Our public decision-making process and our past actions (such as the setting of salaries) ought to be made in openness and kept freely available to Southern Baptists, while we preserve the freedom of individual Southern Baptists to seek counsel, negotiate with one another, and develop proposals in whatever level of privacy they desire and wish to attempt to have.

As a final note on this topic, allow me to say that the most curious and comical aspect of this entire latest melodrama in Southern Baptist life is the fact that the three principals involved—Tom Ascol, Malcolm Yarnell, and myself—have gotten along so swimmingly well throughout it all. Others suggest that we would have a combined resolution rather than two resolutions if everything had played out on a blog from day one. From my perspective, I say au contraire, the very best and most productive collaborations we ever had have been the ones that have taken place with the greatest level of privacy (secrecy, if you wish). The more people who have been involved, and the more melodrama injected into the process by others, the more elusive has been the challenge of coming to a single unity of thought. In my opinion, Wade and Nathan's advice is precisely the way NOT to get anything productive done in the SBC (OK, Nathan's post wasn't precisely in the way of advice).

I think that I speak for both Malcolm and Tom when I say that both of these resolutions are good resolutions, and that we three are cordially and fraternally committed to seeing something good and productive on the topic of Regenerate Church Membership passed at this year's Annual Meeting. Were there nobody else in the Southern Baptist Convention, the three of us would already have something put together. Of course, if we were the only three people in the SBC, there would be neither any need for such a resolution nor any interest from the world in what we wished to say!

So here's the deal: I have in the past and will in the future continue to work "behind the scenes" any time I have anything that I wish to accomplish in the SBC. If you ever hear me offer a resolution, you can be absolutely certain that I had someone else look at it to see whether there was anything stupid in it before I stand up in front of the Jumbotron and start trying to read it through the five-second delay. I may have had fifty people look at it. I may have had five hundred people look at it. To do otherwise is just foolish, as is the expectation that I would have to CC: the sixteen million Southern Baptists on every email I send out in order not to be secretive.

After all, we don't even know where all of those people are.


Nathan Finn said...

Finn was definitely not giving advice. He was merely making an observation and attempting some application. The point was to remind all of us, myself included, that we need to watch ourselves; even when the secrets don't get out, there is One who is always listening. I for sure do not think that there is no place for secrets, privacy, or what-not in the SBC. I just think that such things are more complicated in the 21st century SBC, sometimes for better, often for worse.


Bart Barber said...


That's good to know. I guess I can keep you on my super-secret collaborators email list.


No, really, I understand what you were saying and I saw that you even rose up in my defense in your comment stream. I do appreciate it, and I'm not attempting to throw stones your direction.

I am, however, saying something that you didn't say in your post and that I'm not 100% sure you agree with: Private collaboration is an important and indispensable part of Southern Baptist, nay, human life.

volfan007 said...

I secretly ran this comment by three secret friends before i posted it. Sometimes, you just have to be able to speak your mind with people you trust and love before putting it out there before the public.

David :)

ps. It's thundering and lightening here in TN tonite.

Ron P. said...


One of the problems with conspiracy theorists, they see conspiracies even where none exist. Maybe they can take off their tinfoil hats now. :)

Ron P.

Malcolm Yarnell said...

Bart, a secret email explaining that you were going to expose our secret activities to the whole world would have been nice. I am going to have to hold it against you, now, but so secretly that neither you nor I will know about it.

Better yet, let us tell the Secret (mysterion) that has been revealed from eternity to every person on this planet before it is too late.

Secretly yours,

David Rogers said...

"So here's the deal: I have in the past and will in the future continue to work "behind the scenes" any time I have anything that I wish to accomplish in the SBC. If you ever hear me offer a resolution, you can be absolutely certain that I had someone else look at it to see whether there was anything stupid in it before I stand up in front of the Jumbotron and start trying to read it through the five-second delay. I may have had fifty people look at it. I may have had five hundred people look at it. To do otherwise is just foolish, as is the expectation that I would have to CC: the sixteen million Southern Baptists on every email I send out in order not to be secretive."

It may have thrown things in a little different light had you said this right before you posted this.

At least now you know what it's like. :-)

Big Daddy Weave said...

Ah secrets.

You know Bart,

It's about to hit the fan at your alma mater. And I mean HIT the fan. At the moment, there are too few secrets.

It's blowing up faster than you can say Robert Sloan.

Debbie Kaufman said...

Or before you posted this.


selahV said...

Bart: I bet you throw a really great surprise party! selahV

Bart Barber said...

A conjectured conversation...

Bart: "There's nothing wrong with having secrets, indeed, often they are beneficial or even necessary."

David and Debbie: "Ah, but you've contributed to the unearthing of other people's secrets! Isn't that a bit hypocritical?"

Bart: "Just as there's nothing wrong with having secrets, there's nothing wrong with trying to figure out somebody else's secrets, so long as you don't do anything unethical in trying to unearth other people's private stuff."

David and Debbie: "But how can you defend the 'right' of people to work privately while simultaneously defending the right to try to figure those secrets out? Aren't you contradicting yourself?"

And here's my reply:

The initial assertion against which I am arguing is the idea that a secret in Southern Baptist life is wrongful BECAUSE it is secret. I think this is a half-baked philosophy, and I have written to argue (as I said earlier to Nathan Finn) that "Private collaboration is an important and indispensable part of Southern Baptist life." Although it was not the point of the post, I will gladly further stipulate that the revelation of secrets is an important and indispensable part of Southern Baptist life.

A secret might be ABOUT something wrong, but that doesn't mean that having a secret is wrong. Indeed, on some occasions it is wrong to divulge a secret while on others it is wrong to keep it. The concept of secrecy is, in and of itself, neither right nor wrong.

In your case, David, my post didn't reveal any secrets; it commented on the news. The Florida Baptist Witness was reporting the contents of a document that you sent them asking them to report on it. They didn't allege that it was wrong for you to have sought private advice; they suggested that it revealed something about your candidacy to learn TO WHOM you had turned for private advice. I don't see that they were arguing against private collaboration in the convention.

Debbie, in the case of Les's candidacy, go back and look at the post and comments. I was the one arguing over and over that there was NOTHING WRONG with Les's private work to build a coalition around his now-known-to-the-world SBC presidential bid. That's a great specific example of the principle I'm laying out here today. I'm not going to be voting for Les, but it won't be because I find anything improper about his private collaboration to launch a candidacy.

Bart Barber said...

Big Daddy,

I've been following things in Jerusalem on the Brazos a little bit. Baylor is hard at work trying to decide who it is. Strife is to be expected at such times.

David Rogers said...


I am not saying that you yourself did this. I cannot remember exactly who said what and where. And it is not a big enough issue for me now to go back and scour through old blogs to know for sure. But, in the article on the FBW itself, and, if I remember correctly, several comments on the blogosphere, a great deal was made about the exact number of edits (total words and even punctuation), insinuating a lack of ethics on my part for having consulted someone else's opinions, and included some of their suggestions in what I turned in. Frankly, that hurt me a bit when I read that. But reading what you wrote here helped me in a strange sort of way to think that maybe my sense of right and wrong is not quite as twisted as some might want to make it out to be.

Bart Barber said...


I'm glad to have helped. Editors are our friends. I've yet to encounter the writer who couldn't be benefited by one.

I think the impact of the FBW article last year was simply this: People already knew that Ben was engaged in a campaign of sorts, not for an office, but to accomplish certain goals. The knowledge that he was working for your campaign for office led people to believe that your campaign was a part of his. People then lined up, I think, not based upon whether they thought that it was appropriate for you to have sought help, but based upon whether they were in agreement with Ben and with you.

R. L. Vaughn said...

Thanks for the thoughts. BTW, I really believe your and Nathan's posts are quite complimentary. You have pointed out that secrecy or privacy is not inherently wrong. We readily understand this in certain areas (e.g. agencies don't release names of underage victims). Sometimes secrecy is actually wrong, but in other cases folks want to make it look wrong. But Nathan's warning is apt; with the existing technology of our world, little remains or will remain secret. We must approach all things with due diligence and care.

Kind of related, but perhaps more on the subject of transparency and exposure on the blogs; the following comment rings true. "I have observed that some people find it easier to say on the internet what they would usually not dare say to a person face to face: The tongue when aided by the fingers is a deadly weapon; it can destroy reputations, split churches and kill the Lord’s work faster than anything else." (D. Paul Tuck, Sr., a Baptist pastor in Canada)

Nathan Finn said...

Robert Vaughn gets it, a common occurrence. When will he become Southern Baptist???

Bart, I agree with you about private collaboration. As I said in my opening comment, "I for sure do not think that there is no place for secrets," which is the same thing as saying I believe there is a place for secrets.

I know bunches of secrets, but unfortunately, they are not the juicy kind. Shucks.


Luke said...

Good thoughts here on this post.(Liked your sermon as well)

I was taught growing up that a secret once shared with more than yourself is no longer a secret. After that, it is simply a matter of containment.

Bart Barber said...


Give me a call sometime and I'll give you some juicy ones, even if I have to make them up.

Dave Miller said...

I, as usual, see the wisdom in what you have posted.

However, I would make a couple of distinctions. There seems to me to be a distinct difference between privacy and secrecy.

Privacy is you and me engaging in conversation with each other to come up with some kind of agreement on an issue or a recommended course of action.

Secrecy would be us working to hide what we are doing from everyone else until we spring it on them at some time of our choosing.

You and Dr. Yarnell and others were engaging in private communication. Since you publicly published your resolution for open discussion prior to the convention, no one can reasonably accuse you of secrecy.

One more thing. You are not an elected leader. If you, Dr Yarnell and whoever else were trustees of a board meeting secretly to organize something, that might be questionable.

My points:

1) There is a distinct difference between privacy and secrecy. I think your detractors might have been implying you were engaging in secrecy, conspiracy.

2) There is a huge difference between private citizens doing something and public (denominational) servants doing the same thing.

I think the public nature of blogs has made us think that anything we do needs to be done publicly on the blogs, or it is some sort of conspiracy.

Bart Barber said...

R. L.,

I agree that Nathan's post and mine are not contradictory. Nathan is a good guy, and I was more publishing my out-loud thoughts at his post than I was refuting him. Except that Nathan refrained from saying whether the death of secrets is a good or a bad thing, and I've ventured an opinion.

Bart Barber said...


Thanks so much, brother.

Jonathon said...

Dr. Barber,

I believe it is absolutely necessary to discuss things with others before putting into public domain. It is wise to seek godly counsel, spend time in prayer, and dig through the Scriptures to make sure you aren't saying something you shouldn't.

Since I don't know the context of the "secrets" of which you all talk about, I will refrain from saying anyone that disagrees is nuts.

I can say this....I know a secret....I think it is a secret...well, it hasn't been made public yet that I can see on the internet. I have checked!

I know a certain nominee for 1st VP that will be nominated this year.

I believe you talked to my wife the other day when you gave a call to his church.

All this secret stuff....it's like being in the CIA instead of the SBC! I pray God is pleased with us

CB Scott said...

David Rogers,

We all better hope some things remain secrets.