SBC Messengers Bearing Proxies?

In mid-1980s, I traveled to Oklahoma City for a two-hour interview with Herschel Hobbs, to gather material for the chapter on him in Baptist Theologians (edited by Timothy George and David Dockery). Hobbs and I did, indeed, discuss doctrine, but conversation ranged  to the then-current struggle over biblical inerrancy in the Convention. When I asked for his take on the conflict, he expressed some sadness over how the cause was being carried forth. So I asked his opinion on “the right way” to do it, and he replied, “Prevention.”

He then offered a brief history (and mea culpa) recalling that “they came to us” in the 1950s and 1960s, saying “there were problems.” But the leadership brushed these concerns aside, pointing to the growth in giving, in baptisms, and in the missionary force. (And, of course, Hobbs was gratified by his own opportunities to speak for and to Southern Baptists through the 1963 revision of the Baptist, Faith, and Message, and as the voice of the denomination’s Baptist Hour radio program, 1958-1976.) So things drifted, until it was “too late” for easy amelioration in the 1970s. The only answer was something of a revolution, an upheaval in which, yes, there was a fair amount of wounding, both deserved and undeserved. Overall, Hobbs granted that the resurgence was necessary, notwithstanding the wear and tear.

Problem was, the “they” who voiced concerns to the leadership in the 50s and 60s were relatively powerless. Though there were some major church pastors, such as Bellevue’s Adrian Rogers, who took up the cause, the great mass of concern came from the small and moderately-sized churches who sensed that things were going off the rails. The pastors and laymen alike had heard stories about seminary and college professors who were raising questions over the reliability of miracle accounts, and there seemed to be too much coziness with toxic movements in the culture. But these faithful were fighting headwinds all the way.

Of course, I think it was to the Convention’s credit that its default position was one of amiability and trust. We were a relational people, disposed toward cooperation (unlike capital-F Fundamentalists, who were always searching out new causes for castigation and separation). Besides, many of those we justifiably admired were assuring us, “Nothing to see here. Move right along” (with a few shifting into high dudgeon: “How dare you, Sir! Demeaning [us/those] good people”). It was enough to make one doubt his doubts.

On top of this, in those pre-internet days, it was reasonable to caution, “Beware of making enemies of those who buy ink by the barrel.” Indeed, the press (Baptist Press, state convention papers, and secular journalists and columnists, plus the well-nourished PR shops of the various institutions and agencies) were arrayed against the “cranky” nobodies who objected to some of the hirings, platformings, writings, marginalizings, and blackballings they saw taking place at the top.

Another big problem was the way in which the “moderates” could front-end load over a thousand supportive votes at each annual meeting of the Convention. The “establishment” could count on those who were alarmed over “barbarians at the gate.” The privileged included those who attended on expense accounts—staff from the twenty SBC agencies; staff from the three dozen state conventions; various exhibitors, including reps from state Baptist colleges; seminary students in special classes scheduled on site; trustees and commission members “loyal” to their agencies; attendance-funded church staffers who took their cues from beloved profs, editors, etc. who had blessed them one way or another through the years.  It was pretty much a bloc vote.

To counter this, little churches would have to load up vans of self-financed small-timers (many of them foregoing the wages they would have received had they stayed at their jobs back home) and drive to the big city for the crucial vote for president, from which so much flowed (in terms of trustee nominations and resolutions). They didn’t have the time or funds to stay for the whole meeting, but they did what they could. And somehow they turned the ship around.

Yes, it can cut both ways. When inerrantists become the establishment, those expense accounts kicked in for them as well. So whether the “good guys” or the “bad guys” are in power, there is still a finger on the scale when it comes to Convention tallys.

Furthermore, the geographical math can get quite interesting. If the meeting is in Portland, a messenger from Eugene, Oregon has a much greater likelihood of attending; but not so much for Orlando. So, as we move about the country (rotating through the South for most gatherings, but then jumping out to “pioneer areas” every four or five years), we are inclined to survey the theological demographics. What sort of Baptists cluster in that neck of the woods? Which sentiments prevail within driving distance of our next meeting?

It can make for some troubling results, whether in terms of inputs or outputs. One problem is that the vast majority of churches don’t have a voice in the proceedings. I’ve heard that fewer than 10% of the congregations have even a single messenger in attendance. The other 90% can only watch and pray (and tweet and blog) from afar. So it’s natural that, from time to time, a messenger will move that we shift to some sort of electronic voting, whereby churches from all across the denomination could participate.

I’m not keen on that approach for a number of reasons. For one thing, we’re a “convention” and not a studio denomination. We’re a real-life deliberative body, with a dozen microphones scattered about the floor, open to messengers who are able to queue up promptly during the time allotted and speak responsibly to the matter at hand. We come together for fellowship, inspiration, earnest conversation, networking, and witness.  Those present both read and influence the dynamics of the event, picking up alternately on spontaneous amens and murmurings, broad smiles and rolled eyes, unexpected insights and nutty observations—and, ideally, promptings of the Spirit. It’s more like an around-the-same-table seminar than an on-line class.

If we forsake the primacy of the in-the-flesh gathering, we become more like PTL, the 700 Club, or PBS, with callers standing by to receive your input. Yes, we’d hear immediately from Takoma and Kankakee and Bar Harbor in a way we wouldn’t have had we insisted that everybody show up in Chicago or Fort Mill, but it wouldn’t be a convention.

For these reasons, let me suggest that we move to adopt a proxy system, whereby a messenger may speak and vote for as many as three or four of his church’s authorized allotment, himself/herself included. Churches positioned to send their full quota of messengers are blessed, but we need to do more to honor the input of congregations not so fortunate. After all, representation is based upon contributions to SBC causes, not upon the likelihood that a church can supply bodies to the annual meeting. You might say that, under the present system, tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of CP/LMCO/AAEO dollars are de facto if not de jure voiceless each year.

Yes, a proxy system would still require attendance, but the chances that a church would send at least one messenger should increase if it’s understood that the one sent stands in for several voters the church is due. The credentials committee would be well-situated to judge who qualified (and issue multiple ballot pads accordingly), and we wouldn’t have to establish a vast electronic voting system, sensitive to time zones, work schedules, internet availability, security concerns, and single-issue voting (with input limited to, for instance, the presidential election, but not tailored to hour-by-hour response to the ebb and flow of business, including proposed amendments).

Yes, it’s a compromise, but, I think, one well worth considering. It honors the fact that we’re a honest-to-goodness convention, a meeting; but it makes more allowance for the fact that we’re a meeting of people from our churches, the vast majority of which are not heard from during those crucial gatherings.