For decades, the Southern Baptist ecosystem of missions support has been the envy of other networks and denominations. However, it is in danger of crumbling down like the walls of Jericho. Sounds rumbling from the earth indicate this crumbling has already begun. Our NAMB President has damaged three essential ingredients of strong and lasting partnership in the SBC—our trust and goodwill, our mutual interdependence, and our spirit of respectful and selfless cooperation. The nationalization of our missions efforts with inappropriate tactics has violated and damaged trust, goodwill, and cooperation. We are dismantling the essential fibers of our SBC missions efforts. Like Humpty Dumpty, they will be hard to put back together again.
Current Southern Baptists inherited walls we did not build with our hands, but we have stewarded what was entrusted to us. Our walls were built by previous generations of faithful mission givers. While we inherited great resources, like kings of old, we cannot trust alone in the strength of our walls to remain, but must connect to God and walk humbly before the Creator and Sustainer of all. We must also as one body be rightly connected to our differing parts: local, state and national. As we face increasing hardships, our cooperation at all three levels is essential if we are going to strengthen our witness. A cord of three strands is stronger than a cord of only one strand.
This essay is the fourth part of a series entitled The New NAMB—Is It Working? Throughout this series, we are exposing the questions being asked by NAMB as weaker questions than the better questions we are asking. Today’s “better question” is this one: Under the New NAMB, have essential partnerships and the spirit of cooperation been enhanced or damaged?
Expressions of Government
Can you imagine only having a federal government with no local or state government, even with all of their shortcomings? What a disaster that would be! In the same way, can you imagine the SBC existing in only its national form? Our present system is not only essential in the South, but is particularly vital in the non-South regions where mutual interconnection is essential to survival. A centralized NAMB, regardless of its size or benevolence, cannot provide the strength or relationships necessary to help local churches through the hard times that are on the horizon.
Historical Cooperation Facing Challenges
The SBC was built and is held together around several pillars allowing us to advance the gospel across the nation and around the globe. Several key commonalities bound us together: doctrine around The Baptist Faith and Message, the training of clergy through our SBC seminaries, a congregational form of church governance, common organizational structures and ministry programing, and a unifying approach to investing in mission efforts through the Cooperative Program.
We were mostly Southern, white, and English speaking. We used materials published by the Baptist Sunday School Board. We sang the same hymns in our churches, had dinner on the grounds or in the fellowship hall, and offered ministry programming like VBS, WMU, Brotherhood, Training Union, and a host of others. Our churches served as the centerpiece of community life.
Things have changed. We celebrate a greater diversity today. We have adjusted to various unique approaches in order to impact the nations God has brought to North America. However, this growing diversity has brought new challenges, particularly in communicating a common story and mission in order to drive our churches out of independence and into cooperation and collaboration.
Southern Baptists Are Stronger Together
The SBC has some essential threads that hold us together in the midst of our great diversity in styles, preferences, forms, structures, doctrine and polity. Our SBC strength is in the tightly woven fabric of local, state, and national expressions of Southern Baptist life and missions. Each plays a vital role in making us stronger.
Danger of Denominational Deconstruction
What we have inherited will not last if we offend God in our dealings with Him and with others, or if we choose to walk in arrogance and pride. If He is not pleased with us, the hand of God can tear down the walls of our mission efforts, only to rebuild around us. What is dismantled in the organizational deconstruction of Southern Baptist life may never be put back together again.
Resourcing His Mission
By working together at the local, state, and national levels, mostly by means of a cooperative spirit and the Cooperative Program, Southern Baptists have been able to maintain a self-regenerating system of missions support both financially and in terms of personnel. Local SBC leaders have planted daughter churches carrying their DNA. These efforts have included both the funding and the sending of missionaries in a truly cooperative manner.
However, when national entities own and rule all things church planting among the non-Southern states, the SBC DNA is not inherited from the mother church. Thus, the national agency has to infuse it. I have little to no hope that this will happen. The methods being used dismantle and discredit state and local ministries, assuming federal ownership of these mission fields while hindering these regional efforts. Instead of NAMB owning this mission, we need strong churches and even weak, imperfect ones to own it. NAMB should encourage and resource local and regional leaders to help them be more fruitful in their assignment. In fact, it is NAMB’s assignment to do so. NAMB should merely add fuel to the efforts already being led by state leaders and local leaders on the ground. It is a poor strategy to attempt to build nationally that which was already in place regionally and locally.
In two previous articles, I addressed the roles of local, state, and national SBC entities:
Dealing with Decline: The Future of Southern Baptist Cooperation
All funds and missionaries are local. No denominational organization has resources that are not generated through our local churches. Disproportionately, both the Cooperative Program and the mission outposts called churches, have been supported by small and mid-size congregations. These churches have invested in SBC life and missions generously and remarkably, starting numerous daughter congregations even before our propaganda machine made it seem cool or popular.
Southern Baptists became the largest Protestant denomination in North America without a large national structure or a national media campaign. For that matter, we didn’t have the personal computer or the internet either. Local Baptists took responsibility for advancing the gospel, evangelizing their neighborhoods and starting churches. Remember, each of our 47,000 plus churches WAS STARTED. In a study I completed in 1989, I traced the historical SBC roots of church planting.
Taxes and Kings without an Army
All resources in the SBC originate in the pockets of local churches and their members. Instead of a societal system, Southern Baptists chose generations ago to cooperate and unite for the greater good. What is happening (and has been happening for many years now) is that we are becoming more societal in our approach. We have the IMB, NAMB, ERLC, 6 seminaries, State Conventions, and local Associations all seeking to garner support for their individual body part at the expense of the overall body.
Powerful kings have armies to keep the peace in the land and to collect the taxes. In fact, this is one of the reasons the Pharisees opposed Jesus and used the Roman government to kill Him. The Romans wanted peace in order to collect taxes, and they used the religious leaders to do accomplish this end. The Jewish leaders were threatened by Jesus’s life and message, so they plotted to kill Him.
Southern Baptist appear to be crowning kings. But, these SBC kings will not have the power to send out armies to keep the peace and collect the taxes from the local churches. All SBC gifts are voluntary. We simply must find a different and better way.
Great Commission Resurgence Impact
Without casting aspersions on GCR Task Force members or their motives, I believe the application of elements of the GCR have damaged the essential fibers of the SBC. There is less trust and goodwill than before. We have weakened the local and regional ties in favor of national ties and ministries. We are more in the news, but this news has not been good, based on our results in the field. Some leaders have said the primary objective of the GCR was to redistribute money and power. Clearly, we are less effective in our cooperative missions engagements. Generally, the GCR redistributed SBC mission funds (from state to national and from national to international) and championed a nationalistic approach to the church planting focus by NAMB. Today, we are experiencing much less responsiveness and support for local and regional strategies. My lenses have been focused on the work in North America through local, state and NAMB leaders, so I would expect there to be some benefits regarding certain components of this strategy which I have simply not seen or attempted to examine for this project.
Essential Elements of SBC Partnership Now and in the Future
All non-profits, including churches, denominations, and entities, are built on trust and goodwill. When these are damaged, we are weaker, and when they cease to exist, so does the nonprofit organization. In spite of the loud enthusiasm being heard in certain quarters, the reality is that we have gunpowder spread all over the SBC because of the violations of trust and goodwill by our NAMB leadership and the tactics used to execute their objectives.
If the SBC and NAMB is to be rebuilt, it will require our trust and goodwill, our mutual interdependence, and our spirit of respectful and selfless cooperation. The “cool factor,” great public relations, and the buying of favors using the money of small and mid-size congregations is not sustainable. The SBC will eventually be only as strong as the local relationships, not the relationships of a few select churches with national agency heads or even the national agencies themselves. For now, NAMB leaders are operating on the goodwill and trust of the past. They are relying on the blind faith and financial resources of faithful and generous Southern Baptists. We are not pursuing strategies that inspire more people to be loyal to our SBC values. We must earn their loyalty through the manner in which we conduct ourselves.
Ways In Which our Partnership has been Enhanced
Under the New NAMB and the GCR, there is no meaningful way in which our partnership has been enhanced. Yes, we have some good public relations. Yes, we have created a “cool” factor around NAMB and church planting. Some are seeking to engage younger pastors. However, we have abandoned some SBC entity partners and are actually shooting arrows at them as “bloated bureaucracies” or lesser partners. It is often as if we are fighting over the last meal, seeking survival at the national level at the decimation of the local and state expressions. However, local and state ties are more important than national ties over the long haul. Local and state expressions in SBC life are more important to our mission efforts than national entities. Chronologically, the national entity was the last to be created. The rationale was that some group must exist to assist local associations and state conventions until these organizations were established in new regions.
Ways in Which our Partnership Has Been Damaged
- Trust and Goodwill
Several articles document concerns related to NAMB’s centralization efforts. The New NAMB has changed, ignored, and violated Strategic Partnership Agreements and budget agreements with State Conventions multiple times over the last 5 years. They have taken these actions almost at their sole discretion, even when confronted. Some state leaders do not believe Dr. Ezell and NAMB will honor their word. Rather, they fear these leaders will change their approach on a dime, and then expect state leaders to take the hit as they work it out locally with churches and associations.
Several articles have made accusations against Dr. Ezell regarding shortcomings in his character with regard to lying, bullying, false accusations, putting gag orders and making threats to those who verbalize opposition to him or NAMB’s approaches. In full disclosure, I have documented his actions against me and the MD/DE Baptist Convention that resulted in the filing of a lawsuit against him and NAMB for libel and interference with my working relationship with the MD/DE Convention.
Because Dr. Ezell used SBC money to interfere with my leadership in Maryland-Delaware, resulting in my subsequent termination, the message was sent loud and clear to all other small and mid-size state conventions without him having to say a word. Who then would dare to communicate the failings in evangelism or church planting or dare to oppose anything at NAMB? My journey to examine the related issues began thirty years ago in a History of SBC Evangelism PhD seminar and continues until today.
In the South, state and local leaders conduct their ministries with only a small degree of influence from any of NAMB’s actions. These Conventions give sacrificially to support the “all-in” church planting strategy that was based on statistical deception regarding evangelistic effectiveness. I addressed this in the third article on NAMB: Church Planting. Outside the South, NAMB’s defunding of Associations and DOMS left a bitter taste in the mouths of pastors and local Associational leaders. State leaders were also impacted and are trying to help recover from the 2012 NAMB defunding of DOMs in Associations.
Some temporary goodwill is being purchased with NAMB resources and the filling of some positions at NAMB and around the country. However, unfortunately, this may not last after the funds stop flowing. While some NAMB-Ezell friends and friendlies have been placed in select state convention openings and other key roles, trust is at a remarkably low level. No one wants to admit it. No one wants it to be this way. But this is the way it is.
- Mutual Interdependence
A cord of three strands is not easily broken. One cord can be easily broken to detriment of the whole. Not perfectly, but throughout the history of the SBC since the inception of the Cooperative Program in 1925 (to prevent what is happening now), Southern Baptist local, regional and national leaders designed the CP to share a mutual interdependence in funding our mission.
The New NAMB pulled the support system out from under DOMs and Associations outside the South in 2012 when they defunded their work. Prior, NAMB assisted with local ministry by providing SBC entrusted resources to the State Conventions, which in turn reinvested into local ministers and mission efforts. The mutual interdependence was clear to all involved. But, the current centralization efforts created a situation where each entity must look to its own interest, not the interest of the SBC whole.
As of 2012, Southern State Convention leaders voluntarily accepted a new Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) with NAMB by sacrificing millions of state dollars to additionally support national and international efforts. NAMB reinvested $300,000 in each state, while NAMB received millions and tens of millions from each of those state conventions. However, the cross learning and partnership that had historically existing between the Southern states staff and NAMB staff came to something close to a screeching halt. NAMB is learning less from Southern state leaders who are in the field and the Southern states are less connected to NAMB in partnership and setting directions and priorities. Significant losses over the long-haul.
For Associations, NAMB directed (virtually) State DOMS to remove the historic requirement to give to their local missions/Association from the church planting agreements. This applied to all church plants receiving SBC funding. Should a local SBC church member who gives to their church and Annie Armstrong not be able to expect that those receiving the funds would also pay it forward by reinvesting in local SBC missions?
Louisiana Message Editor Will Hall reported in an article on Oct. 5, 2015 that designated giving annually has passed Cooperative Program giving. The message is clear, SBC will count it as Great Commission Giving if you designate giving to an entity, so CP is less important. The message was also clear with the hiring of our latest entity heads. There is not a standard or minimum investment prerequisite to steward millions in SBC resources. This is not a reflection of passion, but of value. What is important gets rewarded, and that sets values for the next generation.
- Spirit of “Others First” Cooperation
As noted above, the developing spirit is to look to the interest of part, not the whole, which does not bode well for the future. NAMB has damaged the spirit of cooperation with their strategies, tactics and use of financial resources. NAMB created the new 2014 SPA that favored them and hurt regional and local ministries. More than once NAMB would send down edicts or new policies or procedures created in Alpharetta with little or no input, leaving local leaders to carry it out. The 2012 SPA required both NAMB and the State Executive Directors to physically sign off on changes, but NAMB leadership lapses in following that requirement in the agreement. In my situation, they lied to our MD/DE leadership and falsely accused me of violating the SPA, when in fact, I never even saw or signed off on the new hiring procedures. When confronted, a NAMB VP refused to correct his false accusations that made me appear to be uncooperative.
On the large scale, NAMB’s actions are destroying or has destroyed a spirit of true cooperation. Strong-arming, coercion, threats and the like are NOT cooperation. SBC entities are sister organizations. We do not have a hierarchy. When this is damaged among the entities, it is sure to impact the trust and goodwill of local leaders who own all the resources, financial and human.
Select Strategy Concerns Regarding Partnership under the New NAMB
- NAMB is forging new partnership with non-SBC agencies and networks. While this could be helpful on some fronts, we cannot operate under the belief historic Baptist principles, practices, doctrine and mission support will follow those partnerships.
- NAMB is seeking to plant churches through churches directly instead of funding through state and local leaders who are closer to the planters and the mission field. On the surface, this appears to be a good thing, but not without long-term dangers.
- How long will small and mid-size congregations continue to fund NAMB and then have NAMB give it to large and mega churches to plant churches? A reverse Robin Hood if perceived, will impact CP giving.
- Are large and mega churches positioned and have the breadth of experience to replace local and state training and support for the planters?
- If churches are planted and disconnected from the local Association and State Convention, will they continue to support and fund them and CP after their funding is stopped? How does this impact future CP support?
- How long will small and mid-size congregations continue to invest sacrificially when they see little to nothing redirected to assist them in carrying out their mission assignment? There are 35,000 churches averaging less than 500 (30,000 under 200). These churches give 65% of all funds to the CP.
- NAMB strategies and tactics have negatively impacted Associations and State Conventions outside the south. Are Southern Baptist missions efforts long-term better served without healthy local and regional ministries? Or, are Southern Baptists better served with a limited national missions agency and stronger local and regional ties and entities?
- NAMB actually duplicates what happens at the local and state levels. Ideally NAMB would use funds from mostly the South and human expertise at the national level to resource local and state strategies, not nationalize or centralize our missions efforts. The historic functions NAMB performed that are not happening at local and state levels are (1) National Crossover in June, (2) National Response Center (if still operational), and (3) Appointments of Military chaplains. Southern Baptist have been ground up, not national down.
- Some Non-Southern local and regional leaders have gathered that NAMB believes Non-Southern are inadequate (“C and D players”). Signal being gathered…NAMB knows best for their field.
- Centralization of missions money and power makes the SBC more vulnerable to poor leadership or strategies. It also provides greater temptation to misuse the power and the money. When NAMB funded more of its work through the State Conventions, there was less temptation to buy influence, threaten those who differ, or direct large sums of money to individuals in the field without local and regional accountability.
- Naturally locals have more concern and support for what they have some hand in designing, directing and overseeing, than in what NAMB does. NAMB’s nationalization of church planting away from State Conventions and local Associations has numerous pitfalls, which is why I opposed it and our BCMD Board originally opposed it until Ezell tied SBC money to my removal.
- The 2014 NAMB SPA with small and mid-size state conventions breads dependence and apathy, not incentives and encouragements to become self-supporting and self-governance. The story of how to catch a herd of pigs seems to be what is taking place across some parts of the SBC.
Tough Time Realities
In tough times, a band of brothers is stronger than large armies of mercenaries. Men fight in war for country, but when the bullets are flying, fighting for the man beside you in the foxhole who is also fighting for you help to keep one in the fight. So true in denominational life too. We can cheer and celebrate national things, but what happens locally is more important.
Conclusion – SBC Groanings
A long-tenured national leader declared, “partnership is dead in the SBC”. He, I and I am sure you, all hope he is wrong. However, groanings deep inside SBC life are indicating that walls may be beginning to crumble. The violations of trust and good will among and between SBC entities and Southern Baptists to their local, state and national agencies may not be able to be repaired. When the nationalization is fully set, and it is deep into the process, what has been dismantled and taken apart for short-term gains, will forever not be able to be put back together again. God has used the SBC, but God is not obligated to bless in the future. God help us!