Gnashville, Pt. 1


Somewhere over West Virginia last evening on an American Airlines flight from Music City to the nation’s capital, I was — for the first time in a long time — at a loss for words to express what I had just witnessed. I found myself thinking back on a scene from the movie “The American President,” starring Michael Douglas, Martin Sheen, and Michael J. Fox as the White House domestic policy advisor, Lewis Rothschild.

The president’s poll numbers were tanking — largely over his romantic involvement with an environment lobbyist played by Annette Bening. He was having difficulty regaining legislative traction, and fickle congressional leadership were wavering in their support. At one point, Fox’s character yells at the president in the Oval Office, but Sheen — playing the Chief of Staff — tries to silence him.

“The president doesn’t answer to you,” Sheen scolds the younger advisor.

“Oh yes he does, A.J. (Sheen’s character), this is my president,” Rothschild snaps back. “I am a citizen of this country and in this country it is not only permissible to question our leaders, it is our responsibility.”

He then turns to President Andrew Shepherd, played by Douglas, and says:

“People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they will listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership, and they are so thirsty for it they will crawl through the desert toward a mirage and when they discover there is no water they’ll drink the sand.”

It seems, quite regrettably, that is what’s happening at the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention. For nearly a year and bereft of effective leadership, the committee microphone has been up for grabs. Into that vacuum has stepped a mirage of leadership to wrest control of the platform and talk.

And talk. And talk. And talk some more.

In committee meetings. In workgroups. In plenary sessions. So much talking.

And during all the talking — refined and polished and perfectly intoned to sound pious and leaderly — the real leaders of the convention who know something of how the Executive Committee is supposed to work shuttle from committee room to committee room responding to text messages that alert them to the latest crisis on the 2nd or 3rd floor of the SBC headquarters.

For two days straight, the historically well-ordered, thoughtful, and deliberative meeting of the Executive Committee looked like bedlam. While committee members talked, and talked, and talked, sighs and groans could be heard from the gallery and throughout the corridors.

“Please stop talking,” was whispered more than once.

“No, no, no,” one denominational leader sighed.

At one point during a meeting of the Bylaws Subcommittee — chaired by Georgia pastor and onetime NAMB trustee chairman Ken Alford — it seemed like the worst Sunday School class you’ve ever attended. In turn, members took the opportunity to “share” stories from their ministries.

“I wasn’t molested growing up, but I know a boy who was,” one trustee said.

“We had a situation in our association,” another chimed in.

According to Houston Chronicle reporter Robert Downen, who attended his first of what will likely be several meetings of the Executive Committee, the trustees were even talking in the restrooms.

“You know, back in the day you had to prove you were abused, but now you can make an allegation anytime,” one wistful committeeman reportedly opined of better times.

As one pastor put it bluntly in another context: “We might reasonably expect such behavior from our children, but not from our leaders.”

More than once, I thought to myself: “This is what happens when a small-town county lawyer tries to do ecclesiology and a well-intentioned music minister tries to do lawyering.”

Case in point:

After wrangling over whether or not it would be “meaningful” to African Americans to have a stand alone vote on a bylaw change to exclude from the convention those churches that discriminate on the basis of race, the committee followed the appeal for haste made by the EC Chairman, who previously believed removing the confederate flag display was “too divisive.”

The end result is a poorly worded bylaw amendment that was rushed through an ill-informed committee eager to take some action — any action — to show they had done something — anything — in response to the Houston Chronicle story.

Full disclosure: I’ve seen how the sausage is made. I’ve even made some myself. For the past ten years, I’ve had a front row seat to the drafting of major legislation and sat in congressional committee hearings while sensible men and women weighed the effects of one proposed law or another. I’ve watched floor votes go awry, whip counts fall short, and last minute compromises push through everything from auto bailouts to judicial nominees.

Never, in all my experience as a senior legislative advisor, lobbyist, political strategist or communications professional have I seen anything quite as haphazard, reactive, and ill-ordered as the regularly-scheduled meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee in session this week.

No wonder they don’t want to webcast the meetings.

After my plane landed at Washington Reagan National Airport and as my driver took me past the nation’s Capitol, the irony came into focus.

The mostly old, mostly male, mostly white members of the SBC Executive Committee would probably be unanimous in their insistence that Washington is broken. But they should take it from somebody who gets his information from sources other than Fox News and Baptist Press.

Ain’t nothing more broken than the SBC.

Tomorrow, sans rant, we are going to address our primary concern with the SBC’s response to the sex abuse scandal that has rocked the convention in recent weeks.

Stay tuned . . .


To read a selection of our past reflections on the SBC Executive Committee meetings under past leadership and during better times: