NASHVILLE (BP) — Officers of the Board of Trustees of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) strongly objected Thursday (Feb. 20) to the formation of a task force to study the ERLC’s effectiveness and instructed the entity and its leadership “not to comply” with the inquiry.
In an open letter to SBC Executive Committee chairman Mike Stone and EC members (text follows the article), the ERLC trustee officers called the task force, which was formed by the EC earlier this week, “unwarranted, divisive, and disrespectful.” Signed by ERLC Board of Trustees chairman David Prince and the board’s other officers, the letter suggested the EC was attempting to usurp the role delegated to the ERLC’s trustees and included a statement of support for ERLC president Russell Moore.
“We find the action of the Executive Committee … disappointing, unnecessary, and harmful to our cooperative work in the SBC,” the ERLC trustee officers wrote, adding: “At a time where a unified voice is needed for our cooperative Gospel work, the Executive Committee is sowing needless division, treating trustees with disrespect, and spreading suspicion with this unnecessary task force.”
EC members voted Tuesday (Feb. 18) to form the seven-member task force, which will be headed by Stone. It is designed to address concerns that “have been expressed both publicly and privately to various members of the Executive Committee and other Southern Baptists regarding how the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s actions in relation to its ministry statements are affecting the Convention and its relationships with local churches, local associations, and state conventions.”
In a written response to the ERLC trustee officers’ letter, the officers of the SBC Executive Committee noted that the action “passed unanimously among the (EC) officers, unanimously in subcommittee, and by an overwhelming majority” of the full EC. (The full text of the EC’s response to the open letter follows the ERLC’s open letter.)
“We respect the right of the ERLC trustees and chairman Prince to respond to the SBC Executive Committee’s formation of a study task force,” the EC officers wrote in the response. “It was never our intention to communicate disrespect or seek to divide. This is not an attempt to remove Dr. Moore or to direct his staff.
“We believe in the trustee system and understand clearly that Dr. Moore’s presidency and the work of his team are matters for the ERLC board of trustees.”
But the response also noted the EC has a responsibility to “present and recommend the SBC Cooperative Program Allocation” to messengers at the SBC Annual Meeting, and “to promote the entire Cooperative Program.”
In 2017, the EC created a similar task force. A 13-member ad hoc committee was tasked with monitoring the activities of Southern Baptist entities in relation to how their activities might adversely affect the Cooperative Program and churches.
It received reports then from executive directors of state Baptist conventions that 75 churches across the SBC “were withholding, designating or escrowing Cooperative Program funds.” While only 14 churches were confirmed by the committee, those 14 were estimated to have diverted a total of about $1.5 million away from the Cooperative Program.
The EC’s action Tuesday to form a task force specifically stated three bylaw responsibilities, beginning with its responsibility to recommend the Cooperative Program Allocation Budget annually to the SBC, as required by SBC Bylaw 18.E(6).
The EC is also tasked with studying or making recommendations to entities, and the Convention when advisable, concerning adjustments required by ministry statements or by established Convention policies and practices, as described in SBC Bylaw 18.E(9). Finally, the EC is directed by the Convention to present to the Convention recommendations required to clarify the responsibilities of the entities for ministries and other functions, as provided in SBC Bylaw 18.E(13).
Shortly after the EC vote Tuesday, Stone noted the prevalence of “fake news” about the ERLC, and said the task force would be “looking for the facts.”
“We are hearing from state leadership and other pastors across the country,” he said then. “We are making a statement about effectiveness.”
But among several objections, the ERLC trustee officers said the EC’s action “inappropriately seizes the responsibility and work of the ERLC trustees,” that “evaluating the effectiveness of Dr. Moore and the ERLC team is uniquely the work of the trustees of the ERLC, and that formation of the task force was “a vote of no confidence” in ERLC trustees, “which is both insulting and … inappropriate and out of step with Southern Baptist cooperation.”
In their response, the EC officers said: “When we continue to hear a growing number of reports that churches are either planning to decrease or withhold Cooperative Program gifts and are given specific reasons that relate to a Southern Baptist entity, we have a responsibility that we are granted under the bylaws of the SBC to consider those reports.”
Citing Bylaw 18.E(9), the ERLC trustee officers said the EC had failed to “maintain open channels of communication” with ERLC trustees as required. The letter also said the task force was “inappropriately formed” in executive session and suggested the task force “overrules the will” of SBC messengers.
Other than Stone, the task force’s membership, which will be drawn from the EC’s 83 current members, has not been announced. The task force is required to report its findings to the EC “on or before its September 2020 meeting.” Stone said Tuesday the action created “a formal process by which we can receive information and determine the level that this issue is affecting the Cooperative Program.”
Stone added: “I’m fully aware that we may find, as we did in 2017, that what we are hearing is not as significant in fact as it is in perception.”
The letter from the ERLC trustee officers cited Stone’s comments on the 2017 study as evidence that another review is unnecessary. And citing a motion to defund the ERLC during the 2018 SBC Annual Meeting, which was rejected by an overwhelming margin, the letter stated:
“The question of the messengers’ support for the ERLC has been asked and answered. If the job of the Executive Committee is to carry on the work and represent the will of the business carried out at the Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, this task force is doing the very opposite.”
The ERLC trustee officers also issued a strong statement of confidence in Moore, whose tenure has been polarizing in Southern Baptist circles for several reasons, including his position and commentary during the 2016 presidential election. They wrote:
“We grieve this task force in part because of the suspicion that it inevitably casts over Dr. Moore’s character. And we are firm in our belief that Dr. Moore’s character, convictions, and theology are both biblical and unimpeachable.”
But Stone said Tuesday — and the EC’s response reiterated Thursday — that the task force was not formed to remove or push Moore from the role he has held since 2013.
“We want to find clarity in where the facts lead us,” the EC officers wrote in response to the ERLC trustee officers, “and we hope to have the opportunity to engage with the ERLC board of trustees in this process.”
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The body of the ERLC’s open letter is below:
As convictional and grateful Southern Baptists, we would like to thank every member of the Executive Committee for their service to the Southern Baptist Convention. Our convention is indebted to all who take time to do the unglamorous but vital work of serving on our various boards and committees.
At the same time, as members of the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, we write to express our strong opposition to the recent Executive Committee formation of the ERLC study task force. There are several reasons why we believe this task force is unwarranted, divisive, and disrespectful.
1. The Task Force Inappropriately Seizes the Responsibility and Work of the ERLC Trustees
To begin, Chairman Stone’s own statements in Baptist Press regarding this action describe the need for this task force as being based on “reports that are largely anecdotal.” Chairman Stone stated that the task force is “looking for facts . . . we are making a statement about effectiveness.” To be clear, this task force seizes the work and responsibility of the trustees of the ERLC. Evaluating the effectiveness of Dr. Moore and the ERLC team is uniquely the work of the trustees of the ERLC. The appointment of this task force can be taken in no other sense than a vote of no confidence in the ERLC Board of Trustees, which is both insulting and, in our view, inappropriate and out of step with Southern Baptist cooperation.
Furthermore, as we review not only our own ministry assignment but the other Convention-approved ministry assignments, we see that there seems to be an intentional latitude in them so as to allow the work of our various entities to conduct their gospel ministry in ways that meet the demand of the moment. Our question, then, is which aspects or assignments have supposedly been violated such that it could justify a task force? This is all the more confusing to us when, unlike our other entities, virtually every single thing the ERLC does in its day to day ministry is, by necessity, in public view, for any and every Southern Baptist to see and evaluate.
Not only that, but, again, we point to Chairman Stone’s own words in Baptist Press, when he said that this task force is “a formal process by which we can receive information and determine the level that this issue is affecting the Cooperative Program.” But the issue of whether or not the ERLC is adversely affecting giving to the Cooperative Program of the SBC was dealt with in 2017. The CP study created then found that Cooperative Program impact was “not as significant in fact as it is in perception.” By way of reminder, only fourteen churches in our vast convention were estimated to have diverted funds. Rather than create a new study or task force, we believe the wise and appropriate approach is to refer those offering present anecdotal complaints back to the 2017 Executive Committee study findings. Regardless, the entire premise of evaluating the ERLC effect on CP giving is flawed unless one also investigates how many churches have increased their giving because of their enthusiastic support of the work of the ERLC.
2. The Executive Committee Failed to Consult with ERLC Trustees
Further, as we reviewed both the comments by Chairman Stone, as well as the text of the approved motion itself, we were struck in particular by Bylaw 18.E(9):
To maintain open channels of communication between the Executive Committee and the trustees of the entities of the Convention, to study and make recommendations to entities concerning adjustments required by ministry assignments or by established Convention policies and practices, and, whenever deemed advisable, to make recommendations to the Convention. The Executive Committee shall not have authority to control or direct the several boards, entities, and institutions of the convention. This is the responsibility of trustees elected by the Convention and directly accountable to the Convention.
We are curious: At what point did the Executive Committee “maintain open channels of communication between the Executive Committee and [ERLC] trustees” as is the Executive Committee’s obligation under this bylaw? It appears to us that the Executive Committee cites one aspect of a bylaw to justify its action, but defies a critical part of the very same bylaw. Were any of our trustees consulted? If not, why not? Were any of our trustees invited into relevant discussions of this motion? If not, why not?
3. The Executive Committee Inappropriately Formed the Task Force During a Closed-Door Executive Session
More still, it appears that discussion of this motion at both the committee level and in the plenary session was done in executive session. Your Board, of course, has a right to go into executive session, but executive sessions are used most often to protect proprietary, financial, or sensitive information. We believe it was unnecessary and inappropriate for such a divisive move to be deliberated and decided in secrecy.
This is all the more confusing because Dr. Moore gave a presentation to the Cooperative Program Committee during the meeting, after which there was a question and answer session. According to several reports from that session, there were no antagonistic questions and no frustrations expressed whatsoever. If there was enough evidence, confusion, or frustration sufficient to justify the creation of a task force (1) why would none of that been expressed directly to Dr. Moore in public session when there was ample opportunity; and (2) why would the Cooperative Program Committee feel the need to discuss the task force in secrecy the next day?
4. The Task Force Overrules the Will of the Messengers of the SBC.
We also believe that it is critical to point out that every time any question about Dr. Moore’s leadership of the ERLC has come before the convention, the elected messengers at the SBC Annual Meeting have overwhelmingly supported Dr. Moore’s leadership of the ERLC on behalf of Southern Baptists. A motion to defund the ERLC in 2018 was nearly unanimously rejected; the question of the messengers’ support for the ERLC has been asked and answered. If the job of the Executive Committee is to carry on the work and represent the will of the business carried out at the Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, this task force is doing the very opposite. It is taking the clear, expressed will of the body and calling it into question.
Not only that, but why would present-day anecdotal reports lead the Executive Committee to take an action that creates an undeniable and completely unnecessary culture of suspicion regarding the work and ministry of the ERLC? Is there any reason to think present-day anecdotal reports are any more accurate when anecdotal reports just a few years ago (1) proved not to align with reality, according to the Executive Committee’s own report; and (2) when the messengers have spoken at the Annual Meeting with overwhelming support.
5. We Support Dr. Moore’s Leadership and the ERLC Board of Trustees Will Continue to Hold Him and the ERLC in Trust on Behalf of Southern Baptists
More importantly, as members of the Board that is charged with holding the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission in trust on behalf of our churches, we as members of the ERLC Executive Committee want to be crystal clear in our confidence in Dr. Moore’s leadership and in the effectiveness of the Commission’s ministry. We grieve this task force in part because of the suspicion that it inevitably casts over Dr. Moore’s character. And we are firm in our belief that Dr. Moore’s character, convictions, and theology are both biblical and unimpeachable.
All told, we find the action of the Executive Committee in appointing this ERLC study task force disappointing, unnecessary, and harmful to our cooperative work in the SBC. The Executive Committee, of course, has a financial stewardship, particularly in terms of allocating the resources of the Cooperative Program. But that should not result in a disregard of the clearly-expressed will of the denomination it purports to serve. It should not include a disregard of the very bylaws the Executive Committee is claiming as justification for its action. It should not include a culture of secrecy leading to a committee that unmistakably creates suspicion regarding one of our own entities. It should not include ignoring the directive to “maintain open channels” and instead create hostile channels with what should clearly be first a matter for the ERLC Board of Trustees to consider.
At a time where a unified voice is needed for our cooperative gospel work, the Executive Committee is sowing needless division, treating trustees with disrespect, and spreading suspicion with this unnecessary task force. Even if the appointment of this task force does not violate the letter of the law, the existence of the task force and the process by which it was created unquestionably violates the spirit of friendly cooperation.
All this being the case, we as members of the Executive Committee of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission consider it critical that messengers at the SBC Annual Meeting be given the opportunity to signal whether they agree with the Executive Committee’s action in the creation of this task force. Should messengers approve such a task force, we will be happy to entertain questions. Until then, we are instructing Dr. Moore and the ERLC not to comply with it until messengers have an opportunity to signal their belief that such a task force is appropriate and legitimate.
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Full text of SBC Executive Committee’s response to ERLC’s open letter is below:
We respect the right of the ERLC trustees and chairman Prince to respond to the SBC Executive Committee’s formation of a study task force. It was never our intention to communicate disrespect or to seek to divide. This is not an attempt to remove Dr. Moore or to direct his staff. We believe in the trustee system and understand clearly that Dr. Moore’s presidency and the work of his team are matters for the ERLC board of trustees.
The Executive Committee is assigned to present and recommend the SBC Cooperative Program Allocation Budget to the Convention annually for consideration, and we are also assigned to promote the entire Cooperative Program. When we continue to hear a growing number of reports that churches are either planning to decrease or withhold Cooperative Program gifts and are given specific reasons that relate to a Southern Baptist entity, we have a responsibility that we are granted under the bylaws of the SBC to consider those reports. This action passed unanimously among the officers, unanimously in subcommittee, and by an overwhelming majority in plenary.
We want to find clarity in where the facts lead us, and we hope to have the opportunity to engage with the ERLC board of trustees in this process.