By Jeff Iorg
More than 25 years as a Southern Baptist denominational executive, preceded by more than a dozen years as a Southern Baptist pastor, has shaped my perspective on navigating the vagaries of working among and with the large network known as the Southern Baptist denomination. It can be a daunting, and at times disappointing task. Here are eight perspectives (and one concluding story) which have helped sustain my spiritual, emotional, and strategic equilibrium – and helped me maintain a positive perspective on denominational involvement and leadership.
Recognize there will always be imperfection
There never have been any “good old days” when the denomination functioned without difficulty, divisions, conflicts, and scandals. We have lived through moral failures, criminal activities, strategic blunders, and financial disasters throughout our 175-year history. We have struggled with sins like racism and failures like mishandling sexual abuse. We have always been, and always will be, an imperfect denomination. While we must strive to solve pressing problems and build a healthier organization, we must also admit perfection will never be achieved.
It is astounding, however, what this imperfect denomination has accomplished. An underlying conviction of some critics is our denomination must reform itself and reach moral, spiritual, theological, or organizational health (as they define it) before it can be effective in accomplishing its mission. That perspective ignores the plain evidence of the historical record and simply is not true. God has used Southern Baptists, despite their flaws and while they are flawed, to accomplish more temporal and eternal good than any other denomination in American history. So, while improving denominational function is desirable, demanding it be perfected as a condition of future usefulness (or to assure our loyalty) is an unreasonable expectation.
Maintaining this perspective means my denominational commitments are based on valuing the positive outcomes we have achieved and are achieving, while also working on but not being preoccupied by denominational reform.
Remember who the denomination serves
The Southern Baptist denomination, in all its forms, exists to serve others. It was founded to combine and coordinate the efforts of churches doing together what they cannot do as well by themselves.
This next statement may cause some angst, as it has for the 25-years I have been saying it. The denomination does not exist “to serve churches.” Any denominational mission statement that includes that phrase is well-intended, but misguided. The denomination exists as a channel for churches to serve the world, not as a collective that meets their needs. This distinctive is subtle but significant. When a church, or church leader, believes the denomination exists to meet their needs they will demand of the denomination what it was not created to provide. The denomination – national convention, state conventions, local associations, and other entities – were created so churches could do things for other people, not for themselves.
Maintaining this perspective helps me view my denominational involvement as a means to serve others. It prevents me from asking “what do I get out of it?” when considering the value of denominational outcomes.
Remember the denomination’s purpose: missions
The denomination was created for missions, in the most limited use of the word, which means sharing the gospel, making disciples, starting churches, facilitating networks of churches, and then repeating the process. The denomination focuses its mission primarily on people and places – domestic and international – where there is limited or no access to the gospel. The denomination was not started primarily for political action, cultural reform, program promotion, materials production, or financial services.
The most controversial aspects of being a Southern Baptist today revolve around political and cultural differences. While there is some debate about why and how we do missions, program promotion, materials production, and financial services, these discussions are not nearly as divisive as the cultural and political issues which create much more conflict.
One illustration of how Southern Baptists prioritize missions over cultural or political engagement is the budgets of the two mission boards compared to the budget of our public policy entity. The combined operating budgets of the International Mission Board and North American Mission Board for 2019-20, including Cooperative Program, Lottie Moon, and Annie Armstrong Offerings (along with other revenue) totaled more than $391 million. The budget for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission was about $4.3 million. Southern Baptists invest the bulk of their ministry dollars in missions, a clear statement of priority above cultural and political activism.
Because American culture is changing in alarming ways, some Southern Baptist leaders speak more often on political and cultural issues than global missions. Secular media care more about these issues and constantly trumpet the opinion of a few Southern Baptists on these controversial subjects – while ignoring almost all messaging about our missional priority. The preponderance of media comments makes it seem like political action and cultural reform are our mission and message. They are not.
Maintaining this perspective helps me focus on the eternal nature of our mission. Getting the gospel to a person who has never heard the name of Jesus is far more important than solving the supposedly urgent issue dominating today’s 24-hour news cycle.
Distinguish the convention and the denomination
By now, you may have noticed my use of the word “denomination” instead of “convention” in this paper. That is intentional. The Southern Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist denomination are not the same thing. The Southern Baptist Convention is a relatively small part of the Southern Baptist denomination. The Convention has 12 national entities and one auxiliary. The denomination has 1 national convention, 42 state conventions, almost 1200 local associations, about 48,000 churches, about 60 colleges, and countless hospitals, camps, retirement centers, pregnancy centers, children’s homes, and other ministry organizations. The largest amount, by far, of Southern Baptist ministry resources are controlled by Southern Baptist churches, denominational bodies, and local organizations – not the Southern Baptist Convention.
The Southern Baptist Convention has no authority over the Southern Baptist denomination – a distinction almost completely lost on secular media and misunderstood by many in our constituency. We are a huge collective, not a streamlined corporation. All Southern Baptist denominational groups are autonomous, and even the entities owned by those groups are independently governed by Boards with wide latitude in organizational control and performance.
Maintaining this perspective helps me realize the denomination will always operate in somewhat of a haphazard fashion, enjoying both the benefits and challenges of autonomy. We will never speak with a unified voice, never all rally to the same cause simultaneously, and never agree on a common set of priorities. We will also enjoy remarkable strength because, even when some parts of our denomination struggle, our disconnected polity prevents those struggles from infecting the rest of the denomination.
Refuse to idolize or demonize our leaders
God has given Southern Baptists remarkable leaders – including thousands of pastors and hundreds of specialized leaders who work for denominational bodies and entities. We expect these leaders to be convictional and definitive in their doctrinal, moral, ethical, strategic and financial pronouncements and decisions. We value strong leaders and reward them with our allegiance and financial support – when we agree with them. We also often attack them when we disagree with them. When we go too far to either extreme, we idolize or demonize leaders.
It has been my privilege to work with many of the strongest leaders/personalities in our denomination. In almost every case, these leaders have been passionate Christians, devoted spouses and parents, and doting grandparents. They are personal evangelists, spirited speakers, loyal church members, and generous personal donors to Southern Baptist causes. They are remarkable leaders, but they are also all flawed people. We must have the spiritual maturity to draw on the strengths while managing the shortcomings of our leaders.
Maintaining this perspective has helped me focus on the good our leaders accomplish while being patient with their mistakes and failures. Leaders are a gift from God. We can follow them without idolizing them. We can disagree with them without demonizing them. Doing this has helped me experience the good results of many leaders, without being disappointed by their mistakes or demoralized by their failures.
Accept mixed outcomes in denominational decisions
Strong leaders working in decentralized networks assures significant variety in denominational decisions and programs. Most of the time, I agree with the choices and the approaches which are taken. Sometimes, I do not. Being part of a huge denomination means some aspects of what we are doing are thrilling, while other aspects are infuriating. Adjusting my expectations (not always expecting things to go my way) and accepting mixed outcomes enables me to celebrate progress without being overly critical of people, choices, and programs which seem flawed from my perspective. After more than 25 years of executive leadership, I have a long track record of mistakes which others have tolerated. This recognition also contributes to my humbly accepting the reality of mixed outcomes.
Maintaining this perspective has helped me celebrate the overall good we are achieving, without being frustrated or discouraged when results do not meet my expectations. It has also helped me be more patient and forgiving of other leaders.
Trust governance processes
Most Southern Baptist denominational bodies and entities are governed by a Board of Trustees. Baptists elect these Boards and trust them – hence, the name “trustees” – to lead with doctrinal, financial, and missional integrity. For the most part, trustees are everyday Baptists who use their spiritual sensitivities, professional competencies, and common sense to make reasonable decisions related to their respective entity. Occasionally, they make mistakes and when they do the media – secular, religious, and social – delight in reporting it thoroughly.
For the most part, however, trustees do a credible job leading our denomination. They provide a workable method for millions of Baptists to have a grass-roots voice in governing denominational entities. While it is easy to point out the problems with this system, doing so begs the question, “How would you replace it?” A pope? A synod? A council? There is no perfect process because there are no perfect people, but trustees bringing their collective wisdom to bear on governance issues is the best way for us to guide our collective work.
Maintaining this perspective gives me confidence in decisions I may not understand or even agree with and patience to wait for the full results. Rank-and-file Baptists, working in a prayerful context, take their trustee roles seriously and make the best decisions most of time.
Accept some losses
Southern Baptists, despite our size, are a minority in American culture. We stand for minority positions on issues like morality, marriage, gender definition, and abortion. The Bible promises believers will face opposition for living out gospel-mandates. In our generation, this expresses itself in almost constant media attacks on and negative public portrayals of Southern Baptists.
Confronting these critics will not mollify them. Addressing the problems they raise will not satisfy them. Trying to answer complaints and win arguments is futile – like playing media “Whack-a-mole.” Time is better spent on more positive pursuits.
Maintaining this perspective keeps me centered on our mission. We can do very little to control the narrative others broadcast about us. Our media ability pales in comparison to the sophistication of our critics. While talking back is temporarily satisfying, staying on message about the gospel and our mission is more eternally significant.
A final story
Several years ago, I vented my frustrations about the ineptness and dysfunction among Southern Baptists to a veteran, loyal denominational leader. I told him I was ready to leave Southern Baptists. He replied, “I agree with you.” I was shocked. He was a stalwart and for him to agree with me meant my hopes were dashed. Then he asked, “So, where are we going?” He paused for a few seconds and then continued, “Where are we going that has thousands of missionaries, hundreds of church plants, dozens of colleges and seminaries, a publishing house and financial services provider, hospitals, camps and conference centers, crisis pregnancy centers, and more than 40,000 mostly Bible-believing churches? Where can we find all this without any of the negative that has upset you? So, where are we going?” We looked at each other for a few seconds and I said, “I guess I’m staying.” He smiled and said, “Me too.” I hope you will do the same.
Jeff Iorg is president of Gateway Seminary. This editorial first appeared on the seminary’s website.