After a two-week pause to reflect on the SBC Annual Meeting in Nashville, this is my “swan song” on my series regarding SBC Life. Previously I had taken several weeks to lay out ten strategic principles that I believe we could have used more wisely to avoid some of our current tensions. To them, I will add four more as I close out this series of articles.
1. Sometimes our efforts to solve existing problems only create new problems. Too often we correct existing mistakes by overcorrecting or overcompensating in the opposite direction. I often encounter this problem as I have worked with churches who have called a pastor who has strengths where the previous pastor was weak only to find out that their new pastor has his own set of limitations—and at times they are worse than the previous pastor’s.
Overcompensating simply creates a pendulum swing and a new set of problems. What I have seen is that poorly designed and/or implemented top-down strategies aren’t any better than poorly designed and/or implemented field strategies. Similarly, pointing out past failures without a willingness to admit and correct our current failures benefits no one. We have all made mistakes in judgment. The strategies I personally believe are imperative today are different than the ones I thought we needed thirty years ago. Some of that is due to cultural shifts and some were caused by the fact that I’ve learned a few things in life.
2. Organizations led by feedback adverse leaders WILL falter and if issues go unaddressed they WILL fail. If you need “yes men” around you to affirm you, then you are not a leader. Effective leaders surround themselves with those who bring them to balance and who will speak truth into their life. Healthy leaders encourage debate and invite differences of opinion. They know that it will help them make better decisions and avoid blind spots.
HMB and NAMB used multiple strategies and emphases in an effort to reach major cities but had limited success. In the early days when asked what criteria were used to identify NAMB’s new Send Cities and what metrics would be used to measure success in light of our history, the answer was simply, “We will succeed.” Basically, the answer was “Don’t question our process.” Those who ask too many questions tend to have short tenures with NAMB.
3. Our ability to work with people will define the limits and effectiveness of our ministry. We know today that one’s Emotional Intelligence is a far better predictor of success than is our Intelligence Quotient. In slang terms, street-smart people do better than book-smart people. In Biblical terms servant leaders who empower others are more effective than dictatorial style micro-managing men who are in positions of authority—notice I’m unwilling to call them leaders. If you are a leader and no one is following, you’re just out taking a walk. You might be able to get people to comply or obey for a paycheck, and still not be a leader. Proverbs 14:28 touches on this principle: “In a multitude of people is a king’s honor, but in the lack of people is the downfall of a prince.”
One huge area that significantly limits many in positions of authority is their conflict style. In fact, that is one key area where God had to get my attention. Those of us with an aggressive and defensive style will function like a steamroller as we plow over anything or anyone in our road destroying relationships. The passive and evasive among us tend to ignore significant issues until the lid on the pressure cooker blows off, and then it’s too late—relationships are destroyed.
It is imperative that we find the right balance between getting the job done and developing and preserving relationships. Sometimes our passion to do things our way and in our timing gets out of balance with doing things God’s way and in His timing.
4. Many of us talk with our money before we are willing to open our mouths. Following the last major recession (2009-2010) total Cooperative Program (CP) receipts declined from their historic high in 2008 of almost $541 million to an average of less than $464 million during the last four years. This is true in spite of the fact that total charitable giving in the US is now at a record high. Our two major national offerings (one for International Missions and one for North American Missions) have both rebounded and set new historic highs since the last recession. COVID has not helped, but neither has it had the negative impact we anticipated. A legitimate question would be, “Why hasn’t CP giving rebounded?”
In my almost three decades of working with churches, I have seen that THE FIRST way Baptists show they are not happy is to reduce or quit giving, withhold giving, or re-direct giving. This happens at the local church level, at the association level, at the state convention level, and it is clearly happening at the national level.
Some churches, including many of our largest churches, believe they can steward their missions dollars better and thus give a lower percentage of general offerings through the CP. Some churches are voicing their concerns by either withholding or directing their CP giving to specific entities. Some churches, including many of our language churches and newer churches, have never understood how CP works—in some places, CP lives up to its name by becoming programmatic rather than being a mission and a vision-driven way to do more together. Some of our older, smaller, and rural churches are still giving, and some of them give sacrificially, but their giving is stable at best.
These numbers reinforce in my mind our need to have honest, loving, and open dialogue on the tensions that our changes have created. It magnifies the need for special emphases like Vision 2025 to help us regain and refocus on the “WHY” of CP. If we don’t do things like this, and do them well, my guess is that our organizational pendulum will continue to swing back to a societal method of funding ministries and missions. If that shift continues, we will lose much of the impact that CP has provided us over the last 100 years.
In this series of articles, I began by discussing exciting changes that I believe have caused some of our current tensions. I also provided significant historical context to help us understand how we got where we are today. In my opinion, we are now facing challenges that could become as significant as those Southern Baptists faced in the 1880s and 1920s. My personal passion, prayer, and energy seek first and foremost God initiated spiritual renewal. If the organizational renewal of churches, associations, state conventions, and SBC happens in the midst of that, then all praise and honor go to God. (Matthew 6:33).
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
The best way to describe the Annual Southern Baptist Baptist Convention’s two-day meeting is “the world’s largest Baptist business meeting.” For those who have experienced a “traditional” Baptist business meeting, no further explanation is needed. I would simply remind you that we went two years without having one. When you throw in the controversy around 2019’s Resolution 9, the overall stress created by COVID shutdowns, the ever-constant blogging that adds fuel to the fire, and the reports related to the resignation of Russell Moore, you have the makings for a “very interesting” meeting.
As I share my “take-homes,” I would simply ask that you recognize your church is very likely a microcosm of what we experience at the national level. I would also remind you that these are my personal reflections and like anyone else’s they are shaped by who I am. And one of my “faults” is a penchant for alliteration. Here were my big five take-homes:
Inerrant: We are a people who value the Bible as the inerrant word of God. While many denominations are debating the acceptance of cultural trends like gender identity and homosexual pastors, we had a floor debate On Abolishing Abortions, and we approved Resolution 2: On the Sufficiency of Scripture for Race and Racial Reconciliation.
On the abortion issue, some of the ardent among us wanted stronger language demanding an all-or-nothing approach to eliminating abortions. For example, they denounce any effort or politician who would work for a bill making partial-birth abortions illegal, because that bill would still permit other abortions. The authors and supporters of the resolution opposed the final vote on it because they felt a single-word amendment completely altered their intent. As approved one of the “Be it Resolved” clauses reads “that we will not embrace an incremental approach alone to ending abortion…”
Some of the passionate among us wanted a repeal of 2019’s Resolution 9 (which we were told is not possible under our resolution process) or a resolution clearly denouncing Critical Race Theory. For them the statements “We reject any theory or worldview that finds the ultimate identity of human beings in ethnicity or in any other group dynamic; and…that sees the primary problem of humanity as anything other than sin against God and the ultimate solution as anything other than redemption found only in Christ; and…that denies that racism, oppression, or discrimination is rooted, ultimately, in anything other than sin” were not strong enough statements.
I’m excited because our difficult conversations are about nuanced approaches on how best to apply historical Christian beliefs not debates about the adoption of current cultural trends. I’m also excited we have a platform through our resolutions where honest open debate can take place. I reminded you in last week’s article that resolutions are non-binding reflections of the messengers who were present at a specific convention, and that over time those opinions and positions have changed on a variety of issues—slavery is probably the clearest example.
Informed: As I listened, what continued to reverberate in my mind is that we are a people who want complete, accurate, and unbiased information about what is happening in our SBC world. A convention of churches as large and diverse as we are will inevitably have incomplete, inaccurate, or innuendoed communications. What can make them “intolerable” are the next two issues I will mention.
Intentional: There are multiple coordinated agendas running in the background at every SBC Annual meeting. Political activity is ever-present. Those who are intentional can at times be very narrow and extremely passionate in their focus. When that happens they are rarely open to information that does not support their position or conversations that don’t revolve around their area of interest. That approach can work in a single church or with a smaller group of churches, but in a convention of churches as large as we are a balanced BIBLICAL (remember my first “I”) approach will generally win the day.
Involved: As Baptists we are passionate about the Priesthood of All Believers. We value people who are willing to step in and step up and become part of the solution instead of remaining part of the problem. However, in our shift away from a hyper-congregational polity where we have to vote on the color of plastic silverware we use in the kitchen, we have swung the pendulum too far. Anyone who knows me has had to endure my rant on balancing God-called, appointed, and equipped leadership with the priesthood of all believers. Many of our larger churches have moved to a top-down decision-making process that simply informs members what was decided. We have filled SBC leadership positions with individuals from the latter paradigm who can lose the distinction between herding cattle and leading sheep.
Does your church encourage everyone to be engaged at an appropriate level of your decision-making process? In other words, are you creating sheep that will simply follow your lead and watch you work, or are you making disciples who will be willing and able to help you with the work God called His church to do?
Inspired: Yes the annual meeting is primarily a business meeting, but we also know that we need to be encouraged and inspired. That’s why God-honoring worship and God-inspired preaching are also included. But efforts in this area will fall on deaf ears if people aren’t confident that things are being handled well, and that we are heading in the right direction.
We are far from a perfect convention of churches, and that is because there isn’t a single perfect church (and yes that includes your church), and that is because there isn’t a perfect professing Christian (and that definitely includes you and me). I left for Nashville uncertain where we would be at the end of the convention. I drove home pondering and praying about what I heard and experienced. Today, I’m even more convinced that God is still in charge! That He is still my Lord! And that He is still in the process of patching and using broken vessels! Pliable clay in the Potter’s hand always has a future (Jeremiah 18:1-10).
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
The 2021 SBC Annual meeting officially begins today in Nashville. Because of COVID, we are meeting for the first time in two years. Pre-registration indicates that it will be the largest convention this millennium and maybe even since the 1995 Convention in Atlanta. Significant prayer, political maneuvering, discussion, and debate have been taking place since the 2019 meeting in Birmingham. My hope is that God will heed the humble prayers of the broken-hearted, admonish the arrogant and contentious, and grant us all His unmerited grace and peace.
If the Lord blesses us with life, breath, energy, and grace, Phyllis and I will be attending as messengers of our church. I will also be attending meetings prior to the convention as the SBC Executive Board representative from our state convention. Most of you will read this article from the comfort of your home or office, and thus you will read or hear about the convention’s activities second hand. My encouragement to you is to always remember that God is in charge, not Southern Baptists. Remember, every SBC church is independent and autonomous and the actions taken and resolutions approved are not dictates to be heeded, but they are the reflections of the messengers who attended and voted at this particular convention and are only something to be heard.
I would also remind you that just because you read or hear something, doesn’t make it true. Everything you read or hear will be second-hand information. It will have been filtered through the mind, experiences, and emotions of the person who is sharing their personal perspective.
As Phyllis and I do our morning devotionals, we are currently reading through Proverbs. We have received both exhortations and encouragement from several verses. Our prayer is that the wisdom we find in Proverbs will dwell in our hearts and minds and flow from our lips, and this will also be true for every messenger who attends this year’s convention. Here are some verses that have specific applications during a convention:
"Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all sins. Wise people store up knowledge, but the mouth of the foolish is near destruction.”
A final reminder, as Baptists we don’t get our marching orders from convention votes or convention offices, but from the eternal word of our Holy God. Thankfully, as Southern Baptists, we have historically chosen to work together for greater Kingdom causes always keeping a watchful eye and ear to make sure biblical integrity is being maintained. Far more important than the decisions made at the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting are the decisions we and our churches make every day as to whether we will be obedient to the Great Commandments and the Great Commission! Are we growing personally as disciples of our living Lord and are we showing others by word and deed how to find the narrow way? (Matthew 7:13-14) We can choose to debate and devour one another, or we can choose to work together to be His witnesses in our “Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
I again embark on some strategies principles that I pray we will implement better as we move forward. To the five I have already listed, let me add the following five:
In the early years of Kevin Ezell’s leadership, NAMB ignored all but one of its ministry assignments as listed in the SBC Organization Manual, and that was planting churches. With that singular focus, entire departments at NAMB were eliminated. Over the years the other five assignments have slowly garnered some attention. If approved at this year’s convention a seventh one will be added related to supporting collegiate ministries. NAMB’s challenge will be to find the right balance as they move forward.
When you place a laser focus on only one of the several assignments you have, you open yourself up to selective blindness. At the same time, you create a huge rift between your organization and those who value the other ministry assignments that are being ignored or eliminated. A singular focus can be helpful during certain times, but not during a season of critical evaluation or with the ongoing responsibility to fulfill multiple ministry assignments.
Good leaders take time to understand what is truly happening AND why it is happening before they design and implement needed changes. A Proverb that has application here is “Do not remove the ancient landmark which your fathers have set” Prov. 22:28.
That was a question we faced in our historic 2019 floods. After a bit of head-scratching and a little head-butting, we were able to find some workable options. We discovered that well-oiled and time-proven systems resist change. We were just a microcosm of the challenges that have been encountered at the national level when NAMB announced Send Relief, and, from the perspective of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, diminished their role. Our goal should never be to sustain a proven structure, rather it should be to design a structure that effectively does the job in our current context with a constant eye on fulfilling our gospel mission.
History is full of such people. Two examples can be found in I Kings 11: “So the Lord became angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned from the Lord God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice, and had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods; but he did not keep what the Lord had commanded” (verses 9-10). Pride and unchecked passions had replaced Solomon’s wisdom, and God removed His hand of blessing.
A few verses later, I Kings 11:37-38, we read that God sent the prophet Ahijah to Jeroboam with a message: “If you heed all that I command you, walk in My ways, and do what is right in My sight, to keep My statutes and My commandments, as My servant David did, then I will be with you and build for you an enduring house, as I built for David, and will give Israel to you.” But Jeroboam feared that people who went to Jerusalem to worship would eventually return to Rehoboam, so he built places of worship at Dan and Bethel. In each, he placed a golden calf, and he led his people to repeat the sin of false worship that their ancestors had done in the wilderness. Politics and power won Jeroboam’s heart.
Do you struggle with any of these five strategic principles? What are you doing to address the issue? If you’re not, then let me hit you with a few more strategic principles next week!
I shared two strategic principles last week that if applied well “might” have kept us from experiencing some of our current tension. I will share three more today knowing that when implemented well they too can help us avoid future problems. As I mentioned in the previous article, I have experienced the negative side of each of these strategic principles.
An example of a good strategy done poorly is what NAMB faced ten years ago. I am referring to the DoM/Church Starter Strategist positions that all new work conventions had used for several decades and one that I served in for almost twenty years. NAMB believed funding the dual role position was not a good strategic investment. However, today NAMB is encouraging the use of church-based Church Planter Catalysts. These are individuals who are currently serving on a church staff and are asked to pick up the responsibility to catalyze at least one new church plant per year. I would argue that this “new strategy” is identical to the traditional dual role that was previously declared ineffective.
However, I will quickly admit that this strategy, whenever it is used, requires individuals who can function EFFECTIVELY in dual roles. They cannot be living examples of “a jack of all trades and a master of none.” I will also quickly acknowledge that ten years ago too many DoM/CSSs could not do both roles effectively—it looked good on paper, but was not being executed well. The old cliché “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” has application as you consider NAMB’s early approach to this deeply engrained strategy. Effective leaders deal with ineffective staff, they don’t make rules that punish their effective staff, nor do they change their entire strategy simply because the current strategy isn’t being implemented well.
These realities mean we will need all kinds of church starting strategies. Unfortunately, some of the strategies that are available in old-line states are not always available in new work states. I have been directly involved in church planting for almost 35 years and only in recent years have I seen SBC church strength in our immediate area sufficient enough for a “hiving” or “campus” strategy to work. I would quickly add that it is a model that is still not available in much of Nebraska or in huge areas of other new work states. NAMB’s top down, single focus approach has relied heavily on the “hiving” model. They have shown “some” flexibility, but a limited feedback loop still exists which magnifies the problem of focusing on a singular strategic model.
I was serving in Iowa when the Iowa Southern Baptist Fellowship became the Baptist Convention of Iowa. At that time it fell far short of meeting the criteria needed to gain representation on SBC entity boards that have historically been granted to state conventions. The only “advantage” was the prestige of being called a state convention. The move came with a small financial “penalty” (HMB provided some financial support for the state executive position for a fellowship but none for a convention), and it still did not provide board representation. However, I learned growing up in Wyoming that it doesn’t do any good to close the barn door after the horses have already gotten out. So the question remains, how do we move forward in a truly cooperative environment?
NAMB has unilaterally suggested that some new work conventions should be combined. Yes, COVID has proven that technology can be used to maintain connectivity, but I would suggest that cooperative partnerships and ministry to churches will always require healthy relationships. Those relationships are created with face-to-face connections over time—not by FaceTime type technologies alone. Before new work convention restructuring can be addressed, I believe the fractured relationships between NAMB and new work conventions must be healed. Only with healthy relationships and trust, can difficult conversations take place where we can put in place rules that provide mutually beneficial accountability to those who provide a significant amount of the gold.
So far I have listed five strategies that we have not always implemented well in the past. The last two really demand more clarification, but space limitations do exist. My question for you is, which of these strategies has given you the greatest problems in your ministry setting? What would be the right next step that would help you resolve the issue?
Next week I will be listing additional strategies that could have been better implemented
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
Retiring in April 2022, Mark R. Elliott served as a Director of Missions (Associational Mission Strategist) in Western Iowa and Eastern Nebraska for almost three decades. He is a strong advocate for obedience and Biblically based disciple making. As such, he knows that making healthy disciples requires Christian leaders to be constantly pursuing spiritual maturity—be lifelong learners. Because of the time constraints of ministry, most pastors focus their reading list on resources that assist them in teaching and preaching the Word of God. As such, books focusing on church health, leadership development, and church growth tend to find their way to the bottom of the stack. With that reality in mind, Mark has written discussion summaries on several books that have helped him to personally grow in Christ and that tend to find themselves on the bottom of most pastor’s stack. Many pastors have found them helpful as they are able to more quickly process great insights from other pastors and authors.
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