Guenther unplugged: Longtime SBC attorney drops bomb on trustee incompetence, cronyism


The governance of Southern Baptist entities may be threatened by incompetent trustee bodies, according to a report given by Nashville attorney James Guenther, who has been general counsel to the convention’s executive committee since 1964.

“It is crucial that those persons nominated and elected for trustee positions evidence promise of having what it takes to be a good trustee,” Guenther stated.  “There ought to be no place in the system for cronyism, for political considerations, for good-old-boy arrangements. Selection of trustees on the basis of anything less than what is best for the institution demeans the ministry, trivializes the institution and mocks our piety.”

“Southern Baptists cannot afford anything but the best on our trustee boards. Southern Baptist institutions cannot afford trustees who will not do their job. Our boards need to be composed of persons with the best minds and the best hearts and the best spirits and the best intentions.”

Guenther continued:

“We need trustees who are educable, who learn fast, who are willing to learn, who want to learn, who have the trust to learn. We need trustees who are skilled in their own lives, who have their own expertise, and who respect the expertise of others. We need trustees who are open-minded, who will think independently — independently of the administration and independently of each other, independently of the folks back home and of denominational factions.”

In his report, Guenther outlined eight areas of concern regarding trustee responsibilities:

  1. Assignment — “Do your job; don’t try to do somebody else’s job The most common problem is that a trustee will want to do the job of the president, or of the staff, or of the faculty, or of a committee of the board, or that he will want to be the whole board. It’s a poor first basement who chases after pop flies into center field.”
  2. Respect for history — “Trustee who don’t know the mistakes of their predecessors can’t learn from those mistakes.”

    (Pause for a moment. Do we know how much money Southwestern lost on those fake Dead Sea Scroll fragments? Or how much has been trimmed from the budget of the president’s home since the Pattersons departure? Or what Pattersons severance package was? Now continue.)

  3. Truth — “I have seen trustee bodies vote to tell a lie when I knew that every single member of the trustee board was personally committed to truth telling. Some institutions, public and private, have been their own worst enemy by not telling their constituents all the truth.”
  4. Sensitivity — Trustees should be concerned about “how the decision will play in Peoria and in Peoria’s First Baptist Church.
  5. Process — “Establish procedures which are fair and reasonable, and insist on complying with those procedures. Let all things be done decently and in order.”
  6. Love — “When we consider how Jesus expects us to treat one another, the law’s due process looks like the pillage of the barbarians. It was former SBC President R.G. Lee who liked to say, ‘To give less under grace than under the law is a disgrace.'”
  7. Accountability — “You are accountable to the convention. But you are also accountable in a real sense to the employees of this institution. You are accountable to government, to your neighborhoods, to those in need of the gospel.”
  8. Law — “Trustees do well to follow two retraints courts have adopted. First, courts realize there is merit to settling controversies and one having settled them to not take them up again. Second is the idea that decisions should stand as precedents for future guidance.”

In a response to questions after his remarks, Guenther addressed  “a new militancy on the part of SBC boards, in large measure because of the transition in leadership.” He also addressed concerns about “litmus tests” for trustee appointments that create “a most unfortunate climate and tension on our boards.”

Trustees, Guenther said, “should insist on their right to be informed and on their rights to a full discussion of each important issue.”  They should also “listen with open minds to those with whom they disagree; . . . expect the president and staff to provide background information on all significant issues; . . . bring their ideas and proposals up in a time frame sufficient to allow staff to provide research and trustee committees to discuss the idea.”

Additionally, a trustee board should ensure that “fundamental legal, financial and ethical responsibilities are being fulfilled” and “be honest in appraising its own performance and organization . . . Individual board members should not deal with employees other than the president. If it becomes needful for a member of the board to work with an employee directly, the president should be made aware of that need, arrange the contact and be apprised of the discussion.”

“To do otherwise is fraught with peril,” Guenther noted.

To read more about Guenther’s comments, click here.