Friday, March 30, 2012

A humbling time for Georgia Baptists

Photo: Joe Westbury, Christian Index
The photo is of our Georgia Baptist Convention building on which edifice I blogged last week because the GBC Executive Committee is exploring its sale.

It is magnificent. I hope the Christian Index doesn't mind my using their photo.

Let me share a personal story on building buildings - a micropastor building story.

In a recent church building program some mistakes were made. No one foresaw some things and we ended up with a few minor details that we wished we had done differently. I recall listening to someone repeatedly complaining about these, ad nauseum, to which I finally said, "Look. It cannot be undone. I'm not going to spend the next decade griping about it. I suggest you find a way to do this as well and we will both be happier."

We have this GBC building. Not a whole lot can be done about it. Maybe it can be sold, though I question the resolve of Georgia Baptists to go through with such a plan. Perhaps some of the 40 acres can be cut off and sold to pay down the debt. Maybe some of the building can be leased (with all the job cuts, surely we are significantly underutilizing the thing).

I'm not going to spend a lot of time griping about it. I cannot be undone.

But, wait a minute. I don't recall a lot of rancor back when it was being built. I don't recall any 'storm the Baptist Bastille' movements to downsize and scale back the building program.

Most all of us were on board. Maybe spending got out of hand with it. If so, odd that no one has said so in all these years since. I don't know.

I do know that a lot of real estate deals in 2006 got out of hand. I've worked in and been around the real estate business all my life (I had a real estate license as a teenager) and have a decent understanding of it.

Lots of people built or bought houses in 2006 that are worth about half what they were back then. There was this meltdown, remember? Attitudes were different prior to it. Grand visions and appreciating values were the rule.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. No doubt things would be done differently today.

I see no profit in bearing ill will towards Dr. White and other GBC leaders who led the effort to build this building and spending the next score of years complaining about it. It's done. He and the Executive Committee have my prayers as they seek solutions.

This has to be a humbling time with staff, budgets, and ministries being cut. And now the showpiece building on the table. It is also, seems to me, a good time to look hard at all we do. Maybe we should make some major changes, changes other than just slicing jobs and budgets.

While there will be a time when the economy improves and the Cooperative Program picks up, I sense that normalcy for Georgia Baptists has changed permanently. That is good and I trust that we have people in place who will respond to the present challenges.

A good place to start would be complete openness and transparency. I think Georgia Baptists are owed that.

As an addendum, while I allow anonymous comments, there are people who ought to speak to this issue and identify themselves when they do. 


Anonymous said...

there are people who ought to speak to this issue and identify themselves when they do.

Sure, why not? Good jobs are easy to find.

Jonathan said...

You remain among the most magnanimous individuals in ministry that I've known, William. This piece is more of the same and a model for others.

It takes a big man (and one who has a great deal of experience in leadership positions where there is way more responsibility than practical authority) to argue that the past is helpful in resetting how we approach the future rather than in looking for scapegoats.

Its my opinion to safely assume that you take this position knowing that scapegoating will nearly always be a tactic by so many of our denominational leadership when it is helpful as a means of deflection.

This is just one of the many reason's I've admire you for these many years.

Years ago, I was fortunate to catch a presentation of James' Whitmore's portrayal of President Harry Truman in "Give 'Em Hell Harry!". One of the scenes that stuck with me was the phone call between the sitting President Truman and the former President Hoover after which Truman mentioned that it would be immensely valuable if past President could have a non-voting seat in the Senate if just to be a voice of experience and history.

This is precisely how I see retired ministers, most specifically those who plodded for decades in churches at or near the SBC average attendance.

We can have missionaries in residence as seminaries. I would nominate William as an ideal candidate for mentor in residence.

Anonymous said...

Many thanks Jonathan.


Anonymous said...

From accountability to scapegoating.

Two posts on GBC and virtually no responses.

It's becomming clearer why.

Anonymous said...

I am choosing to remain anonymous because as a female and a pastor’s wife, my comments on Baptist life don’t necessarily reflect those of my church or my husband (although I’m still working on him!). Seriously, after spending much of my life as a Southern Baptist and a few decades as a Ga. Baptist I had a few thoughts about your post. You are certainly right that we could all say that in hindsight many of us can see how we should have done things differently in our personal finances, our local churches, as well as in our state conventions. However, my recollections surrounding the discussion of the building of the Baptist Center are a bit different from yours. At the time the building was being studied , we were serving in south Ga. and I heard many people express dismay about the location of the building (while I think an Atlanta location was expected and even preferable, that northeast corner is more expensive and even less centrally located than the old location off Flowers Road). I certainly heard pastors from our neck of the woods doubt the wisdom of whether there needed to be a new building at all. Some of this was brought to the convention floor where most dissenters were quickly dismissed. After all, the new building came as a recommendation from a Study Committee who I assume passed their findings on to the Executive Committee. Surely these entities had educated themselves on the pros and cons of such an investment. Everyone fell in line as we were promised that “no Cooperative Program dollars would be used to pay for the building.”(I don’t remember the numbers on the final building vote. Does anyone else?) Those were heady days that soon fell away as the economy worsened.
Where did we go wrong? As the short-lived blog GBC Insider pointed out, GA Baptist leadership tended to remain in the hands of a few “insiders” who were recycled through these key positions again and again. By the way, I have no preference for any group in the recent election; when a commenter on the GBC Insider posted the names of those who had served on the administration committee in recent years, I was surprised by the repetition of names on both sides of the election! Could either side claim to be outsiders? Would a more diverse group have made different decisions? We’ll never know, but we can say that the future can be different from the past. Many of us have learned our own lesson about personal debt based on future income expectations, and some of us have led our local churches into debt that we are trying to navigate through in these hard times. Hopefully, our state leaders have also learned that we don’t have to spend everything we have plus whatever we can borrow. With all the GBC staff cuts, I think most of us have realized that lots of what we thought was necessary is actually optional. What will our state convention look like in the next decade? Can we minister from a recycled Wal Mart as effectively as we did out of a multi-million dollar complex? The times they are a changing and ready or not, we must change as well. Let’s hold our leaders accountable for involving lots of GA Baptists in future decision making and to at least listening to people we don’t agree with. Who knows? They may be speaking words we will realize were wise in hindsight!

William Thornton said...

Thanks for the comment, anonymous pastor's wife.

I was at the convention that year and there simply wasn't serious opposition to the new building. I suppose folks would listen now but it's too late.

I think you are right on target in saying that Georgia Baptists have learned that we can live without a lot of the personnel. The GBC's internal Cooperative Program study showed that churches were cutting heavily but not in response to any particular complaint.

I would have to see the GBC move to an empty Big Box store to believe it because I'm thinking we really do like nice buildings. They make us feel more important and Dr. White did specifically mention the Big Box option.

I supported our new GBC president mainly because he publicly stated that he wouldn't appoint seat-warmers to keep the same people in decision making or influencing positions.

God bless you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for listening Mr. Thornton, and I do agree that there was a lack of "serious" opposition at that convention, but looking at the systems we have set up in the GBC, is there truly a way to "seriously" oppose anything being recommended for a vote? If our best option for being heard is to "storm the Baptist Building" maybe the tail has been wagging the dog rather than the other way around.We are all leaner, but hopefully, we are not meaner, and I pray that we can listen to each other a little more.

Anonymous said...

I was a counter at that and several other conventions. You are actually both right! There was very little verbal opposition to the motion to move on the findings of the exploritory committee....but the actually vote was very close. It was too close for eyeballing and we had to take a ballot vote. Less than 60% were for the move. I remember commenting to another volunteer that if we were voting on a pastor he would be a fool to take the job.

Anonymous said...

Any opposition coming from South Georgia is never considered "serious"!