Thursday, May 22, 2014

When will the SBC exhibit oligarchy fatigue?

A contemporary SBC notable once said that in the SBC, we are on the star system. There are highly visible leaders, celebrities or stars if you will, to whom the masses of active SBCers look, whom they generally emulate and follow, and who set the tone, make the decisions, and exercise the influence. A few years ago John Baugh, wealthy Baptist moderate, now deceased, stalwart of the moderates and liberals who once controlled the convention machinery, called the Conservative Resurgence leaders an "oligarchy, comprised of approximately eighty close-knit and well-organized radical Fundamentalists..." Two leaders, one on each side of Southern Baptist life, make observations and find general agreement on Convention leadership, control, and influence. Kumbaya moment? Probably not.

Reminds me of the old pol who said that in the next election "we're going to throw those bums out and put our bums in." The simple meaning there is not lost on most people - you have your crowd, we're going to put our crowd in.

I know of no "bums" in SBC life, now or former. I think the Conservative Resurgence a remarkable accomplishment which I supported and which would not have been possible without the few leaders whose labor helped to bring it about. And I would take any reader's point if they said that the term "oligarchy" generally carries a negative connotation these days (Russian "oligarchs", corrupt, extremely wealthy individuals, et al) but allow me to use the term simply to mean the control of a relative few.

There is nothing sinister about pointing out that the highest level SBC positions, the most coveted trustee appointments, the most powerful committees, are always filled with some of the same people, their associates, their church members if they are pastors, or their mentees or acolytes. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. Such may be good, bad, or neutral.

My first question is this: Has the SBC moved sufficiently past the Conservative Resurgence and the stalwart leaders thereof for the masses of involved pastors and the multitudes of voting messengers at SBC annual meetings to show symptoms of oligarchy fatigue and elect unexpected leaders?

I'd answer this question with a equivocal, "perhaps" and even then be guildty of showing excessive and irrational exuberance. I am well aware that the SBC in annual session has seldom found a mega church pastor they didn't think the best choice for SBC president.

While we respect the accomplishments of people like Paul Pressler, Paige Patterson, Albert Mohler, and the handful of mega church pastors whom we never seem to tire of electing to the SBC presidency in spite of below average, sometimes embarrassingly below average, Cooperative Program giving, has the Convention at large reached a point where they can say, or vote, such that the Convention machinery is safe in the hands of others who are not celebrities, not mega church pastors, or not convention superstars?

I would answer "yes" to this.

A concomitant question is, Would we be better off if we were not on the celebrity star system and moved away from control by the SBC grandees, that small number of oligarchs?

To answer this question, one might look at the SBC of the last decade. Our North American Mission Board is just now recovering from its dysfunctional state that wasted tens of millions of dollars of our mission money and gave us two failed leaders. Our International Mission Board has had turmoil that some would say was caused by excessive meddling which has been harmful to its mission. Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary has had a series of failed leaders and internal turmoil. I would ask if trustee appointments, many of which on the critical organizations rotate among the same small number of large churches and those connected with the same few influential SBC leaders, been such that we have been well-served by the trustee system or would trustees who had more de facto independence have served us better?

It is difficult to conclude that some of our difficulties in the last decade were not a product of the same system of leadership oligarchy. When we have had failures, the perception I have is that the Convention's putative leaders will close ranks around the failed leaders far more quickly than they recognize a problem and move to fix it.

No one asked but I do sense an atmosphere that there is a level of oligarchy fatigue in the Convention. Many younger SBCers have little interest in Convention politics, elections, or appointments (see how many messengers show up in Baltimore next month). Notably and prominently, some who are highly interested in Convention matters have publicly called for more independent entity heads who are free of the perceived influence of some SBC oligarchs.

All of this may be a futile exercise in hand-wringing over matters that are common, typical in any large organization, and to be expected. A few people do have enormous influence. A handful of oligarchs do control much of the machinery. Maybe so, but in SBC life at least we have the mechanism in place to depart from that pattern.

Three good people are announced candidates for the SBC's most visible office, President. One is a young small church pastor. One is a highly-successful mega church pastor, one of the SBC superstars. And one is a large church pastor, generally unknown to the SBC masses, an ethnic pastor with a record of stellar accomplishment.

If there is oligarchy fatigue in the SBC it might manifest itself in the presidential election next month. I don't think it would change much if the highly connected mega church pastor is elected or defeated. This is not criticism of the mega church pastor nominee or mega churches in general, they are highly accomplished Christian leaders and their churches are examples of successful Christian ministry. In my view, however, departing from the usual pattern of electing mega church pastors would be a welcome change.

Think of it. Someone who is not that well known, who is a fresh face, who has labored outside of the spotlight, and who is an example of the considerable inroads the Convention has made in the past decade or two with ethnic churches and a broader appeal, could be the next SBC president. Perhaps he could bring with him a movement to expand the pool of appointments to the vast numbers of qualified people who have labored in obscurity in SBC life.

I like the idea and think it possible.


Lee said...

I can't think of a period of time when the SBC wasn't run by an oligarchy, moderate or conservative. It is a very backward, regressive organization with the prestige and prominence of its oligarchs representative of a bygone era of what I call "Dixieism." The structure of convention leadership creates the backwardness. It attracts leadership that can be the big dawgs in a church organization, but would fall flat on their face in the real world. And that's true of both the pre and post 1979 leadership.

Anonymous said...

And who are the three men running for President?

William Thornton said...

Jared Moore, small church pastor.
Ronnie Floyd, megachurch pastor
Dennis Kim, Korean ethnic large church pastor

Rob said...

The SBC is going the way of all preceding denominations - to the dustbin of history. I have been a Southern Baptist all my life, and the rush to the exits is audible. The typical traditional SBC-affiliated church is populated with senior citizens whose believing children have already moved on to non denominational congregations where the leadership is excited about preaching the gospel, not rehashing old Baptist traditions.

Lee said...

That's typical in the Deep South, perhaps. But the cutting edge growth in the SBC now is happening in inner cities, and outside of the traditional eleven states of the old confederacy. The membership losses are there, and the funerals keep a lot of pastors busy, but the numbers are climbing in a lot of places where the typical Southern Baptist church is African American, or Serbian, or Polish, or Korean, or in a building where three or four congregations speaking different languages meet together on a Sunday morning.

William Thornton said...

I occasionally attend an SBC church where tattoos are common, youth and inexperience are abundant, and ties unknown.

You need to get out more, Rob.

Anonymous said...

Ronnie Floyd has always been very open in his quest to be President of the SBC. Maybe this year he will attain his goal.

Anonymous said...

As someone who spent has spent 30 plus years in SBC life, part of that time at NAMB traveling to every state convention and speaking to church leaders in every convention, the SBC is currently run by a very small group of narcissistic men. It has become similar to the Pharisees club of in the New Testament. You play by their rules or they pull the funding. The jury is still out about the success of the current NAMB leadership. Call it like I experienced it.