Birmingham behind us, Part 2

Photo by Van Payne

Continued from Part 1

We arrived in Birmingham on a flight from DFW Airport that was loaded with Baptists heading to the annual convention. A few conversations at the gate and on the airplane centered on the LifeWay store closures, the sex abuse reporting in The Houston Chronicle, and of course, speculation about whether or not the Pattersons would venture to Alabama for the meeting.

Upon landing in Birmingham, we shared a cab with two Texas messengers traveling to the Sheraton and Westin hotels. After checking in and dropping our luggage, we quickly found a security guard at the convention center complex who directed us to a service entrance. For an hour or so, we wandered through the convention arena and exhibit spaces to get a lay of the land, stopping for a few moments to snap a few selfies.

Thus began a week wherein we walked a combined 27.6 miles according to the step counter application on our iPhone 8.  What follows is a summary of our thoughts on some of the week’s events, both on stage and back stage, at the Southern Baptist Convention. We will post our elaborations on each of the points below as time permits:

  • The President

    Last year, during the nomination speeches for SBC President, a Louisiana pastor assessed the kind of man who should lead the convention.  The election for president should not be, he said, “about our trying to make a statement to the younger generation.”Neither should the election be “about one candidate’s act of graciousness two years ago.” Southern Baptists needed a leader, Pastor Brad Jurkovich said, “who has the capacity, the wisdom, the experience, and the time it will take.” (emphasis in original)

    Well, congratulations Bradley. Southern Baptists got all of that and more, didn’t they?

    From the moment the lights in the Dallas convention center went off last year until the fall of the final gavel in Birmingham this month, J.D. Greear has demonstrated tremendous wisdom leading Southern Baptists. There is no telling the time he’s given to the task, and that during one of the more difficult periods of the SBC’s 174 year history.

    More than anything, there was a palpable sense in Birmingham that the messengers really like J.D. He pivots from prophet to pastor with natural ease. One moment he’s speaking hard truth to messengers who need to hear it.  The next, he’s weeping with abuse survivors and calling us all to do better. He’s pulling together Southern Baptists from every generation, every race, and every theological perspective. He’s providing a context in which we can discuss tough issues like a family.

    And he’s got a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face the whole time. You get the sense he’s loving it . . . but not because he loves the power or popularity. You get the sense that he just loves Southern Baptists, even with all our pettiness and stubbornness and yes, sinfulness. That he wants us — himself included — to love Jesus more.

    For a few minutes on Tuesday in the convention exhibit hall, I stood and talked with an older pastor who’s been attending the annual meeting since the early 1970s. He’s led small and large churches in Florida and Texas. He was there in Houston in 1979 and voted for Adrian Rogers. He thinks of himself as one of the guys who helped turn the convention back to biblical fidelity, and he’s proud of what Southern Baptists were able to accomplish.

    But the conservative resurgence, he told me, was never just about the Bible. It was about reaching the world for Christ. He told me that his main regret over the years is that the convention never seemed to get back on track with Bold Mission Thrust.

    This year, he told me, is the first time he’s felt like Southern Baptists were coming together again around the main thing. He was excited, visibly so. And his enthusiasm is contagious. There I stood talking to this 70-something retired minister holding a tote sack full of convention giveaways and thinking how many more of him are out there, still believing the Bible and waiting for Southern Baptists to get as worked up about reaching the world for Christ as they do Beth Moore speaking in a church on Sunday or intersectionality or some other word nobody seems to know what it means.

    Later that evening, I saw that same pastor walking with his wife into the Sheraton Hotel. Their pace was slow but steady. They were holding hands.

    For a moment, they looked something to me like Anna and Simeon might have looked to Mary and Joseph in the Temple courts: two aging, faithful servants of of the Lord who’ve been praying for the promised salvation of Israel and waiting to see the light of revelation to the Gentiles.

    And I had a sense that maybe, this year, they were joyous that finally — after a long, long wait — Southern Baptists are really putting the Gospel Above All.

    For that, we can all thank the Lord for J.D. Greear.

  • The Theme.

    Convention themes go largely unnoticed, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some are more memorable than others, but most are not very memorable or even clever. Some are memorable only insofar as they are alliterative phrases devoid of any substantial meaning.  Take “Love Loud,” for instance. What does that even mean?  Then of course, we had the Great Awakening of 2015 followed by Awaken America of 2016.

    Presumably we are now fully awake.

    In the last 24 hours, we’ve asked five former convention presidents if they remember their own convention themes from the years when they presided over the annual meeting.

    Not a single one could remember their convention themes. That’s not an indictment, just a reality. Life goes on, and we forget things.

    It’s going to be hard to forget the theme J.D. Greear picked for this year’s convention: “Gospel Above All.”  It’s hard to forget because unlike “Love Loud” (shouldn’t it be “Love Loudly,” now that we think about it?), it communicates in three simple words the heartbeat of Southern Baptist churches. It is both descriptive and prescriptive. It’s foundational and aspirational.

    J.D. has basically staked out for the convention, “Look, here’s who we are. And this is all that matters.”

    I feel sorry for subsequent convention presidents in this respect: How will they contrive a theme that can rival “Gospel Above All” for its profound simplicity? In fact, it may be time for the SBC to adopt “Gospel Above All” as a mission statement for the entire denomination.

    In any event, we’re hoping J.D. keeps the theme for the 2020 convention in Orlando.

  • Rules of Order and Parliamentarians

    This year’s convention was truncated. continuing a trend begun in 1998 when convention messengers approved a bylaw amendment to reduce the convention from its Tues-Weds-Thurs schedule to a reduced two day Tues-Weds schedule. At the time, the Executive Committee study group reported the proposed change would provide “no financial cost savings.” Instead the decision was driven by the reality that messengers were leaving before the Thursday session, resulting in poor attendance and the possibility that a quorum (25 percent of registered messengers) would not be present.

    Additionally, the structural changes that reduced the number of entities meant fewer reports. The committee also noted that the convention messengers no longer needed a report from denominational press because that material could be included in the report of the Executive Committee.

    Side note: We think the convention should start receiving a report from Baptist Press, and the editor of Baptist Press should be required to answer questions from messengers. Orlando, here we come!

    This year, J.D. Greear and Adam Greenway, chairman of the Committee on Order of Business, worked to tighten the convention schedule even more by eliminating evening sessions altogether. The result put the report of the Resolutions Committee late in the date on Wednesday, just before the final gavel.

    This was a bad idea, but more about that when we discuss the Resolutions Committee. Needless to say, the tighter convention schedule coupled with the LONG walks it took to get around necessitated careful time management and a brisk gait.

    Generally, the convention parliamentarians handled the flow of business commendably, though there were a few times where it seemed that J.D. Greear knew better what was happening on the convention floor than did his parliamentary advisors.

    Years ago, we remember sitting in the House Chamber in Washington D.C. during floor debates on various rules that precede votes on legislation. For Washington insiders, it is the rule debate that gets interesting as both the Republican and Democratic leaders on the powerful House Rules Committee hammer out the contours of the debate that will follow on the legislation under consideration.

    It was truly our favorite time to be a Congressional staffer. Sitting on the House Floor with a powerful Republican chairman, waiting for the rule debate to conclude so we could proceed to consideration of a bill. Quarterbacking the Republican agenda was the Rules Committee chairman, Rep. David Dreier. For the Democrats, a genteel Kentuckian-turned-New Yorker, the late Rep. Louise Slaughter.

    On more than one occasion, we watched while Chairman Dreier dismissed the staff parliamentarians and managed the rule on his own. What followed was a free-wheeling, but always sharp and clever congressional sparring between two astute and ever-polite legislators. We remember sensing the deflated ego of staff parliamentarians who sat down slump-shouldered at the realization that their “services” were not really needed by Chairman Dreier, who was himself a master of parliamentary finesse and decorum.

    But Dreier had an innate sense of political optics. He would stand there, alone, tall and crisp, while the Democrats huddled together on the other side of the aisle with teams of staffers trying to keep up with the legendary Rules Chairman. It was a spectacle we shall not soon forget.

    Lesson here: the man who knows the rules best usually wins the day.

    J.D. Greear and Adam Greenway have both proven themselves to be masterful in this regard. Greear, with his ear and eye attuned to the mood of the messengers and Greenway with his deep respect for procedural accuracy proved a dynamic pair that left the parliamentarians doing what they should do — providing advice when asked, but not tipping the scales through backroom machinations or involving themselves in the debate itself.

    Which is why parliamentarians should not use Twitter during the annual meeting, and most certainly not re-Tweet endorsements of matters before the convention offered by entity presidents.

    Next year, the Committee on Order of Business would do well to ensure that there is sufficient time to conduct all business, even if that means working with the Resolutions Committee to make sure they don’t try to shoehorn 20,000 words of resolutions on complex matters into 40 minutes of program scheduling.

  • The Resolutions Committee
  • Wade Burleson’s motion
  • Morris Chapman’s motion
  • Our motion
  • The Seminaries
  • The Missionaries
  • The Publisher
  • The Voices
  • The Debate
  • The Sermon
  • The Question (that wasn’t asked)
  • The Credentials Committee
  • The Executive Committee
  • Our favorite part of the 2019 convention

Birmingham behind us, Part 1


“Break her down.”

We will never forget where we sat when we first read those words. At the Ebenezer Coffee Shop — a ministry of an evangelical church in Washington, D.C. — we sat at a small table drinking an iced coffee, putting together final plans for a trip to Scotland, and reading the news.

In a statement from Southwestern Trustee Chairman Kevin Ueckert, the seminary reported the contents of a 2015 email from then-SWBTS President Paige Patterson in which he instructed campus security to bring a rape victim alone to his office so he could “break her down.”

Now we’ve read plenty of Patterson’s words before. Dispersed throughout the SBC in various archives, libraries, and private collections are emails, letters, handwritten notes, and epistles of a seemingly self-important apostolic authority written to everyone from family members to former students and faculty. There are even letters to presidents, governors, prime ministers, state legislators, and members of the United States Congress.

There are even letters where he joked about beating his own wife.

But nothing, we mean nothing, hit with the breathtaking thud of the “break her down” email. What sort of man born of woman thinks such things, let alone fires them off to campus security about a rape victim. The collective gasp heard round the convention and across the evangelical world could have been measured on the Richter scale.

And yet, nobody should have been surprised. For years, abuse survivors had been asking for greater scrutiny of Patterson’s handling of past rape cases. But they were dismissed as “evil doers” and “opportunists.”

One year ago, the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention was set to give Paige and Dorothy Patterson their proverbial Golden Jubilee, complete with a prime-time convention sermon for him, the report of the Evangelism Task Force, and a post-convention celebration on the Fort Worth campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. And, of course, an afternoon tea event.

But the much-hyped Patterparty — like enrollment projections at Southwestern for the past sixteen years — never materialized.

By the time the convention rolled around, Patterson had begrudgingly declined the speaking engagement, resigned from the Evangelism Task Force, and Southwestern cancelled all campus events. From our modest cottage overlooking the coastal hamlet of Port Askaig on the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, we streamed the Dallas convention in real time. We watched it all from gavel to gavel, in between distillery tours and sundry ribaldries with local Islay folk and a band of bachelor partying brothers.

We watched as J.D. Greear won a stunning victory for the convention presidency over Dr. Ken Hemphill, whose honorable pursuit of the Broadus gavel was regrettably moored to the dishonorable actions of a few Louisiana-based campaign bunglers. We watched as the convention batted down clumsy efforts to relitigate Patterson’s ouster and shame the seminary trustees. We watched the floor debate, the resolutions, the speeches and entity reports.

And we determined that this year, in Birmingham, we would attend the annual convention as a messenger for the first time since 2008 to get a glimpse, up close and personal, of what the SBC could look like if the gospel — truly — were above all. That is to say if the convention was a place where petty side squabbles gave way to Christ-centered worship and transparent reporting.

And a place where women and their ministry gifts were affirmed. Where churches said with one voice to those who have abused and covered up abuse, “Time’s up.”

In the weeks leading up to Birmingham, the possibility emerged that J.D. Greear’s noble aspiration for gospel focus might be sidelined. This time, the threat came not by abusive kleptocratic fundamentalists in Texas but by complementarians of the Lilliputian variety and a handful of unreconstructed Dortians who think the Communist Manifesto, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Living Proof Ministries are adjacent links in an unbroken heterodox chain within Southern Baptist life. By the first week in June, however, it seemed the fuss was dying down.

For the most part.

Indeed, as Southern Baptists arrived in Birmingham there was a sense of cautious optimism among attentive messengers that this year — the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the Conservative Resurgence — would bring a needed reprieve from decades of tribal squabbling and petty doctrinal recriminations.

To be continued . . .



100 days

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Today marks 100 days since Dr. Adam Greenway assumed the presidency of a seminary in steady decline. By every measure, he’s made bold, sweeping moves to get the school back on track, reinforce its historic mission and gospel-centered culture, and realign the school with the values and vision of most Southern Baptists. With Dr. Randy Stinson helping lay the groundwork for a renewed academic framework, Greenway has jettisoned both programs and personnel that needed to go.

And he got rid of those stinking windows. Let all God’s people say, “Amen.”

Had we been advising Dr. Greenway, we would have urged him to replace every dean at the school except Dr. Jeffrey Bingham, whose steady hand and gentle spirit guided the school successfully in the interim. One of those deans, Dr. Waylan Owens, hastily departed last summer after questions arose concerning his academic qualifications and administrative competence. The Terry School of Educational Ministries is now led by its namesake, Dr. Jack Terry, until a permanent dean is named.

The Roy Fish School of Evangelism and Missions has been led since its founding by Dr. Keith Eitel, a longtime associate of Southwestern’s former president, Paige Patterson, and perennial candidate to lead the International Mission Board during many past presidential searches. Eitel has been at Patterson’s side for more than thirty years, helping with everything from the Darrell Gilyard matter in the early 1990s to the anti-Rankin denominational espionage efforts of the mid-2000s.

As of today, Dr. Eitel is no longer the dean of the school. Within weeks, he will no longer be an employee of the seminary. We wish him well in his next ministry venture and encourage him to never again make secret recordings of his phone calls and personal conversations.

The talented worship leader, Dr. Leo Day, has been reassigned from his deanship of the School of Church Music to a new post as director of the Southwestern Center for the Arts. This new role will allow Dr. Day to continue service to Southwestern in a way that better suits his ministry gifts and resolves escalating internal administrative conflicts that have plagued the school under his tenure.  Dr. Joseph Crider will now lead the church music school on an interim basis until he is formally elected by the trustees later this year.

Dr. Terri Stovall, the capable dean of women’s programs, has been elevated to a more strategic position within the seminary as the Dean of Women.  In this respect, Greenway has reclaimed a Southwestern tradition and reaffirmed that the Fort Worth school — under his leadership — will be a safe place for women to study, flourish, and refine ministry skills in pursuit of God’s calling on their lives.

Note: The Dorothy Patterson Chair of Women’s Studies remains vacant following the termination of Dr. Candi Finch last Fall. It will surely take time before Greenway can find a woman adequate to fill that seat, if ever.

The Houston campus has now been sold, and there will no longer be a dean needed to serve that campus. The last dean — and its inaugural dean — retired last summer. Dr. Denny Autrey, who served on the search committee that recommended Paige Patterson, was never quite able to lead the Houston campus successfully, and the need for a dedicated facility evaporated years ago under his guidance.

Other than the School of Theology, one of the seminary’s other seven academic divisions remains under the deanship of a longtime Patterson associate, Dr. David Allen. In many ways, Dr. Allen serves as the litmus test for the Southwestern faculty and either an important ally for seminary’s future or a dispensable impediment.

If Allen is able to distance himself from the Patterson regime and fall in line behind Greenway, he may prove that his dedication to the seminary and her students supersedes his personal loyalties and persistent defense of a president who “broke down” women, wasted millions on bogus antiquities, stripped faculty of retirement benefits, mishandled sexual assaults, constructed monuments to himself, and now goes about attempting to undermine the new administration and recruit donors away from the school.

Yes, David Allen is one of Patterson’s chief enablers. He always was, and it remains to be seen if he shall persist as such.

Incidentally, it was David Allen who originally supported the hiring of Dr. Sheri Klouda, only to turn his back on the Old Testament professor and back Patterson’s efforts to ruin her career. It was David Allen who chaired the trustee board when Patterson was hired. It was David Allen who was awarded the theology school deanship upon Patterson’s election.  It was David Allen, who at Patterson’s behest, impeded the work of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force (go check out the Johnny Hunt archives in Nashville for proof). And it was David Allen who posted blogs, tweeted, liked and circulated pro-Patterson propaganda on social media even as the lies and cover-ups came to light.

At the moment, Greenway has not signaled any intention to replace Allen as dean of the School of Preaching. If ever there were a remaining faculty member at the school who is being shown grace to bear fruits worthy of repentance and get in line behind the school’s new president, it is he.

We have our doubts, but we’re choosing to follow Greenway’s lead on this one and give time and space for Allen to prove the value of his continued contribution to the school. But thirty years of blind loyalties and open-eyed complicities will take more than three months to undo. So we are waiting . . . and watching.

Now for a bit of history.

By the time the allied tanks rolled into Berlin in the spring of 1945, the senior officers of the Third Reich had largely dispersed throughout the world. A great many of them landed in places like Buenos Aires, Santiago, and Rio de Janeiro. Within weeks of the end of World War II, a Holocaust survivor named Simon Wiesenthal had compiled a list of hundreds of Nazi war criminals to bring to justice. At the top of that list were senior lieutenants like Adolph Eichmann and Josef Mengele.

For years, Wiesenthal worked with United States spy agencies and Israel’s Mossad to bring these men to justice. He stalked them in hamlets and jungles; he rounded them up one by one and hauled them to Berlin or Munich or Jerusalem to face charges for their evil acts. In the late 1970s, Holocaust survivors founded the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and worked to remove all statutes of limitations for Nazi war criminals.

With the help of the Wiesenthal Center, the Trump administration did last year what neither the Obama nor the Bush nor Clinton administrations were willing to do.  They arrested the last Nazi living in the United States and deported him — at age 94 — to stand trial for his crimes. He died earlier this year in Germany.

Several months ago, we were contacted by a colleague of David Allen’s and asked what we wanted to see done about his continued leadership at Southwestern.

“Southern Baptists don’t need a Simon Wiesenthal Center,” we responded. “The men who gave cover for the atrocities of the Patterson era should be given an opportunity to come clean and spend their remaining days doing right things and correcting wrong things.”

As Southern Baptists prepare to converge on Birmingham, we can all be grateful for the dramatic changes that have occurred at Southwestern in the past 100 days. But we should be cautiously optimistic that men like David Allen will align their ministry focus to support the school that once was and is fast becoming again, rather than use their ongoing influence at Southwestern to whitewash a fifteen year legacy of abuse they helped create and sustain.



Birmingham Preview Part 2: The IMB


Paul Chitwood’s first report to the Southern Baptist Convention comes amid one of the greater scandals to rock the International Mission Board. Southern Baptists have known of sex abuse cases involving overseas missionaries for years, and recent reports from the Houston Chronicle have served to tear open a wound yet unhealed for many.

Last month, the IMB released a report from the independent firm Gray Plant Moody that noted “much room for improvement” in the board’s efforts to prevent and respond to child sex abuse, sexual harassment, and sex assault. Moreover, the firm found “a number of significant concerns with the IMB’s handling of past cases.” Improvements to the board’s policies in past years have, shamefully, fallen “short of contemporary best practice standards,” the preliminary report found.

Southern Baptists should be hopeful that Chitwood’s leadership will address these “shortfalls” head on and repudiate past failures both transparently and courageously while inaugurating a new era of accountability, protection for innocence, and assistance to the victims whose lives have been fractured because of the past complicities and cover-ups by IMB personnel. As a former chairman of the IMB’s personnel committee and with two years as board chairman, Chitwood is uniquely equipped to ensure that the board not repeat past mistakes.

Meanwhile, Chitwood has other work cut out for him as he leads the largest mission-sending agency in the world to minister in a context of increased hostility to the gospel mandate, intensifying global refugee crises, poverty, hunger, and a shrinking pool of potential missionaries owing to Southern Baptists continued membership declines. Simply put, there is more lostness in the world now than ever before, and fewer Southern Baptists to respond to the call of sacrifice and service.

This year’s report to the convention is refreshing in one critical element. For years, Southern Baptists received reports that included undeniably inflated statistics for church planting, gospel witness, and professions of faith. A more modest appraisal of Southern Baptists’ global impact (reflecting work in 2017) can be found in the 2019 Book of Reports, a step in the sensible direction of rightsizing the IMB’s assessments. This more coherent and honest account promises a stronger foundation for appealing to churches to give, call, and go into a world that needs Southern Baptists mobilized now more than ever.

Chitwood will need to make more changes to the top leadership structure of the International Mission Board to have any hope of affecting a change of culture that protects innocence rather than shields offenders. Some of the men who yet serve at the senior-most levels of IMB leadership have been there for decades, meaning they potentially contributed to problems that have been identified in the independent review. As Chitwood implements the Gray Plant Moody recommendations, he will need a senior team whose past performance is in no way associated with the board’s past failures.

To put a finer point on it, if any of the watchmen on the IMB’s walls have the blood of cover-up on their hands, it’s probably past time for fresh eyes to take their posts while they are reassigned to a penitent ministry of quiet prayer and contemplation.

Next up…the North American Mission Board report.