The other night while visiting with a ministry friend from Tennessee, we started thinking about how little time is allotted for messengers at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention to actually ask questions about the governance and administration of their entities. Typically, the time is spent with filibustered answers that limit the amount of time afforded to messengers who have traveled great distance — at great expense — to conduct the convention business.
We have had our moments to ask questions from the floor, but we find it the least effective way of getting answers to questions about entity governance, finances, policies, etc. It’s simply not the best way to elicit meaningful accountability in the SBC. Every year messengers are frustrated when they stand in line at a microphone and hope that the five minutes isn’t used up before the presiding officers recognizes their mic.
Alternatively, we’ve written plenty of letters and emails through the years, and we’ve typically had great success getting meaningful, comprehensive, and responsive answers to our questions.
Yet as messenger calls for greater transparency have increased, these concerns seem to have met intrasigence among certain entity leaders, and frustrations have exacerbated. Distrust, rather than trust, seems to be the trend.
In the coming weeks, we intend to proffer serious, substantive, and illustrative questions about how SBC employees — namely, the chief executive officers of the SBC entities — have managed the institutions for which they are stewards. Today’s inaugural post, however, is not about an SBC entity.
Rather, we have been increasingly curious about some of the facts surrounding the ministry restoration of former SBC President Johnny Hunt. In recent days, his new home church has thrown down the gauntlet about Hunt’s fitness to preach. The church is challenging a widely-discredited process of credentials committee inquiry, and their recently published response to the Credentials Committee has left many — including us — with even more questions.
If we had the opportunity to sit down with Johnny Hunt, here are some of the questions we’d ask:
There were four men whom you selected to serve as your ministry restoration committee (or whatever you want to call it.) Have all four men invited you to preach at their church following their pronouncement that you were fit to return to pulpit ministry?
When did you tell your wife about the private encounter in Panama City in the summer of 2010?
Did Jim Law participate at any point in your confession or restoration process?
Did FBC Woodstock propose a plan for ministry accountability and restoration?
Did you reject that plan?
Why did you move your membership away from FBC Woodstock?
Did you ever obtain services at Ravi Zacharias’ massage parlour that your wife would consider inapproriate?
Why did you deny any inappropriate conduct in your initial interviews with Guidepost?
Would you be willing to release transcripts of those interviews?
You claim that you did not have sex with your accuser and that her claims of abuse are false. Would you be willing to take a polygraph about that day in Panama City?
Have you ever sought or obtained prescription drugs to treat impotence or other sexual dysfunction?
If so, did you have that prescription in the summer of 2010?
Did you take any prescription or over-the-counter medicine before entering your accuser’s apartment that day in 2010?
If another minister had the exact same experience with your wife at a condo in Panama City, would you claim that she had consented?
If another minister had the exact same experience with your married daughters that you did with another man’s wife, would you claim they had consented?
If so, would you invite those men to preach in your pulpit?
The Guidepost report contains many specific details of your encounter in 2010 with the woman who accuses you of sexual assault. Are ANY of those details true?
Prior to 2022, have you ever sought professional counseling, treatment, or therapy for sexual addictions?
Chairman Rolland Slade Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention 901 Commerce St. Nashville, TN 37201
With gratitude for the opportunity to serve Southern Baptists as the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Southern Baptist Convention, I hereby tender my resignation, effective June 30, 2021.
This week, the messengers to the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting have authorized a Task Force to oversee an investigation of the Executive Committee’s handling of sex abuse since 2000. In that motion, the convention has requested that the Executive Committee waive attorney client privilege if that is outlined by a third party investigator within the range of “best practices.”
During the annual meeting, I attempted to persuade the motion’s authors, Dr. Grant Gaines and Dr. Ronnie Parrott, that the motion was an unwise move that could open a Pandora’s box of legal, ethical, structural, and insurance challenges for the Southern Baptist Convention. These pastors were within their right to press the motion, and the messengers spoke clearly.
Given this action, I am unable to perform my fiduciary service to the Executive Committee. I simply cannot execute a messenger action that I believe to be deleterious to our missionary enterprise. That said, I pledge my full cooperation with the Task Force and pray that your work will bring justice where it is demanded, forgiveness where it is needed, and unity where it is lacking.
Thank you for the opportunity to serve Southern Baptists in these recent months.
Dear SBC Executive Committee Trustees and SBC Family,
I was planning to release this letter on Monday, October 11; however, I delayed the publishing of this letter until today, due to the death of my mother-in-law on Sunday and then the funeral which took place on Wednesday afternoon in Bridgeport Texas, October 13.
For many years, I have told you that I was “humbled” to lead Southern Baptists; however, today I can confess a level of humility — if not total humiliation — that I have not known in ministry. Writing this letter has been difficult, and even more so because of the recent death of my wife’s mother.
After serving as the senior pastor of the same church for over thirty-two years, I came here twenty-eight months ago in good faith because I believed in what we do together to advance the Good News of Jesus Christ to the whole world. It was this personal and pastoral commitment to the Great Commission vision that moved me to lead my church to invest heavily in the Cooperative Program and the ministries of the Southern Baptist Convention.
There is no need to rehearse the sequence of events that have brought the Executive Committee and our convention to this moment of crisis. For the past 28 months, I have attempted to the best of my abilities to serve Southern Baptists in a role that I believed to be God’s calling on the last chapters of my life. I hit the ground running, and I gave it my very best before God.
The Bible tells us in Psalm 90:12 these words, “Teach us to number our days carefully so we may develop wisdom in our hearts.” We are told these words because each of our days are limited and we must determine how we believe God wants us to use them for His glory.
The prophet Jeremiah has been on my heart lately. In the eighteenth chapter of Jeremiah, the prophet is told by God to ”go down to the potter’s house.” There, he was to watch as the potter beat and molded and struck and fired and cast down a piece of common clay. God said to Jeremiah: “Like clay in the potter’s hand, so are you to me.” I know that God is doing something in my life, and in our convention, that is his divine prerogative. This has been a painful season, and we are not sure why God has brought us to this point. But I am trusting that God knows what he is doing.
While Jeana and I have no idea where we are going and what we will do in the future, today I submit my resignation as the President and CEO of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee. I will serve through Sunday, October 31, 2021.
I also know that my time on this particular potter’s wheel has come to an end. While it wasn’t the end I had hoped and for which I had desperately prayed, God has made it clear to Jeana and me that it is not his plan for us to remain at the Executive Committee. Today, I have tendered my resignation to Chairman Rolland Slade, effective immediately. I have promised to assist Chairman Slade in any manner he requests to facilitate a peaceful transition to the next leadership that God will provide.
In the midst of multiple challenges facing the SBC, I was asked to come here because of my proven personal integrity, reputation, and leadership. What was desired to be leveraged for the advancement of the Gospel by those who called me here, I will not jeopardize any longer because of serving in this role.
The hurt we are feeling is compounded by the sense that we have been left to face this alone by some of our closest friends and longtime ministry partners. When I was elected, all of my contemporaries and peers were kind to provide strong statements of endorsement for my leadership. Each of them — all six seminary presidents, both mission board presidents, our publishing house and our annuity board leaders — told me privately and publicly that they were fully supportive of my leadership. In fact, I told them that I could not accept the position without their unqualified support. In recent months, I have been keenly aware how that support — both privately and publicly — has evaporated. I have none to blame but myself, and I feel that I have let down so many people, especially the survivors of sex abuse who have been calling for reforms for years.
As President and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee, I have fiduciary duties. The decisions made on Tuesday afternoon, October 5, in response to the 2021 Convention now place our missionary enterprise as Southern Baptists into uncertain, unknown, unprecedented and uncharted waters. Due to my personal integrity and the leadership responsibility entrusted to me, I will not and cannot any longer fulfill the duties placed upon me as the leader of the executive, fiscal, and fiduciary entity of the SBC. In the midst of deep disappointment and discouragement, we have to make this decision by our own choice and do so willingly, because there is no other decision for me to make.
Since the 2021 annual meeting, I have struggled with determining the best way to honor both my responsiblities to the convention as its treasurer and my duties as the chief executive of the executive committee. Southern Baptists are facing an unprecedented challenge, and the Executive Committee is in uncharted waters. I sought to the best of my ability the wisest legal and theological counsel to help guide this process. But I admit, my primary calling is as a pastor. And while I have been frustrated by the process, I cannot imagine the frustration experienced by so many abuse survivors whose cries have gone unheeded for many years. In the end, I have failed both the convention and them. I am sorry.
Our SBC Executive Committee has had an unwavering commitment to doing this needed review. Our commitment has always been to fulfill the desires of the messengers, but the deliberations were about “how to do this” in the most effective way. There was a way it could have been done that fulfilled these desires without creating these potential risks relating to the Convention’s liability. Sadly, even some of our laypeople who are serving as our trustees had to submit their resignation because their profession will not permit them to serve any longer due to these risks that now exist. Others will have to do the same also. This is unacceptable and should concern every Baptist layperson. The SBC entities need more laypersons, not less, who bring their professional expertise in law, finance, and other disciplines to us.
Under the leadership of Chairman Rolland Slade, the Executive Committee has sought to honor the Lord, respect the messengers, and fulfill our ministry assignment. Perhaps, in my zeal to get our convention focused on reaching the world, I have neglected to give proper priority to the overwhelming charge of the messengers to the 2021 annual meeting. Perhaps, in my desire to lead boldly, I have not listened attentively. For this too I am sorry.
I was a pastor for over forty years. My entire life has been devoted to serving Christ and His people. The thought of anysexual abuse done to anyone abhors me. As a husband, father, and grandfather of seven, I deeply care about the protection of all people. Every Executive Committee staff member who is serving with me, along with trustees that I know, has been united in our desire to care for people while at the same time doing what we have been asked to do by the Convention. One of the most grievous things for me personally has been the attacks on myself and the trustees as if we are people who only care about “the system.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
In my strongest moments of ministry success, I have been able to bring people together and accomplish good for the Lord and his Kingdom, though I recognize I have failed to give the Lord the glory due his name for these successes. At times, I have taken too much credit for myself. The old man is not yet fully dead in me. But in my weakness, Christ is made strong. I am learning far too late in life what the mirror looks like, and I want God to keep making me into the image of his son. For him to do that, I have to be willing to forget everything that is behind and press forward, on my knees, and trust that God will use this broken vessel to do something glorious for the sake of the gospel.
Through the end of this month, I will ensure our team is ready to complete the matters that will accomplish the will of this Convention. I will also continue to carry out my ongoing responsibilities.
I simply do not know how Jeana and I can face another convention. It is going to be hard enough to attend church for a while. We are feeling, to some small degree, what so many who have been hurt in church must have felt. I want this experience to leave me marked — like Jacob at the Brook Jabbok — until everyone who will ever see me at a Southern Baptist Convention in the years ahead will know that I have wrestled with God, and he has broken me. If you see us in the coming years, I hope you will not see my failures but the Lord’s victories in my life.
We love Southern Baptists and will continue to love you and the mission we do together. As the Treasurer of the SBC, it is a privilege to announce to you this week, that over $702.6 million dollars have been given this past fiscal year through our Total Cooperative Program Giving, Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions, and Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. This generosity has occurred over these past twelve months as we have each navigated through this global pandemic.
Perhaps, what I will miss most about this job is the opportunity to serve at the nexus of 47,000 churches cooperating together on mission. Every week for the past 28 months I have rejoiced to get reports of Cooperative Program receipts. Through a terrible season of political, economic, and global health crisis, Southern Baptists have remained faithful and your generosity unto the Lord is overwhelming. Like no other entity leader, I have gotten to see how all the work Southern Baptists do in the earth is supported through the Cooperative Program and our various mission offerings. I will miss those weekly reports, though I will continue to celebrate with you as God’s people give sacrificially that the world might know Jesus.
As I walk away from these responsibilities that I have cherished and still cherish today, I know we have been faithful to champion the work we do together in the Great Commission and through the Cooperative Program. We have also led our Convention to adopt Vision 2025, a unified Great Commission vision. We have also led our team to prepare and serve the largest SBC Annual Meeting in decades. Furthermore, we have led our Convention to amend our SBC Constitution declaring that churches will no longer be in friendly cooperation with us who are acting in a manner inconsistent with the Convention’s beliefs regarding sexual abuse and even others who may be acting to affirm, approve, or endorse discriminatory behavior on the basis of ethnicity. These actions will endure the test of time because they are now in the governing documents of our Convention. We have led our Convention to grant to our SBC Executive Committee the national ministry assignment to elevate the ministry of prayer in our churches. This is desperately needed, and it was my desire to do it in the highest manner.
While I am inclined to close this letter with a list of accomplishments during my tenure, I feel that impulse is at war with my sense of the Lord’s charge to me in the coming days. Proverbs 27:2 says ”let another’s lips praise you, and not your own.” If there is anything I have done that is praiseworthy, I trust that men of good will and charity will speak kindly of my leadership at the appropriate time.
To our staff team and trustees, as well as all of our partners in the Great Commission, we love you and thank you for this high honor to have served you. To all of the pastors and to all of the churches, and the missionaries across the globe, I have been faithful sought to be faithful to your causes daily and have always had you in my heart as I weighed the heavy decisions that came across my desk.
May God and His favor continue to rest on all of our Great Commission work together.
The crisis of trust presently convulsing the 15 million-member Southern Baptist Convention owes itself to various precipitate causes. To be sure, some of the antecedent events were inevitable. Large organizations, particularly religious ones, often struggle through a season of self-reflection, redefinition and conflict during generational transfers of leadership.
Such conflicts are both ancient and organic. The Bible is full of such stories: Isaac and his two sons; Saul and David; David and Absalom; and so on. Church history — from the time of the Apostles until the present day — is replete with examples.
Think of how the Church of England, for instance, splintered into numerous factions long after the death of Henry VIII. Or more recently, how the First Baptist Church of Dallas burned through a handful of successive pastors following the non-retirement of its legendary patriarch, W.A. Criswell.
But this week, the evangelical world has watched with a mixture of disbelief and disgust as the Executive Committee of Southern Baptist Convention devolved into a confused parliamentary boondoggle complete with sobbing litigants, aggrieved survivors, a former White House lawyer, and a sneering parliamentarian who perched and plotted on the shoulder of the Committee’s kindhearted chairman like Jafar from Disney’s Aladdin.
It was part Shakespearean tragedy and part Puccinian opera, all of it worthy of a short story jointly written by G.K. Chesterton and Flannery O’Connor.
In a word, it was ecclesiastic trainwreck. Had someone the foresight to sell tickets and stream online as pay-per-view, the circus it became could have generated impressive revenues for the convention’s mission-sending agencies and other ministries.
But like so many other things associated with Southern Baptists, nobody in charge was thinking ahead.
At the center of this unfolding drama is the Rev. Ronnie Floyd, a religious leader whose record as a successful megachurch pastor and church growth visionary has now been eclipsed by his serial bungling of sex abuse and his torturous manipulation of the convention’s polity to amass power for his Committee, and thus for himself and his chief aide-de-camp, a part-time lawyer whose only substantive credential is his derivative connection to the late Adrian Rogers.
Adding speed to Floyd’s very public denoument is a reportedly tone-deaf management style that has sent some of his most able staff members looking elsewhere for employment, his use of mission dollars to splash his own airbrushed image on almost every convention publication, and his intensified defiance of the convention’s overwhelming rebuke of his agenda at last summer’s annual meeting.
In fairness, the convention has never really warmed to Ronnie Floyd in his more than four decades of denominational ladder climbing. When he’s lost, he’s lost big. When he’s won, it was by a hair.
None of which has ever seemed to deter the Rev. Floyd, a man whose minimalist dietary habits and fancy dress have always seemed strangely out of place in a convention full of potluck preachers wearing off-the-rack suits and orthopedic shoes.
This week, Floyd’s eccentricities and ambitions were on full display. His sallowed skin and sunken cheeks peeked out of his pressed collar and designer coat. At a moment when nobody was asking him to speak, he assayed the rostrum and gripped the podium and reminded us all of his own piety and proximity to the Almighty.
Today, less than 24 hours after the close of what some believe to be the penultimate scene of Floyd’s final act on the convention stage, the denomination has hit a seven day pause. An intermission, if you will, to let the good people at home refresh their beverages and evacuate their bladders and prepare themselves for what comes next.
And what comes next, as with so many great tragedies of Western literature, promises to be either a final redemption for Floyd’s ministry as he climbs from the ash heap of his own self-immolation or a triumphant resurrection of integrity that will have a generation of Southern Baptists saying of him, “his last act was his best.”
On the other hand, Floyd’s short tenure at the Executive Committee could end catastrophically, an anticlimax — of sorts — that would doubtlessly reinforce the Arkansan’s perennial impulse to put himself at the tipping point of any denominational development. So determined to lead something, anything, everything in fact, Floyd’s exit path may ironically result in a true moment of leadership. A voluntary departure could, in fact, make it easier for the convention to recover from the failed experiment in ecclesiastic centralization that has marked Floyd’s tenure in Nashville.
Of course, the convention will recover on its own, in time. That, perhaps, is the hardest part for Floyd: the growing realization that Southern Baptists don’t need him — or really even want him — to lead them. More painful is the sobering possibility that they never did.
Either way, the disastrous executive leadership of Ronnie Floyd at Southern Baptists’ national headquarters will likely be, in the final reckoning of Baptist history, a mere footnote. His denominational epitaph could well read, “Ronald Wayne Floyd, a Baptist preacher who might have brought healing during a painful season of convention life had he not gotten in his own way.” Twenty years hence if they mention him in their classrooms at all, Seminary professors may point to the Floyd era in Southern Baptist life as the most recent example of why Baptist polity works, in the tortured end.
Even a good leader, with skill and finesse and native insticts, would not succeed in making Baptists a hierarchical people who look to Nashville for their vision. Southern Baptists are a sturdy and passionately independent people. They are both indomitable and resilient. They have survived their own bastard birth as slaveholders. They have survived the Civil War and the Great Depression. They have survived Klansmen and Klan sympathizers. They have survived official misconduct, fraud, and most recently, they have survived the political machinations and theological manipulations of one Leighton Paige Patterson.
In the coming days, the Executive Committee officers may yet salvage Ronnie’s legacy and “vindicate” him, to use the recent words of one of the committee’s more obdurate trustees. But if that occurs, it will be a byproduct of their determination to salvage the Executive Committee itself.
And if Ronnie is still in office come Anaheim and the Task Force’s recommendations open a path toward mission recovery for the 47,000 church denomination, Floyd will doubtlessly present himself to the messengers as the man who saved the convention. But we will all know better.
That distinction — the man who saved the SBC from itself and the incompetence of would-be leaders — will likely fall to Rev. Bruce Frank, the task force chairman who managed to steal the show in Nashville and demonstrate a profoundly biblical truth: namely, that the Lord raises up his own prophets, in his own time and way.
And he ususally plucks them from relative obscurity rather than bestow the prophets’mantle on men who’ve forged their ministerial credentials in the palace court. Unlike Floyd, Chairman Frank is unemcumbered by four decades of familiarity. If the convention is now experiencing Ronnie fatigue — and it is — Bruce Frank may prove the antidote we’ve been waiting for.
Two weeks ago I placed a call to SBC President J.D. Greear, whom I have known since 1997 when we both attended Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. Through the years, we have had a distant but always cordial and fraternal friendship. Our conversations in those early days were about Scripture, preaching, and at times, the convention.
In the past few years, our conversations (albeit infrequent) have been about sundry SBC kerfuffles. One thing I love about JD (and Veronica) is that even when the stress is high and the issues are controversial and conflicted, he always manages to have a cheerful disposition. You can’t be around him long without realizing he loves people…all kinds of people.
One of the highlights of my denominational engagement was in 2006 when I orchestrated the nomination of California pastor and much-loved SBC rabble-rouser, Rev. Wiley Drake. The speech, if we must admit, was the best that has ever been given. My late friend and one of the early advocates for Guidestone’s Mission Dignity ministry, Dr. Bill Dodson of Kentucky was a great sport and executed the speech flawlessly.
Wiley Drake beat J.D. Greear (and Jay Adkins) on the first ballot, thereafter earning the consternation of the SBC Executive Committee as he routinely mailed letters to political leaders far and wide on letterhead he’d created himself, improperly utilizing the convention’s official logo, of course.
The downside of helping get Wiley elected was that I had to work against my friend, J.D. Greear. He took it in stride, and we’ve shared plenty of laughs about it through the years.
But our phonecall the other day had a more stern tone.
I’d called J.D., against my better judgment perhaps, to let him know what I was planning to do on Tuesday afternoon in Nashville.
SBC Bylaw 10 (On the election of officers and voting) stipulates that only one (1) speech may be given for each nominee to convention office, and that speech may not exceed three (3) minutes.
It was my plan, and was until this morning, to go to the microphone during the first election of officers and make a nomination. It would have gone something like this:
ME: “Mr. President, I am Benjamin Cole, a messenger from Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, TX. Before I make my nomination, I put a parliamentary inquiry to the chair. SBC Bylaw 10 stipulates that no more than one speech may be given for each nominee, and that speech may not exceed 3 minutes. Do I understand the bylaw correctly?”
JD: “The chair advises the messengers that Bylaw 10 does stipulate exactly that.”
ME: “Thank you, Mr. President. I nominate Mike Stone of Georgia.”
At that point, I would just walk away from the microphone.
The result, of course, would have been that Mike Stone’s preferred nominator would have been legally barred from giving a second speech for Rev. Stone, unless the messengers voted to suspend the rules.
JD laughed for a moment, and then got quiet.
“Ben, what am I supposed to do with that?”
”Your job is to enforce the rules, JD. You’ll have to decide if you are going to do that, or if you’re going to break them.”
”But I don’t think what you have proposed is fair to Mike Stone. I want to ask you NOT to do that.”
”What won’t be fair is when you break the Bylaws to let Mike Stone have two nomination speeches and none of the other candidates to have the same.”
”I’m still going to ask you to stand down,” JD said.
We ended the call, and I went on with my day. A handful of friends have learned in recent weeks that I was planning such a parliamentary hijack. Everyone has laughed.
It then became a running joke. I thought about wearing a MAGA hat, or a Confederate lapel pin. I thought about wearing a face mask that read “Come and Take It” or was emblazoned with the Jolly Rogers.
But early this morning, I decided JD was right.
This election needs to be straight down the middle, fair and square. No monkeying around with the rules, and no abuse of the rules to score a momentary parliamentary advantage.
Messengers arriving at the Music City Center this morning do not know who is going to win the election, or any of the associated ballot votes that will be put to us.
But we can have absolute confidence that JD is going to play it straight. No favoritism. No shenanigans. No funny business.
If my instincts are right (and they usually are), the convention is about to behold the closest thing we’ve seen to Adrian Rogers command of the platform in 1987, 88.
And that, dear readers, is the kind of leader J.D. is. He loves his friends, but he’s not afraid to tell them he thinks they are wrong.
It would have been a CORRECT application of the bylaws to do what I planned, but it would have been an UNCHARITABLE appropriation of the parliamentary rules to do that to Mike Stone.
If he wins today, we hope next year he will be just as fair to others as JD has been to him, even when he had no clue.
I first met Neil and Elizabeth Griffin outside the Little America Hotel in Salt Lake City. As I stood at the hotel entrance with my longtime friend, Lollie Cogswell, and her elder sister Louise Brooks, Neil and Elizabeth drove up in a Lincoln Town Car to retrieve us for a Sunday brunch hosted by Judge Paul Pressler at the Cliff Lodge in Snowbird. We piled into the car — Elizabeth insisted on sitting in the back seat with the ladies — and Neil drove the 27 miles where we would meet another messenger (and law school classmate of Judge Pressler), Jack Ingram of Commerce, TX. A young assistant to Judge Pressler, Jay Lifshultz, rode separately with the Presslers and their son, Paul IV.
I learned on the ride to Cliff Lodge that the Griffins were longtime members of Bellevue Baptist Church and close friends of Dr. Adrian Rogers. In fact, the Griffins had lived around the corner from the Rogerses for years. Then in their 70s, the Griffins were childless. But they had cultivated a love for young ministers and a desire to underwrite their ministry preparation that filled the void.
Along the way, Neil told me about his childhood in rural Tennessee, about barefoot days of poverty during the depression. and about entering the hotel business and banking. The Griffins had driven all the way from Memphis to Salt Lake, as they usually did for the annual meeting, so they would have their own car and be able to chauffeur their friends and fellow messengers around the convention host city. Brunch that day was paid for by Jack Ingram, but only after some protest by the Griffins, who were not used to having others pay for their meals.
We rode back to Salt Lake City together to make the Pastor’s Conference.
Before leaving Salt Lake, I exchanged contact information with the Griffins, who invited me to stay at their home any time I was in Memphis. Later that year, while driving back to Texas from Wake Forest, NC for the Christmas holiday, I stopped at the Griffins and attended Bellevue with them on Sunday morning. We went to lunch at a cafeteria not far from their home, and I drove on to Texas.
Two years later, I ran into the Griffins again in Orlando for the SBC annual meeting. That Sunday morning, Neil and Elizabeth drove me to church (my memory tells me it was Aloma Baptist in Winter Park, but it may have been First Baptist) to hear Dr. Adrian Rogers preach. After the service, Neil introduced me to Dr. Rogers, who pulled on my necktie and then bear hugged me.
I was star struck, as most young preachers were when meeting Adrian for the first time. Later that week, after the adoption of the BFM2k, I sat in the lounge on one of the top floors of the Rosen Hotel with my friend Bruce Ashford watching news coverage of the day’s events. After a few minutes, we realized someone was standing behind us.
It was Adrian Rogers.
So there we sat, with Adrian standing behind us, watching Al Mohler explain what Baptists had done earlier that day to a world that never seems to understand the complexities and, in fact, beauty of Southern Baptist polity.
The 2000 convention ended, and I went back to Wake Forest later that summer. (I had briefly attended SWBTS in 1999-2000 while serving as interim pastor of a small church in North Texas). Along the way, again, I stopped at the Griffins house for the night.
Early the next morning, after coffee, I was preparing to pack up my car and continue the journey to Wake Forest when Neil asked me to wait a few more moments. He ventured downstairs to the basement, and after a few moments he slowly climbed the stairs to meet me in the entryway to their home. He handed me an envelope, his eyes filling with tears.
Inside that envelope was a check made out to Southeastern Seminary for $1000.00. Choking through his tears, Neil told me he and Elizabeth wanted to help pay for my seminary education. I cried a little with him, we hugged, and I drove to Wake Forest to finish my M.Div.
That was the first of several $1000.00 checks the Griffins wrote to help cover the costs of my seminary education. When I graduated from Southeastern in Dec. 2002, they sent me a card with a $100.00 bill.
Over the years, we corresponded back and forth and would see each other at annual meetings. When Adrian died, I called Neil and Elizabeth to express my condolences. Neil died in 2007, and I wrote Elizabeth a note expressing my thanks for how Neil and she had invested in my life.
I didn’t see Elizabeth again until the 2010 Southern Baptist Convention in Orlando. One afternoon, Elizabeth and I found each other standing at the bank of elevators. We got on the elevator together and started to ride up.
It was a little tense. I knew she was upset with me.
“Ben, you know Dr. Rogers would not approve of what you’re doing to Paige.”
“Mrs. Griffin, I don’t think he’d approve of what Paige is doing to the convention either.”
I told her I loved her, and that I would never forget how kind and generous she and Neil had been to me through the years. I gave her a hug and we went our separate ways. I never saw Elizabeth again after that.
Last summer, I received an assortment of photos that appeared to have been taken from surveillance videos. They showed Elizabeth, thin and frail with a walker, being escorted into a law office by Dorothy Patterson, bent over and bloated with a cane. They showed Dorothy being chauffeured around Memphis in a white BMW. They showed them at Mid-America Seminary with Paige Patterson and his aide-de-camp, Scott Colter. And they showed them at an executive terminal in Memphis as they prepared to board a private jet. A note accompanying the photos asked questions about why the Pattersons — at the height of COVID closures — were taking a private jet to meet with Elizabeth Griffin and her lawyers.
My instincts told me what was up. They were working on another old woman to get a piece of her estate, just like they had years before in Dallas and countless times in between. It made me sick. It made me angry.
The Griffins had been supporting SEBTS for years, beginning with the trustee service of their pastor, Dr. Rogers. They had supported SWBTS, Mid-America, and countless other ministries and ministry students through the years. But now Elizabeth was in poor health, into her 90s, and living in an assisted living facility in Germantown.
When I got those pictures, I thought of writing Elizabeth again and telling her what the Pattersons were up to, how they’d hollowed out SWBTS, defunded faculty retirement and health benefits, purchased fake Dead Sea Scrolls for millions, mishandled sexual abuse, misappropriated institutional funds, absconded with valuable seminary property, and the list goes on.
But I decided the last thing a dying old woman needed was the burden of all those facts. I determined then to simply pray for her, and that God would in good time reveal the truth about the Pattersonian penchant for bilking little old ladies.
Today, the estate of Elizabeth Griffin is still in probate. I do not know how she resolved to modify her testamentary gifts to Southeastern, Southwestern, or other ministries she and Neil had supported through the years. But this I do know.
Neil and Elizabeth Griffin were the best kind of Christian laypeople. They were honest, faithful, and generous. I also know this:
They were determined to use their money to underwrite the legacy of Adrian Rogers. That is why they gave to SEBTS. It’s why they gave to SWBTS. It’s why they gave to Mid-America.
As for the Sandy Creek Foundation?
There doesn’t seem to be anything about that organization that represents the character, vision, and commitments of the greatest preacher Southern Baptists have ever known.
The Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee is composed of 76 members elected by the Southern Baptist Convention consisting of the president of the convention, the president of the Woman’s Missionary Union of the SBC and one member from each cooperating state of the convention. When the membership of cooperating Baptist churches in a given state shall have reached 250,000 there shall be an additional member for each 250,000 members with a limit of five. Thus Texas has five members.
Among their responsibilities is to “act for the convention ad interim in all matters not otherwise provided for.” Another task given the Executive Committee is to present a “comprehensive budget for the convention and all its agencies.” In this responsibility the Executive Committee “shall recommend the amount of convention funds which may be allocated to each cause.”
Another statement of function says, “It shall not recommend any direct allocation of funds for any agency or institution for which the convention does not elect trustees or directors.” Interpretation of this statement has led to debate. Some say since all of the members of the Washington-based Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs are not elected by the SBC, the BJCPA is not eligible for funds other than through the Public Affairs Committee which is elected by the SBC. But others say the SBC has representation through the 18 members of the SBC Public Affairs Committee, elected by the SBC, who comprise about a third of the BJCPA.
Thus enters a debate concerning funding the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, a religious liberty organization of nine Baptist bodies based in the nation’s capital with which Southern Baptists have related for more than 50 years with primary funding coming through the SBC. In the 1988 SBC in San Antonio the convention, upon the recommendation of the SBC Executive Committee, cut the budget of the BJCPA from $448,000 to $400,000 with the Public Affairs Committee receiving a budget of $24,200.
Thus it was surprising that action was initiated in the recent meeting of the business and financial plan working group of the SBC Executive Committee to “immediately” strip direct funding from the BJCPA and give the money to the PAC for “distribution under its discretion and authority.”
As could be expected, this kind of action was questioned. But not expected was the rather strong sentiment of the workgroup to “immediately” take the funds from the BJCPA in action different from the convention.
Convention attorney James P. Gunther checked the move by giving a legal opinion that the SBC Executive Committee does not have authority to override the SBC. Guenther said of the matter, “The Executive Committee only has authority to disburse the funds as the convention allocated them. The Executive Committee must recognize the sovereignty of the SBC.”
Good for Guenther! It is disturbing that any would consider pushing for action on the budget that would be different from what the convention voted. The SBC Executive Committee has authority, but they don’t have the authority to go above the convention. Any attempt to do so can be interpreted as saying they fell they are not accountable to the SBC, and this violates the trust of the convention that elected them.” — Presnall Wood, writing for The Baptist Standard, 1988.
The past two years have not been easy for the employees of LifeWay Christian Resources, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention and erstwhile book retailer. Making the difficulties faced in Nashville more acute for LifeWay employees has been the record of ministry successes that marked the decade before the current crisis.
Two years ago this month, the organization’s 9th president, Dr. Thom Rainer, announced his retirement plans. During his thirteen year tenure, Rainer had redoubled efforts to provide biblically-faithful curriculum to churches of all sizes. The introduction of The Gospel Project — an effort spearheaded by current LifeWay VP Trevin Wax and pioneering missiologist Ed Stetzer — helped reverse a decades-long decline in ongoing curriculum sales to realize five years of increased market share. Ever the futurist, Rainer pushed LifeWay into new and competitive global markets, supplying emerging churches in the developing world with desperately needed resources written by and for indigenous audiences.
All the while, Rainer continued his own prodigious writing, competing for record sales with the organization’s top-selling author, SBC ministry leader Beth Moore. Under his leadership, LifeWay relocated its ministry headquarters (a 277,000 sqft, nine story building that now faces strategic repurposing in a post-COVID world), jettisoned the increasingly burdensome Glorieta retreat facilities outside Santa Fe, NM, and completed major acquisitions like the church consulting powerhouse Auxano, the dynamic Birmingham-based Student Life Ministries, and the struggling Berean Bookstores.
In February 2019, as the LifeWay trustee search committee ran aground in their quest for Rainer’s replacement, some trustees attempted to persuade Rainer to postpone his retirement and stay with the company through the difficult decision of shuttering its brick-and-mortar retail operations. To the surprise of many, Rainer instead shortened his retirement timeline and left the ministry’s executive suite before the store closure decision was finalized.
Many denominational observers were left scratching their heads. Trustees felt the pressure to expedite their search process. New candidates were engaged. Within months, LifeWay was envisioning its future in a post-retail era under the leadership of an immensely telegenic Bible teacher with an impressive college ministry and church planting background.
At the time of his departure, Rainer left a nearly $500 million/year organization with a 5-person executive team. Dr. Brad Waggoner was quickly named acting CEO, leaving LifeWay’s entire revenue-generating resources division under the leadership of Earl Roberson as acting Senior Vice President. (Today, LifeWay is a $220 million/year organization with a 9-person executive leadership team).
We came to know Earl Roberson during these days of critical transition for LifeWay and had occasion to see how he led his team, many of whom were working extended and exhausting hours amid corporate downsizing and diminished morale. Yet under his leadership, LifeWay notched impressive online sales growth and established a profit-generating trajectory free from the encumbrances of its struggling brick-and-mortar division.
With that rare blend of pastoral sensitivity and demonstrable corporate success, Roberson worked hard to earn and keep the loyalty of his direct reports and the confidence of the trustee board. To his credit, Roberson never sought public recognition for his ministry success. In fact, a search of Baptist Press archives for his name yields only a handful of references, none of which report to Southern Baptists the extent of his ministry responsibilities nor the many ways he’s strengthened Southern Baptist’s publishing efforts during an historic identity crisis.
Earlier this year, LifeWay announced that Roberson’s division would be broken up — a prudent move given the unsustainable structure of a single revenue-generating presence at the executive leadership table — and that Roberson would assume a peer role alongside his newly-minted subordinates Trevin Wax, Michael Kelly, and Bill Craig.
A reorganization like that would cause lesser men to seek the nearest exit. In Washington, the slightest hint that a department or agency head will lose a portion of his portfolio to people further down the pecking order would inspire predictable media leaks and the reinforcement of organizational silos.
But none of that has happened under Roberson, primarily because of his own integrity and ministry commitment. In fact, rather than grumble that his subordinates have been thus promoted, Roberson affirmed the reorganization and assumed the role of peer with seamless efficiency and quiet determination.
Perhaps this is because Roberson, under the sustained weight of years of pressures and paradigm shifts in Nashville, was relieved to have others share the burden of leadership that had been his own. It’s more likely that Roberson realizes the promotion of his subordinates is an implicit affirmation of his own mentorship, and he rejoices as a ministry leader should.
Whatever the case, Southern Baptist churches should know that Roberson, perhaps more than any leader in Nashville, has exemplified the kind of business mind and ministry heart that they look for in denominational servants.
Indeed, Earl Roberson is one of the good guys. And we are proud to call him a friend.
A few years ago while going through some boxes of archive material that had been sitting in storage for a while, I ran across a copy of an email I had been given. The subject of the email, in all lower case letters, was one word: prayer.
The email had been written in the spring of 2006 when much speculation swirled in the Southern Baptist stratosphere about the forthcoming annual meeting slated for Greensboro, N.C. Against the backdrop of the IMB’s now-repealed policies on private prayer languages, a growing number of concerned pastors and laymen were searching for a candidate — any candidate — behind whom the ragtag band of malcontents could unite.
As fate would have it, that candidate turned out to be South Carolina pastor Frank Page, who would later become the president of the Nashville-based Executive Committee. But among the SBC elites — the denominational powerbrokers and resurgence loyalists, there was great angst that the opposition candidate might have been a little known pastor from Oklahoma whose blog had captured the attention and threatened to mobilize the passions of a sleeping giant, namely, the small church pastors who had been fed up for some time with the network of Patterson allies who were pulling the convention’s strings.
The email, sent from an aspiring convention president and perennial candidate for every open top denominational spot, stated that “this Wade Burleson issue is really perplexing and disturbing.” Burleson, a man we came to realize had the ferocious and unpredictable tenacity of an ovulating honey badger coupled with the impenetrable and heat resistant tensile strength of man-made kevlar, was “very questionable” and a “definite problem,” according to the megachurch pastor who wrote the email.
Stating that he “did not know” Burleson, the pastor added that all he knew of him “is divisiveness.” The email’s author stated that he was communicating at the time with the Chairman of the IMB, Arkansas pastor Tom Hatley, who is now a member of the Conservative Baptist Network Steering Council. The issue, as Wade Burleson’s critic contended was that “there is so much negative now and people are upset about so many issues that they may rally to support [Burleson].”
Responding to the email of concern about Burleson, another convention leader speculated the Oklahoma pastor might “run for one of the VP jobs.” “Yes,” the convention leader affirmed, “he is a problem” though not an “insurmountable problem.”
“I’m not sure he could be elected to any of the offices,” the former entity president postulated.
There you have it. In a single email thread one convention leader (who is also a former convention president) is exchanging suspicions about Wade Burleson’s character with another convention leader (and an eventual convention president) and stating matter-of-factly that he is simultaneously “a definite problem,” “divisive,” “negative,” and “questionable.”
Ladies and gentlemen, behold what passes for leadership in the Southern Baptist Convention. Backroom channeling about a pastor who has upset the power structures by pulling back the curtain behind which denominational employees and those who aspire to convention employment pull the levers of slander and suspicion to manipulate the system. That Burleson was gaining both an audience and a following among younger, more independent minded pastors and laymen, was troubling to them.
The email closes:
“The word must be filtering out among some of the troops because I have gotten some mighty calls and affirmative emails from James Merritt, Danny Aiken (sic), Ergun Caner, and others.”
Flash forward fourteen years to the verdant rolling landscape of a 44 acre ranch just south of Oklahoma’s most appealing city. There, on last Friday evening, standing before a mask-wearing crowd of family and friends, Wade Burleson presided over the wedding ceremony of his third-oldest child — now 30 years old. The last of the Burleson children to enter the sacred union of Christian marriage, Burleson’s son and now daughter-in-law were flanked by the three other Burleson children and their spouses. Standing beside Wade was his wife of 37 years, who is herself an accomplished nurse anesthetist with top honors from Vanderbilt University.
Having become friends with Wade and Rachelle, and now with each of their children and spouses, I was grateful to be a part of the wedding celebration and accompanying festivities. During the reception, I sat at a table with some long-time members of Enid’s Emmanuel Baptist Church, all of whom had been to the weddings of the previous three Burleson children.
“Wade is an operator,” one church leader and wedding guest said. “But you have to give it to the guy. He practices every thing he ever preached.”
“He’s a character,” another chimed in. “But he’s got what too many preachers lack: integrity.”
Through laughter about various Burleson antics — including an arrest in Mexico years ago — the men and women who have served alongside Emmanuel’s pastor for more than three decades testified repeatedly to the Burleson family’s reputation as God-honoring, Bible-believing, grace-loving followers of a 1st century Jewish carpenter who managed to beat death and hell in a span of 72 hours.
As I sat at the reception table listening to the men and women who are long-time members of Emmanuel Baptist Church — people who gratefully call the elder Burleson by the title “pastor” — I could not help but think about that email from fourteen years ago.
“Divisive,” they said. “A definite problem.”
I also thought about what the prophet Isaiah and the gospel writer Matthew said of Jesus: “A bruised reed he will not break.”
The problem with Wade Burleson, it seems, is that he has no problem ripping down the curtains of denominational power peddling. He almost relishes the opportunity to expose heavy-handed manipulations and the bloodsport of denominational hardball.
Likewise, he always tends to gravitate toward the outcast, the weaker brother, the ones who have been forgotten by the religious elites who email each other back and forth in almost desperate fear that such a man would gain a following in Southern Baptist life.
Yes, Wade Burleson is one of the good guys. But don’t take my word for it:
“A righteous man walks in his integrity, and his children are blessed after him.”
Twenty years ago when seminary chapel attendance was a virtue, the president of our alma mater would often conclude the service by inviting students and chapel guests to meet the day’s speaker at the bottom of the platform steps so we could “one day tell our grandchildren that we touched him.”
It was at the bottom of those steps that we shook hands with Dr. Jerry Falwell, Sr., Dr. Charles Stanley, Dr. Jerry Vines, Dr. Morris Chapman, Evangelist Bailey Smith, Dr. James Merritt, and a host of other ‘heroes of the so-called Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention. This was, of course, in the pre-COVID-19 days when you could shake hands or tell people that you had “touched” someone.
Years later while working as the senior speechwriter and investigative analyst for a powerful congressional committee chairman, we would often casually run into legendary policymakers carrying their own trays or sitting alone in the Rayburn or Longworth cafeterias. There, circling around these men unaware of the historic import of their national service, were hosts of bright-eyed interns and twenty something staffers usually discussing the whereabouts of the afternoon’s best Capitol Hill happy hour.
On more than one occasion, we took our tray to a table and sheepishly asked if we could join one of these Members of Congress. There was the day in the middle of bicameral negotiations over the conference report of Dodd-Frank that we took our seat next to one of the bill’s eponymous co-sponsors, Rep. Barney Frank, and chatted superficially about the ins and outs of parliamentary procedure in the nation’s lower chamber.
On another occasion, we enjoyed a private breakfast with former Vice President Richard Cheney, wherein we talked about the Minority Report of the Select Committee on Iran Contra, which is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand what became known as the Bush Doctrine.
And then there was the day we asked Rep. John Lewis for the privilege of sitting next to him during a quick lunch in the basement of the Longworth House Office Building. He sat alone with his lunch and some papers on one of those early weekdays when business is slow and the House staff are enjoying the final few moments before Members start arriving for the first suspension votes of the week.
We told Rep. Lewis of our own ministry background and seminary education, and we talked about Fannie Lou Hamer, whose story we had only recently studied as part of a doctoral seminar on American civil religion taught by Dr. Barry Hankins of Baylor University.
John Lewis lit up in amazement – and perhaps amusement – that before him was seated a white Southern Baptist minister whose ancestors “owned” slaves well after the Emancipation Proclamation and who wanted to talk about an oft-forgotten Civil Rights pioneer whose name is shamefully absent the history texts used in Texas public school systems.
And then we talked about the gospel and the demands of justice that a first century Jewish carpenter’s three year ministry puts on those who would carry his cross into the 21st century. Rep. Lewis asked if we’d ever been to Selma, and invited us to join the annual trip he sponsored to walk the Edmund Pettus Bridge with generations who’d never heard of Bloody Sunday.
At one point in our conversation, the reality set in: I was sitting but a few feet from a man who’d been a few feet from Martin Luther King, Jr. when he gave the “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
The irony was not lost on me.
Here was a man who’d been routinely denied a place to sit in “whites-only” lunchrooms in the South; yet he was allowing me – without hesitation – to sit with him in the basement cafeteria of one of the most powerful places on earth. And he spoke to me not as a subordinate congressional staffer, but as a brother and a friend.
John Lewis was like that.
Years later, I was working for another Member of Congress who sat on the House Committee on Ways and Means. In a flurry of legislative activity related to Chairman Dave Camp’s tax reform efforts, I stood in the back of the House Chamber near the middle aisle mere feet away from Rep. John Lewis. After a few moments, I went up to shake his hand.
“Congressman,” I said, “I’m not sure if you remember…”
He interrupted. “You’re the preacher.”
“Was a preacher,” I joked.
“We never stop doing the Lord’s work,” he replied.
One of the earliest lessons you learn in Washington, D.C. is this: When a decision — or series of decisions — proves foolish, blame it on the staff. “Bad staff work” is Beltway code for what tennis players call an unforced error.
Ronnie Floyd is having a week of bad staff work.
For starters, the communications team seems to have a difficult time understanding how to take screenshots. In a series of tweets and stories on Baptist Press, they have been routinely using candid photos that show Ronnie with his eyes closed, mouth open, looking like he’s about to sneeze.
We ALL have photos like this. It happens when the cameras are rolling and the subject is not thinking about a photo shoot, but rather the work he is doing, speech he is making, etc. At such moments, staff are supposed to curate ONLY the pictures that look good. You DON’T post the booger shots of your boss. Ever.
This is the sort of thing they teach at Howard Payne to sorority girls pursuing communications majors.
Paige Patterson was on that call and has apparently been giving strategic advice to Ronnie Floyd.
Which can only mean staff did not inform Dr. Floyd that Patterson is presently litigating a federal civil suit that names Southwestern Seminary as a defendant. They also didn’t tell him that part of SWBTS’s defense is that Patterson acted outside his responsibilities in violation of the seminary’s core values. Or that his ongoing communications with Patterson could become the subject of legal inquiries.
Of course, anyone reading Baptist Press for the past two years might have known it. That said, somebody on staff should have explained the problem including Patterson in such calls would present for the Executive Committee and the convention. Apparently, nobody saw a problem.
And that is a problem.
Third, and perhaps most frustrating, is buried in a story published yesterday by Sarah Pulliam Bailey of the Washington Post. Writing about SBC President J.D. Greear’s call to “retire” the Broadus gavel — an overdue move we support wholeheartedly — Pulliam Bailey reports comments by EC President Ronnie Floyd:
“I resonate with [Greear’s] desire and for the past year our team has been looking at this consideration and we are committed to handling it appropriately.” (Emphasis added).
What in the name of all that is Nashville? Team Ronnie has been “looking at” the issue of the Broadus gavel for a year? Why does it take a whole year to “look at” this issue? A reporter should ask Team Ronnie for their homework on this one. When have they “looked at” it? Where did they “look at” it?
A whole stinking year?
J.D. Greear exercised his privilege as SBC president and took action. Over and done, and we move on. But the Executive Committee — which is the committee from which Southern Baptists most expect and demand efficiency, accuracy, and transparency – belabors for a whole year on something so obvious and easily resolved?
Keep in mind that when the Executive Committee wants to launch an investigation into the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, they get behind closed doors and take action within the hour.
When they want to defund the Pastor’s Conference, they go into executive session and pull the old Godfather “brains or signature” trick on David Uth.
And when Team Ronnie wants to whitewash every square inch of wall space inside 901 Commerce, it happens in short order. When Team Ronnie wants to expand the executive suite footprint, it happens almost overnight.
But no, when it comes to a tiny piece of wood and a glass display case, Team Ronnie needs a year to “handle it” appropriately?
Next week is critical for the Executive Committee. There are some VERY important matters to be discussed and voted on. If Team Ronnie has been spending a year “looking into” the Broadus gavel with no action, what we are observing is perhaps the most startling exercise in bureaucratic inertia and tone-deafness the SBC has ever seen.
Ronnie needs to get somebody to Nashville fast who will bring much-needed gravitas and professional competence to the Executive Committee. Team Ronnie just isn’t cutting it.
And Ronnie Floyd deserves better than the bad staff work he’s been getting.
Every generation of Southern Baptists has its larger-than-life characters. Some have been scoundrels; some have been saints. The 19th century saw the outsized influence of “company men” like James Petigru Boyce and rabble-rousers like James Robinson Graves. The early 20th century was dominated by legendary figures like B.H. Carroll, E.Y. Mullins, J.B. Gambrell and eventually George W. Truett.
The post-war Southern Baptist Convention was led — at times behind the scenes — by men like Louie Newton and J.D. Grey, while other prominent and charismatic pulpit giants held sway: R.G. Lee, H.H. Hobbs, and W.A. Criswell.
The early 1970s were full of interesting developments and colorful leaders, but their contributions are all largely lost to history once the 1979 convention occurs. Even James Sullivan, who one current entity head described to us as the “smartest man to ever lead the convention,” fades into the background once Adrian Rogers is elected and the so-called “resurgence” gained full steam.
For many Southern Baptist who have come of age in the post-1979 convention, Adrian Rogers is pretty much all that matters. He stands above every other leader. His voice is the one we still want to hear. His legacy is secure, probably because he was never worried about his own legacy. He was just worried about his church, shepherding the flock of God and tending that portion of the Lord’s vineyard entrusted to him.
Some have suggested that the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., is the Adrian Rogers of this generation. Others have said he is the E.Y. Mullins of the 21st century. Less charitable critics prefer adjectives rather than comparisons. Words like “opportunistic,” “pragmatic,” and “ruthless” are thrown around on social media and in private conversations.
Whatever your opinion of Al Mohler may be, he doubtlessly casts among the widest shadows to cover the contemporary evangelical landscape. His instincts are swift. His pen can be sharp. And his determination to safeguard both the institution he faithfully serves and the legacy he meticulously cultivates is evident.
Infallibility, however, is the exclusive province of Holy Writ. Not even Mohler’s most ardent apologists will ascribe infallibility to Southern’s president.
Enter President Donald J. Trump, a man whom Mohler was content to position “beneath the baseline of human decency” a mere fortnight ago. To be honest, we were not aware of Mohler’s prior gastroesophageal convulsions about the man who would become our nation’s 45th president. Like most voters, we pay little attention to election year endorsements.
Elites always assume their endorsements mean something to the average voter. Southern Baptist elites often act as though their endorsements will be received like so many Mosaic pronouncements by wandering Israelites who live in the lowly valley and never behold the face of God.
To be sure, Al Mohler is a student of history. Perhaps more than any living Southern Baptist scholar, he pores over multiple tomes of biography and history every week. He mines them for illustrations, and effortlessly summons the most salient points from the most arcane narratives in casual conversation and public peroration alike. Even a few minutes talking to Mohler about the smallest of subjects can leave one’s head spinning in awe.
We, too, enjoy a good bit of history. And we’ve come to certain conclusions about most great men: they often stay too long and they ask for too much. Just ask Winston Churchill.
The presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention now seems like too much. What once seemed a fait accompli now sounds like a bad idea. When the concern of many was to have a steady hand – a known quantity – succeed J.D. Greear as convention president during a tumultuous election year that threatened our ecclesiastic and missionary unity, Mohler seemed like the best available choice.
For some, he was the least bad choice.
But the ground has shifted beneath our feet, and Mohler’s about-face on Trump landed like a thud. Of course, we welcome any man – particularly those in positions of prominent leadership – to let everyone know exactly where he stands. But Mohler broke a cardinal rule of crisis management: never answer a question that nobody is asking unless it serves a strategic purpose.
Nobody was asking about Mohler’s thoughts on Trump’s re-election at the height of a global pandemic. Even his own faculty and administrative council were caught off guard by his penitential political shift. In one interview, he managed to whiplash many key supporters and offend a good many others. And what did he gain from this ill-timed endorsement?
About the same thing he gained in 2016 from his denunciations: nothing.
Not one evangelical voter who previously thought President Trump was “beneath the baseline of human decency” will march to the polls in November wearing a MAGA hat because Mohler got the Almighty’s “OK” to pretend he hadn’t said those things about then-candidate Trump. And that line about voting Republican till the day he dies?
Some have said they felt as though Mohler stood before the Grand Old Party a few weeks ago and said, “Wherever you go, I will go. Your people will be my people. And your god will be my god.”
That’s probably hyperbole, and most certainly unfair.
But we don’t mind putting a finer point on it: Mohler’s endorsement not only broke a cardinal rule of crisis management; he forgot a basic election-year principle that every precinct chairman knows. Make your endorsement when it will will have maximum impact for the candidate you endorse. But Mohler dropped his endorsement when it would have little impact. It made no sense.
Which means one of two realities for Southern Baptists: either the president of our largest seminary grossly misspoke four years ago when he assailed a fellow bearer of the imago dei, or he has himself dropped below the baseline of human decency to embrace with both arms someone he once labeled “a casino titan who posed for the cover of Playboy.”
If he misspoke, then he owes the convention more than an op-ed. And he owes Donald Trump more than an endorsement. He owes both an apology.
Add to that the debt he now owes the community that comprises his primary stewardship before God: He owes Southern Seminary an irrevocable assurance that his full energies will be directed to preserving the school during its most difficult days in more than a century. Fifty years from now, nobody will care who Al Mohler endorsed in the 2020 election cycle. But they will care how the school fared in the final decade of his administration.
Count us among the Southern Baptists who would have eagerly voted for Albert Mohler at the annual meeting in Orlando next month. But that meeting will not happen, and these are different days than we anticipated.
Which is of course similar to what Mohler himself said of his newfound support for Donald Trump: “It’s 2020, not 2016,” he told the Washington Post. Indeed circumstances change; and thoughtful men should be afforded every opportunity to change their minds.
And we have changed ours. Not because of Mohler’s endorsement, mind you. But because we believe in the future of Southern Seminary and are confident that no other man in the Southern Baptist Convention is better equipped to walk our oldest theological institution through this dark hour of destiny.
The degree to which Mohler channels his unparalleled gifts into the school for the remainder of his days will be the degree to which his legacy will remain intact.
But dabbling in national politics or aspiring to convention office is already proving a distraction from Mohler’s primary stewardship at best. At the worst, it is revealing the kind of narcissistic ambition that can only flourish beneath the baseline of human decency.
For as long as the Southern Baptist Convention has existed, there have been factions vying for increased influence in denominational life. Most of the time, this struggle has been little more than the natural tensions that arise in any deliberative body: whether a condo board and home owners association or the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.
The SBC is a political creature — not only political to be sure — but political indeed.
At times, caucuses have organically emerged to shift the power dynamic. At one time, it seemed like all the early leaders of the SBC were somehow tied to Southern Seminary. At other times, Texans like J.B. Gambrell, George W. Truett, J. Frank Norris, and B.H. Carroll were the dominant figures. Still others saw leaders in Georgia like Louie Newton and Louisiana pastor M.E. Dodd hold outsized influence, only to have their influence challenged in time by rising younger pastors like Herschel Hobbs, J.D. Gray, Wayne Dehoney, Carl Bates, and K. Owen White.
There have been theological factions, at times, as some aligned with legendary pastor and avowed biblical literalist W.A. Criswell while others sympathized with more moderate leaders like Franklin Paschal or Grady Cauthen. And yet, there were still other ad hoc caucuses that rose and fell through the years, with some benevolently following the compass of masterful denominational tacticians like theologian Duke McCall or laymen like Mississippian Owen Cooper or Congressman Brooks Hays of Arkansas.
And then, there have been the men who can best be described as pure denominationalists, institutional men who didn’t really align theologically with anybody, but it didn’t really matter. Men like Landrum Leavell or Darold Morgan or Baker James Cauthen who led their respective entities commendably, never got too involved in the convention squabbles that happened during their tenures, and when they retired, they did so with commendations from every corner for their faithful stewardship and steady hands.
But the majority of the men in this last category — the entity heads who’d earned their salaries on the convention doll and whose official responsibilities spanned the presidencies of multiple elected convention officers — never sought for themselves the convention presidency. A few of them — like Duke McCall or Robert Naylor at Southwestern — sought the presidency, or rather were nominated and lost. James Sullivan was elected president, but it was after his retirement from the Sunday School Board.
To be sure, the convention has elected entity employees as convention president, as in the case of James P. Boyce, E.Y. Mullins, L.R. Scarborough and The Red Bishop himself. All these men were all elected to serve as convention president concurrent with their status as a convention entity employee. But, as has been noted many times over, these have been rare exceptions rather than a rule.
And it wasn’t until 1986 that a single person held for more than three decades the only unelected office of the convention: the convention parliamentarian. At the time, the parliamentarian was not a convention employee. In fact, he wasn’t even a Southern Baptist. But all that changed under Paige Patterson. More about that later.
For now, the facts are clear. The churches of the Southern Baptist Convention have historically preferred pastors rather than denominational employees for elected convention service, whether as officers of the convention or as committeemen or trustees. Never in the history of the convention has there been a trend toward the empowerment of the permanent bureaucratic class.
And never in the history of the convention have all the key leaders controlling the order of business, the parliamentary rulings, the recording of business, and the pipeline of convention trustees been on the Cooperative Program payroll. And it wasn’t until the last decade or so that the convention would have seen so many former presidents receiving the salaries of their post-pastoral ministries funded by the Cooperative Program.
Recent trends, however, have seen fewer pastors and more paid convention employees seeking and being either elected or appointed to key convention-wide leadership positions.
In our archives we have filed away a baker’s dozen of various letters from Paige Patterson to sundry Southern Baptist pastors admonishing them that the consequence of their transgressions includes exclusion from the teaching and pastoral ministry. A number of those letters may be found by any researcher going through publicly accessible files in the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives. Others we obtained from private collections scattered across the convention.
And of course, we have seen the now-infamous letter Patterson wrote to the late pastor E.K. Bailey insisting that Darrell Gilyard was not guilty or “morally culpable” for rapes and other sexual aggressions that occurred while Gilyard was a young student under Patterson’s tutelage. Shockingly, Patterson scolded the elder Bailey that he “must forget the past” and refrain from making public statements so Gilyard could be “rehabilitated” from his “mistakes.”
As reported in the Houston Chronicle, Patterson wrote this letter to Rev. Bailey in the late 1980s, asserting that Gilyard was “worth salvage” and asking the legendary Dallas pastor to agree “not to disparage him any further, thus giving [Patterson] the chance to help Darrell count for God and for good.”
So much for Patterson’s efforts to salvage the now-convicted sex offender. Eventually, Patterson wrote to trustees at Southwestern Seminary that he had not only advised Gilyard never to preach again, but had actively tried to discourage churches from hosting him.
So much for autonomy, eh?
Flash forward to this past Friday when current SBC President J.D. Greear (himself a onetime Patterson protégé) told the Houston Chronicle that churches should exercise due diligence when considering Patterson as a guest speaker.
“I advise any Southern Baptist church to consider [the reasons for Patterson’s termination from SWBTS] before having Dr. Patterson preach or speak,” Greear told the Chronicle’s Robert Downen. If additional information was needed, Greear suggested that church leaders should “contact trustee officers.”
Apparently, Greear’s common sense has caused some frustration — and even indignation — among some of the Conservative Resurgence old guard. Of course, we’d like to pose a question to these erstwhile leaders, some of whom still draw their salaries from the Cooperative Program:
What should it profit a man if he should save the whole convention and lose his own soul?
Because that is really where the Southern Baptist Convention is today — not fighting a battle for Scripture authority, but struggling to win a battle for our own soul.
To be sure, nobody is raising concerns that Paige Patterson — once ensconced behind the sacred desk of some little brown church by the wildwood — will preach a false gospel. In fact, those who hear him preach will likely hear one of the clearer, more persuasive appeals to repentance and faith they ever hear.
But Darrell Gilyard wasn’t preaching a false gospel either. Neither the orthodox content of these men’s sermons nor their homiletical prowess is in question. Rather, it is a question of their conduct and credible reports that their respective actions fall outside “the core values of our faith.”
One man is convicted of having abused dozens of women and young girls. The other accused of having enabled or mishandled abuse of the same.
What J.D. Greear said is both straightforward and scripturally sound. Church autonomy in the SBC does not mean we turn a blind eye or deaf ear to whatever happens in our neighboring congregations. Indeed, as the Apostle Paul instructed the church at Ephesus, we must “speak truth to our neighbors for we are members of one another.”
The crybabies in Nashville (or anywhere else for that matter) who feel J.D. Greear has overstepped his bounds should be more concerned about their own quiet indifference to Patterson’s handling of abuse on the one hand, and their own complicity in decades of hero worship that nurtured the environment where claims of autonomy (or affirmations of inerrancy) trumped reports of abuse.
They should be troubled NOT by J.D. Greear’s answer to an honest question posed by a serious journalist. Rather, they should be haunted by the abusive consequence of their own perennial sycophancy.
And they should probably shut up.
Truly, it’s time to prioritize scriptural accountability alongside autonomy in Southern Baptist life, elevate leaders who are courageous enough to tell the whole truth, and accelerate our efforts to root out every form of abuse among the churches who cooperate in our shared gospel enterprise.
The feigned indignation at those who criticize SBC elites through “social media” channels is getting ridiculous. For more than a decade the elites have been pestered — and at times, exposed — by activist bloggers, Twitter-savvy snipers, and other unentrenched observers whose primary and persistent demand has been rather simple: tell us the truth, in a timely manner.
That they write clearly, concisely, and persuasively only adds to the indignation of the CP-funded elites whose penchant for lecturing the rest of us about how to properly use social media sounds the same today as it did back in 2005-06: hollow and self-serving.
In recent weeks, one seminary president took to the Interwebs to push back against a bogus story and thread of lies that a routinely error-filled blog published without doing adequate homework. He was right to push back, and the offending blogger(s) were right to retract.
But the SBC would be in worse shape if it were not for conscientious whistleblowers who for fear of recrimination and reprisal reach out clandestinely to trustworthy alternative news sources like SBCOutpost, et al, to get the truth dislodged from the obfuscations of the “official” news sources operating within SBC life.
To be sure, there are a few trustworthy and unimpeachable journalists working through traditional channels to bring greater transparency and accountability in Southern Baptist life. We think of Seth Brown at the Biblical Recorder and other reporters whose names don’t rhyme with “bedwetter.”
As for The Baptist Blogger, we have heard consistently for more than 14 years from trustees, faculty, staff, administrative support, and concerned pastors and laymen who offered pieces of information, anecdotes, fragments of truth, and yes, at times, outright falsehoods. But our time in Washington, D.C. helped us learn the art of cultivating, vetting, and properly utilizing whistleblowers and the information they share.
Seldom do you get a full picture from a single source. And seldom do those sources act with pure motives. Everybody has an ax to grind. But you factor that into considerations about the amount of time you give ear to their concerns.
Which is why when folks within the Midwestern Seminary community contact us about one questionable expenditure or another, we listen, file it back, and write nothing. Or when an IMB missionary halfway around the world writes to tell us of some activity that runs afoul of the BFM2K, we listen, write it down, and put it aside.
Or when we run into a student on the campus of Southwestern Seminary who wants to tell us about his firsthand experience with Patterson-era security harassment or invasions of privacy, we listen. We take copies of the documents he provides, and we file them away.
It’s also why when we are told that the LifeWay CEO is making $750,000.00 a year — and we know it to be false — we simply listen, tell them we have reason to believe that is false, and move on. Or when we are told that the president of Southern Seminary has flashed a temper in some meeting, or the president of NAMB has retaliated against a state executive, or so forth, we just listen but repeat nothing.
Of course these are hypotheticals. Naturally.
Rumors, half-truths, outright lies and innuendo are wicked. Their dissemination is no benefit to the Southern Baptist Convention and ruin not only the reputations of good people, but the cooperative spirit that undergirds our gospel enterprise.
But the unwillingness of some SBC elites — especially of those leading entities funded by the Cooperative Program — to answer simple, straightforward questions, to provide timely, understandable information, or when they delay in correcting misinformation previously shared (as in the case of Baptist Press and the Jennifer Lyell abuse story), this also serves to undermine our cooperative efforts.
So maybe it’s time to stop crying about the anger of “social media” users who grow increasingly frustrated that SBC elites seem forever deaf and dumb to the substance of their concerns. And it’s time to stop the lectures about the proper use of social media by those who have, at times, been guilty of concealment, obfuscation, and impudent rejection of appropriate channels of accountability.
Yes, bloggers and Twitter-users and the like should not publish something that is not true. And even if it is true, they should consider whether it is the appropriate time or place. Thanks for the sermon, and pass the plate.
But the men who are paid by Southern Baptists to lead our entities should embrace rather than bristle at the published questions that nurture their own responsible stewardship. Because the trajectory of Southern Baptist work is set toward greater transparency, not less.