At 8:30 am on June 19, 2012, most of the people attending the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting in New Orleans had never heard of R. Richard Tribble. By 9:00 am, everyone attending knew who he was. Mr. Tribble, in the intervening thirty minutes, made four motions from the floor of the convention and successfully overturned a parliamentary ruling by Parliamentarian Barry McCarty.
And a great many of the rest of us SBC messengers descended into snarkiness. Richard Tribble's name became a byword and a punchline among Southern Baptists in the span of a half-hour. And I joined in.
I'm writing this post to repent of that.
Tribble didn't, that I could tell, make any motions that were utterly ridiculous. None of his actions from the floor were self-serving, that I know of. He made no motion that was hateful or dripping with scorn or disdain. Any of his motions, had they come from some duly elected blue-ribbon panel of the convention, would likely have passed and been heralded as important steps forward.
I didn't favor any of his motions and I voted against them all, but they weren't unreasonable. Nor was he.
During the nickname debate, I happened to sit behind and make the acquaintance of two people who knew Tribble (or at least who purported to know more about him than I did). They told me that he was a parliamentarian himself, and that he had been studying the nickname proposal for nine months in order to defeat it. Alas, Tribble doomed his own efforts in a few critical ways.
First, he failed to appreciate the differing roles of parliamentary law and public persuasion in our Southern Baptist system. He needed to have chosen one item as the focus of his efforts. His offering of four motions in the first business session was a political mistake: By the time he got the chance to argue any of his points, people had categorized him and were no longer prepared to take him seriously. If you want to do anything at the SBC, realistically you get one chance every few years to step up to the microphone and actually be heard.
Second, he failed to appreciate the role of history in our decision-making. Wiley Drake has defined a stereotype in Southern Baptist thinking of this era. Many Southern Baptists do not believe that Drake's second-vice-presidency reflected well upon our convention. Tribble's flooding of the first business session with motions put him into the same category as Drake in the minds of many Southern Baptists. Generally speaking, that was not advantageous to him in gaining a hearing for his motions.
I was with a group of fellow Southern Baptists who spotted Tribble on Wednesday and began to discuss him. I got up from the group and walked over to introduce myself to him and meet him. He seemed a reasonable enough fellow, although the strain of his warfare and repeated defeat at microphone 6 had obviously taken its toll on his demeanor a bit. He was a serious man, and I think he meant nothing but good for our convention.
I needed to look into my own heart and consider why I reacted to Tribble the way that I did. He brought no more proposals to us for our consideration, after all, than did the GCR committee two years ago. Could it be that most of us Southern Baptists have descended into a subtle elitism? Could it be that we have in our minds a list of the true leaders of our convention, and that we'll take seriously only their ideas and their motions? When a simple rank-and-file Southern Baptist comes to the microphone with lots of ideas about how our convention might work better, are we annoyed that hoi polloi are stepping out of their place?
Are we really congregationalists? Do we really believe that it all starts at the local church? Do we truly affirm the right of any messenger from any congregation to come to the microphone and make his case? Are we sincere in stating that the headquarters for our mission is in the local congregations and that our denominational grandees are the servants of all?
Our treatment of R. Richard Tribble might give us pause on these matters. I know it did for me.