Thursday, May 17, 2012

I've Thought About Making This Motion

I don't know that I will, but I've contemplated making the following motion at our annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention:

I move that the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention direct the Executive Committee to acknowledge that the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention can direct the Executive Committee.

Here's my rationale:

  1. I wanted to phrase the motion in a manner not connected with any other controversial topic. The question of the Executive Committee's autonomy or lack thereof arose informally during the Great Commission Resurgence conversation a few years ago. At that moment, it was probably not possible for most Southern Baptists to disconnect any discussion of our polity at this point from whether they supported or opposed the GCR. The motion I've crafted, coming at this particular time, would not wind up being connected with any controversial topic in the SBC, I don't think. The motion is entirely self-referential.

  2. It's a disputed question that ought to be answered. When those GCR discussions were ongoing, I spoke with leading experts in Southern Baptist polity who either came down on different sides of this question or confessed that they weren't certain of the correct answer. It seems to me that this is a serious organizational question for our convention and that it ought to be settled outside of the heat of any particular battle. The relationship between the convention and its Executive Committee is a matter with significant implications

  3. The Executive Committee is different from the entities affiliated with the SBC. We know that the convention messengers cannot direct the IMB, NAMB, Guidestone, Lifeway, the ERLC, or any of our six seminaries. The messengers select trustees to govern these agencies, but it then cannot send directions to those trustees. This barrier between the SBC and entities probably eventually gets around to frustrating everyone at one time or another, but it exists with good reason.

    It exists for good historical reasons. Consider the case of Southern Seminary. The SBC explicitly wanted nothing to do with starting a seminary. Four private individual Southern Baptists launched Southern, together with some grassroots support. The institutional SBC established a formal relationship with Southern only later. The same is true for Southwestern Seminary. These institutions came into being independently of convention action, and one could imagine hypothetical scenarios in which one or all or our entities could outlast the convention. Separate governance enables these institutions, in dire circumstances (the SBC dissolves?), to exist on their own. We can contemplate that they might do so because the missions of these individual entities can be distinguished from the mission of the convention as a whole.

    It exists for good legal reasons. The legal liability of Lifeway, for example, cannot legally be imputed to the International Mission Board. If a person were successful at securing an enormous plaintiff's judgment against Lifeway, the entire work of the convention could not be sunk thereby. This is an important factor to consider in our increasingly hostile environment.

    And yet, although these are good reasons why the convention should not be able to direct our entities, there are good reasons why our relationship with the Executive Committee should be different.

    1. Unlike the entities, the purpose of the Executive Committee cannot be distinguished from the purpose of the convention. If the SBC were to pass out of existence, there would be no purpose for the Executive Committee to exist.

    2. Unlike the entities, the Executive Committee is empowered to act in the convention's place. The Executive Committee can, in an amazing variety of ways, act AS the convention ad interim. No other entity is able to do this. Accompanying this extraordinary power ought to be extra accountability. If the Executive Committee will be authorized to act in our stead, it must be subject to our direction. Otherwise, as soon as the closing gavel were to fall on one of our annual meetings, the Executive Committee could, if it so desired, act with the authority of the messengers to do precisely the opposite of what the messengers have explicitly stated.

    3. I'm not sure that the convention has any assets that the Executive Committee doesn't have. If that is the case, then it's hard to see how there can be much in the legal structure of the convention that would need drastic legal protection from liabilities that the Executive Committee might incur. The Executive Committee manages the Cooperative Program. The only employees that the convention has are employees of the Executive Committee, as far as I know.

I might not offer this motion. I haven't decided. Part of me would be content for the 2012 annual meeting to focus on the election of Fred Luter and to delve into little else. But whether I offer the motion or not, I am curious to have a discussion with you, my readers, about the concept.


Jerry Corbaley said...

There is no doubt that the motion 'could' become important. The question is rather: "Is it important now?"

If/when the time comes that the SBC is led by a group that is not responsive to the Baptists in the churches, then this motion would be a very considerate and cooperative potential solution.

Of course, now that you have posted the idea.... anyone could make the motion.

Bart Barber said...


I'm deliberately trying to bring the motion before the convention at a time when it isn't made more "important" by some intensifying set of circumstances. Hard cases make bad law. I'd prefer that we think about the thing itself, not what points we're trying to score with it.

Dave Miller said...

I find it somewhat shocking that such a thing has not been settled in SBC life in all these years.

Of course, until you tutored me on convention policy, I thought the messengers could tell the entities what to do.

KWS said...

Bart, I think it would be helpful to many of us for you to do some writing on the mechanics of the SBC, a denominational civics class if you will. Maybe Toledo can put it to music ala "I'm Just a Bill."

Scott said...

You should definitely present this motion. We should settle this issue and you are wise to do it when there is not a pressing issue. This is a structural issue and needs to be divorced from the consideration of a specific situation.

Jon said...

This is a fascinating question, Bart; I think my reactions boil down to three ideas:

1. Even without "directing," no agency can withstand the sustained anger of messengers at more than one meeting. We wipe the budget, or clear the trustees out. So clarifying the answer might not give the Messengers any power they need.

2. The EC is the worst agency for which to lower the ascending liability wall. The EC touches all of the other agencies. If there's a good reason to avoid "directing" Lifeway to stop selling Rob Bell books, should we be able to direct the EC to amend the organizational manual to that end? The EC could become a political lever for action from the Convention floor, to the detriment of all the agencies.

3. I'm not sure you'll get any clarification apart from a crisis where the Convention doesn't care about the Committee's position.

My guess is that next year's answer (after your motion is referred) would be something like "We don't want to help lawyers who are suing us in the future by explaining at length why it is so bad. But it would be bad -- for the Convention and for the Committee." And that would probably be a prudent response.

Of course, the day the Executive Committee starts licensing the SBC logo for beer or casinos is the day the Convention won't care what its lawyers say about liability for "directing" versus "requesting." We might observe the distinction with the replacement agency, but not this one.

Tim Rogers said...

Brother Bart,

You know my feelings on this and they have not changed since the last time you and I discussed this matter. You are absolutely correct concerning the autonomy issue and how the EC is not an autonomous agency of the SBC. I know that I would "second" such a motion if you were to make it.

Having said all of that, I also question the "autonomy" factor when it comes to the rest of our entities While I understand that we can't function sufficiently if every year that, "crazy uncle" Ed Stetzer is famous for referencing, gets a motion passed to stop this or start that. I also understand that our resolutions is supposed to be the voice of the people and the entities, while not bound to the resolution, honors the resolution an abides by the voice of the convention. However, LifeWay proved that one is no longer the case with their shunning of the NIV resolution last year. Thus, I am questioning if this motion doesn't have validity for all entities.

Bart Barber said...


1. I agree that the convention still has recourse with regard to agencies that it cannot direct. The trustee system is a good system, particularly with the other agencies, for the reasons I have given.

2. Here, I think you and I just see things differently at a point or two. In the first place, I do not necessarily think that I am proposing the lowering of anything, for I do not presume that this motion would change anything. The aim of the motion is to clarify rather than to change. I've spoken with experts close to the operation of the convention who were of the opinion that there is no such wall between the EC and the convention. I've served before as an expert witness on Southern Baptist polity specifically on the question of ascending liability. If I were called to testify as to whether the SBC can direct the EC, I could not testify that the wall exists (as I could for any of the other entities).

In the second place, I do not believe that the Executive Committee has ANY power over the various entities that the convention itself does not have. Considering, for example, the organizational manual, the convention can already change the organizational manual by direct action. The organizational manual is only in force because of messenger action. The messengers could set aside the organizational manual in toto. The messengers could nominate a committee from the floor to write a new organizational manual and could then put that manual in force in place of the existing one. If the messengers have these powers, how would the legal or the political situation be different if the convention directed the EC to amend the organizational manual?

3. I can't envision any response that wouldn't give the full clarification. If the convention were to rule the motion out of order, it could only do so by ruling that the convention cannot direct the EC. That would be clarification. If the EC were to make the requested acknowledgement, then that would also be clarification. If the convention were to forward the motion to the EC, but the EC were to refuse to make the acknowledgement, then the resulting showdown would determine the outcome and we'd have a full clarification.

Bart Barber said...


It's a complicated question with the entities, for the reasons I've listed in the post. Personally, I think we've already gone too far with the "sole membership" actions that were taken last decade. Frankly, as local churches designate more and more money around the CP and as state conventions try to apply pressure to send more and more of the CP to the IMB, the other entities are left to wonder about the wisdom of making an entity totally dependent for its organizational survival upon a group that sometimes seems to feel very little commitment to its financial survival. Sometimes we messengers need to put our money where our mouth is.

CP funding now pays for less than 25% of the cost of an MDiv in one of our seminaries. It used to pay more than half. When it gets down to 10%, does the SBC still deserve to direct the affairs of the school? What about when it gets down to 2%?


Because it will take a miracle and a revival for that percentage to stop going down and start climbing.

Stuart said...


Another great discussion.

A question about this line in your OP that I wasn't going to ask. But since you brought up sole membership, here goes. You wrote: "Separate governance enables these institutions, in dire circumstances (the SBC dissolves?), to exist on their own."

My question: If the "sole member" of those entities "dissolves" then COULD THEY continue to exist on their own?

Follow-up: Could you clarify what you mean that with sole membership "we've gone too far"? I think I agree (not necessarily for the reasons in your paragraph). I agreed in Nashville that it went too far, but was clearly in the minority.

Bart Barber said...


I think that "sole membership" may have gone too far because it may make it impossible for any of our entities to find a path of separate survival in the event of the disintegration of the SBC.

Now, if Southern Baptist (in the doctrinal sense) churches should ever pass away, then I don't even want our mission boards and seminaries and entities to continue to exist. But what if Southern Baptist churches should ever choose to organize in some different way? What if they continued to see a need for the mission boards and seminaries, but chose to relate to them in some way other than through the SBC?

I hope that doesn't happen. I don't see a need for it. I think it would be a loss and a move backwards.

And yet, if it were to happen—even if it were to happen over my own objections—I would hope that such a change wouldn't spell the end of all of our entities, if further usefulness to Southern Baptist churches were possible for them otherwise.

Bart Barber said...

But, I confess that, since I'm not a legal scholar, I really don't know what would become of the entities if their "sole member" were to dissolve.

Jon said...

Sorry for the late additions.

Bart, I understand the basis for the "wall" to be separate corporate existence. The Convention has taken the position that it cannot (or will not) direct any separate corporation that is affiliated with the SBC. So while the Executive Committee is not an agency, or a commission, it is a separate corporation. So all motions to direct a separate corporation would be ruled out of order, and motions affecting the operation of a separate corporation will be referred to those corporations.

Now, I suppose you'd say that Bylaw 18, which "instructs" the EC, allows the Convention to take direct action. But if the theory is as I understand it, you need the assent of the new corporation as to new instructions. Just as the Convention could instruct about formation of a new seminary (a la Midwestern), but would "request" after the corporation was formed according to the original instructions.

The Convention could also "authorize" (but not direct) another corporation to take an action on behalf of the Convention, but it would require some acceptance by the "authorized" corporation.

So, if you made such a motion, I predict that it would be ruled out of order -- or referred to the Executive Committee as affecting its internal operations. At least, the EC would be given the opportunity to study and respond.
But I haven't studied whether the EC has allowed itself to be directed via Bylaw 18.


On "sole membership," as I understand it, the corporation would continue to exist, even if the members "die" (naturally or legally). For example, it would be possible for all of a church's "members" to die, but the corporation would continue to survive as a legal entity. If the SBC were ever dissolved, the agencies would not have members, but would still have trustees and corporate existence.

Of course, a more serious hypothetical is that a de minimus SBC continues, but does not support the entities. Given the clear promises of the SBC entities, the proper course would be for action by the SBC to approve a new relationship. That's happened with state agencies several times.

jon said...

I suppose our discussion is long enough that I should note I am a lawyer, but this is just generic talk about polity and principles, where I admittedly don't have enough facts to reach a conclusion. Certainly no one should rely on blog musings to stand in for a real legal analysis by attorneys the relevant jurisdictions.

Anonymous said...

In his book "The Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention (1917-1984), Albert McClellan writes: "The Convention bylaws added an unnumbered paragraph, descriptive of powers that are considered by many to be the heart of Executive Committee authority: The Executive Committee shall have no authority to control or direct any agency of the Convention. But the Executive Committee shall have full authority to study the affairs of the agencies of the Convention, and to make suggestions, when deemed advisable, to the agencies, and to report its findings to the Convention, and to make any recommendations to the Convention concerning any matter whatsoever." Presented to the Convention by EY Mullins in 1926, many years and amendments later we find ourselves asking these questions.

Becky Illingworth

Anonymous said...


I understand your desire to offer this motion, but the motion would be ruled out of order.

The reason is that it is really a question wrapped up in a motion that proposes no item of business for the convention.

And it has an answer - to an extent.

The EC is only the Convention in between the annual meetings.

When the meeting is in session, the Convention is speaking to the items it takes up. When the Convention adjourns, the Convention (the EC) is subject to convening to handle business.

The Convention can revise the governing documents (bylaws) to restrict or expand the EC in between Convention meetings.

The Convention can also act to rescind EC action that has been proposed, but not taken.

But without revising the bylaws, the Convention cannot tell the EC to do something prospectively.

The Convention can do whatever it wants to do with respect to the EC in terms of structure and the scope of the EC's work, when the EC can meet, but it must do so in the bylaws, not by a motion directed to one discrete matter. That's how this usually comes up - with respect to one item of business or issue.

The Convention cannot direct the EC on those matters because then the EC would not be the EC, as described in the bylaws.

Hope this makes sense.