Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Southern Baptists' Choice: Change or Die

FACT: The Southern Baptist Convention is an archaic denominational dinosaur with a bloated bureaucratic infrastructure on the fast track to irrelevance. Whew. I said it. The decline of the SBC has been signaled again and again by the work of individuals like Ed Stetzer who speak with the authority of rigorous research. It can no longer be denied.

To illustrate the progression of SBC internal inflation, Biblical Recorder editor Norm Jameson recently wrote, "Now, Baptists are like all other Americans. We complain about the size of the government but we demand more services from the government all the time. Government wants to be responsive, so they provide the services. We can't demand the services and then complain about their cost." When Jameson was at the Executive Committee in 1983 there were 17 people on staff (including the mail room and a janitor) and an annual budget of $801,200. Today, the Executive Committee has 38 staff members and an annual budget of $9,470,373.00. This growth--all too common among the internal ranks of the SBC--must be rectified or the SBC will die a not-so-slow death.

That may sting a little for those of us who sang out of the Baptist Hymnal as children, made the decision to follow Christ in a Southern Baptist church, and used LifeWay Sunday School materials even before LifeWay was "LifeWay." Yet, denying the truth only kicks the can of reality farther down the road.

FACT: The Southern Baptist Convention does more missions work than any other organization on this planet and has many other vibrant and impactful ministries. Through the International Mission Board, the SBC supports nearly 6,000 international missionaries in countries you've never even heard of. Additionally, the SBC has other vibrant divisions, such as the second largest disaster relief service in the United States. In many ways, we do great work.

You may notice the tension mounting at the interface of these two facts. On the one hand, Southern Baptists cannot and should not stand for the wasteful and overextended bureaucracy. (Rising generations, with their disdain for heavily organized Christianity, certaintly won't.) On the other hand, the SBC is a great vehicle for kingdom work and fulfilling the Great Commission. That begs a question: Is there a way to reform, revise and restructure in order to preserve the good and do away with the bad?

Enter the Great Commission Resurgence (GCR). The GCR is an effort to bring the two facts listed above into harmony that is spearheaded by influential SBC leaders and "regular joe/jane" laypeople. Anyone can sign the petition online, and 3,000 already have. There are daunting odds against the success of such an aggresive initiative, but the value and nobility of the GCR compells me to support it. Southern Baptists are faced with a choice from which they cannot hide. Either they will keep kicking the can of reality while they fade into cultural irrelevance or they will act aggresively to refine our processes while preserving the wonderful work being done by so many. Southern Baptists have a choice: change or die.


Garet Robinson said...

Good thoughts. It's hard to change an agency or institution when many of those responsible for the change have their livelihoods tied to that place.

My home church was so saddened at the beauacracy in their state convention that they began giving their annual Cooperative Program contribution in designated form. Only a small percentage could be used for administrative costs. Everything else goes directly to missions. This is probably a good method to adopt across our churches.

Sooner or later the well will be dry. We have such limited resources now we must be wise
stewards of their usage.

I'm glad wiser people than I are standing up for this movement!


peter lumpkins said...


Thanks for the reminder pertaining to our SBC as an "archaic denominational dinosaur with a bloated bureaucratic infrastructure on the fast track to irrelevance." Seems like I've heard this "bloated bureaucratic" image before. Now let me see...where was it? Oh wait! It was on the original GCR document but later expunged, wasn't it? I may be wrong and would invite correction ;^).

You seemed to employ as an example of the unhealthy bloat you lament by a comparison of the 1983 EC to the 2009 EC: "...in 1983 there were 17 people on staff [at the EC]...and an annual budget of $801,200. Today, the Executive Committee has 38 staff members and an annual budget of $9,470,373.00."

Leaving aside inflationary matters which would tighten the gap considerably, one wonders about other factors as well like the possibility of new SBC assignments today's EC has been given which were not a part of 1983,etc. etc etc. Understand: I do not know the answer to potential questions like these. My question to you is, do you?

My point is simple: just lamenting the biggerness of the EC without also showing precisely how the biggerness is definitively not betternesss counts exactly zero toward the conclusion which you draw that "This growth...must be rectified or the SBC will die a not-so-slow death."

The fact is, one could cite your own church or mine for "bloated bureaucratic infrastructure." Now your church did not exist in 1983 but mine did. In 1983 we had a pastor, a music man, and a few other people on staff. Today we have a really, really big wad of people on payroll. Are we a "bloated bureaucratic infrastructure"? Given the contentless criteria here, we are. Come on campus...move around...get a sense for what's going on in ministry and "bloated" may not at all be a fair assessment--especially if compared to 1983. Indeed I would say precisely the same of your church.

In addition, the recent conference you hosted drew, I recall, a couple of hundred folks. If I further recall, you indicated you want it to be much bigger and better next year (those are my words describing your public statement, not a quote). Question: do you think bigger and better conference translates into more and more resources (human & nonhuman)? Or, perhaps we'll use your word rather than mine--"bloat"?

Finally, I'd ask very simple questions: specifically what positions of the 38 on the EC staff would you slash? Or, maybe more generically, what fund could the 2009 EC drop immediately which constitutes bureaucratic bloat? Again, understand: I haven't a clue. I've never seen the details of the EC budget. My question to you is, have you? If so, some specifics would be nice.

I trust your day well. With that, I am...

Jonathan Merritt said...


There is a lot more in your post than I can answer, especially from a blackberry on the mission field. (My thumbs are fat and I can't type too fast.)

Still, I wanted to answer a couple of points. First, the EC details are public domain. I have seen them and you can too. The EC situation was an example, not a proof text. The EC expansion only typifies what we have created all over the place. In fact, if you are ever in the Duluth area stop by my church and I'll walk you to the GA Baptist building across the street. It is a brand new 40 million dollar building with marble statues and plasma TVs all in each hallway telling you the weather.

Now, plasma TVs and marble statues are not inherently evil. Don't get me wrong. When a church grows to accomplish more ministry, that's wonderful. You should be proud of your expansion. Furthermore, if my conference expands that would be great too. This year we lost several thousands of dollars on it, so it would be nice to break even. But those are both terrible analogies. It is a far cry to compare the local church or a creation care conference to the SBC Cooperative Program. Not only are the institutions totally unique but their giving mechanisms are totally different. When one gives to a church or conference, they are able to monitor the stewardship of that money. If I charge outlandish fees for my conference or people don't feel like it adds value to their ministry, life or family, they simply don't come. When we ask people to give money to missions and it goes to pay "Executives" hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to travel and speak, that is causes understandable consternation.

Finally, I want to point out the origins and stated purposes of the organizations you mentioned are different. The SBC has been so successful because it is historically a decentralized organization made up of autonomous churches cooperating to pursue Great Commission goals. When we are poor stewards of our money, when we allow organizational redundancy and unchecked growth, and when we react against honest criticisms of our failings, we are being unfaithful to our Baptist roots and the Great Commission.


P.S.-"Bloated bureaucracy" is a phrase that has been used to describe denominational expansion for some years now. It was not unique to the GCR document.

Jonathan Merritt said...


Also, I would invite your inflationary analysis of those figures. I think you'll find that "considerably" is quite the overstatement. To put it into a non-inflationary perspective, it is more than a triple time increase as a percentage of CP giving.

And you never actually stated whether or not you agreed or disagreed that there has been an unhealthy expansion and increase in redundant services and bureaucracy. I appreciate your questions, but I also welcome your thoughts.


peter lumpkins said...


First, I did not assume that the EC was a “proof text.” Instead, I addressed your example indicating the SBC is a “...dinosaur with a bloated bureaucratic infrastructure..." I’m unsure why you’d think because I questioned the EC as a suitable candidate for your thesis—since it was the only example—that I’d be citing it as “proof text.” I’m just playing the cards you dealt, bro.

Second, I’m aware EC $ is public domain. But I did not ask you that. I asked about new assignments given the EC. I further asked positions you'd slash or fund to drop as bloat. You addressed neither. My analogy became your main focus. the analogy you cited as failure. Why? The institutions and giving mechanisms are different. However, the issue is neither the institutional nature nor the giving mechanisms. Rather it's whether the EC is bureaucratically bloated.

You also imply funds given to churches & conferences are well monitored but apparently funds given to the EC strangely fail. May I remind you the EC budget is a matter of public record and printed in the Annual every year.
Even more, the budget is APPROVED annually by 83 Southern Baptist trustees. Here’s the kicker: all trustees who APPROVE the EC budget have no personal stake in the budget. In a real sense, they're “outsiders.” Hence, there is a sense in which the EC budget possibly possesses more objective checks and balances than either the local church or your conference. And, rightly so: this is a public trust to which they are responsible, not an independent budget (one local church) or a conference.

As for “Execs” who get paid “hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to travel and speak,” I may agree with you if a) you offered any hard evidence b) the traveling & speaking were irrelevant to their assignment to which SBs gave them. You addressed neither. Instead you’ve publicly planted the idea that all agency “heads”, etc are fat-cats who drift around on CP $ making no good use whatsoever for Kingdom causes.

Sorry, Jonathan; this is more of an indictment of our trustee system than it is of “Execs.” One gets the impression that “Execs” say “frog” and trustees begin to croak. I don't have a similar dismal view of grassroots Southern Baptists, Jonathan. Sorry.
Finally, you conclude, “When we are poor stewards of our money...allow organizational redundancy...unchecked growth, and...react against honest criticisms... we are being unfaithful...” I could not agree more were it the case. However, to suggest such, apart from evidence, is but developing the fine art of begging the question.

As to my “inflationary overstatement.” That’s fair. Perhaps I overstated it. Yet it wasn’t my main concern and certainly not an analysis. Frankly, I raised a question about the massive span you cited (1983 vs. 2009) without commentary on rise in costs. Also, one cannot just speak of the raw inflation of $. Instead, one must consider the stupendous rise in insurance fees, healthcare costs, and legal fees. I read somewhere that the SBC is named in litigation for defense about 2 times, on average, every year, a more recent phenomenon (unlike 1983). I discovered there are several high-dollar assignments the EC funds not funded in 1983. For example, the SB Foundation is subsidized by the EC, a fiscal allocation not given to the 1983 EC.

Additionally, Global Evangelical Relations, Empowering Kingdom Growth, and It’s a New Day are very expensive assignments which the SBC has given to the EC.
Thus, a little work bled the air out of your tires, Jonathan, making your indictment little more than a petty, unsubstantiated complaint.

If you’d like, I can ramble some more and demonstrate further the EC as indicative of the SBC as an “archaic denominational dinosaur with a bloated bureaucratic infrastructure on the fast track to irrelevance” to be high on rhetoric but low on evidence. Let me know.

I trust your mission trip well, souls are saved, and Kingdom work established all for His glory, my brother.

With that, I am…

Jonathan Merritt said...


I doubt anyone on this blog wants to here us go round and round on the issue of internal SBC structure. Most people recognize the reality. The statements on my blog are my opinion and nothing more. You disagree. There's nothing wrong with that. I can tell you that I have had a front row seat to SBC politics and bureaucracy for the last 20+ years. Maybe that counts for something. Maybe not.

Either way, I appreciate your comments and passion.



Jonathan Merritt said...


Goose said...

I served the SBC loyally and faithfully for most of my life because I believed in the good work they were doing. In 1990 the SBC was an organization that anyone would be proud of. But then the extremists took over and shifted the focus to wedge issues, rather than hard work in the field, and a once wonderful denomination slowly began to descend into the dark sea. I helped plant churches, I was a unit leader at an RA camp. I gave the SBC my loyalty and my sweat, for through her I served God. And look at her now -- totally lost and irrelevant. Yeah, most will blame it on "Satan," (how convenient), but I am afraid it was the fundamentalist zealots who led us off the path, all in their effort to purify us. If you want to see where this will all end up, study the Taliban in Pakistan.

P.S. All the cutsy outreach "programs" we see are window dressing. No one really rolls their sleeves and gets dirty for God anymore. I don't see people knocking on doors and making phone calls for God any more.

Jonathan Merritt said...


Thanks for posting your comments. In which part of the country did you serve? Do you still attend a Southern Baptist church?


Goose said...

I served right here in the Atlanta area. I checked out mentally in 1997 and checked out physically in 2004. I really, really appreciate the reformist work you are doing -- you give me a lot of hope. Now, if only we could clone you, but I guess that is another moral wedge issue. Take care.

saintrage said...

You are a thoughtful and, no doubt, a loving individual. While we are miles away on some subjects, we are spot on in others. I will continue to read your blog, occasionally weigh in and hope that given our common ground we can change the world for the better.

saintrage said...

By the way, I know your name so it is only fair that you know mine...
My name is Morgan Eubanks.

Creitz said...

Hey Jonathan,

I've signed the GCR and I agree there is a lot that needs to change.

1. The convention needs to cease to be the bully pulpit and lobbyist for our 16 million members. Let the local church be incarnational and fulfill the Great Commission without any sound bites for news outlets.

2. The convention needs to streamline its organization and remove all the bureaucracy. In a technological age with video conferencing and twitter and facebook we don't need a convention that's modeled on modernism.

3. We need a new name! Without "Southern" in it.

For an idea of why we need a name change and a suggestion of what that might be, I would appreciate your thoughts here.