For at least two years, critics of the current leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention North American Mission Board have been seeking some way to crack open the mission board’s books, where they believe fraud is being hidden.
This week, for the second straight SBC annual meeting, their attempts to peel back the curtains from NAMB failed, as motions and maneuvers were ruled out of order by president SBC President Ed Litton, whose wife is an employee of NAMB.
Litton made the rulings not on his own, however, but upon the advice of SBC parliamentarians and legal counsel who said they were unanimous in their judgments.
Frustrated, critics of NAMB President Kevin Ezell weren’t buying the parliamentary argument. But they were left with no recourse.
A big polity question
The rift has laid bare an interesting question within SBC polity: What right do members of SBC churches — and more specifically messengers to the SBC annual meeting — have to review the finances of various denominational bodies?
This is relevant because technically “the convention” exists only two days a year when duly elected messengers gather at the annual meeting. In SBC polity, “the convention” has ultimate authority over all things. The other 363 days of the year, the SBC Executive Committee serves “ad interim” on the convention’s behalf.
But what about the six seminaries, two mission boards and other convention entities? SBC messengers elect 100% of the trustees of these organizations, and each entity has amended its bylaws to identify the SBC as the “sole member” of its corporation. That means none of the entities can declare independence from the SBC, which holds the only vote that matters.
Most of the time, the SBC’s vote as “sole member” doesn’t come into play. The trustees elected by the convention are granted full authority to govern their entities.
Where the line of authority passes from trustees back to the convention was put to the test two years ago when trustees of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary removed two trustees who were accused of self-dealing in a financial matter. Leaders of the SBC Executive Committee protested that only the convention had the right to remove trustees because only the convention had the right to elect trustees.
The precedent set last year
Then at last year’s SBC annual meeting, messengers took the extraordinary step of mandating that the Executive Committee subject itself to an independent, third-party investigation of its handling of sexual abuse claims. Messengers also demanded that Executive Committee staff and trustees waive attorney-client privilege in the investigation.
That set off three months of debate among Executive Committee leadership and trustees on whether they were duty-bound to follow the directive of the convention or to follow what they perceived to be their fiduciary responsibility to the Executive Committee itself. Ultimately, the convention mandate won out, but about a fourth of the trustees resigned in protest, as did the two top staff leaders.
With that precedent in mind, critics of Ezell and NAMB went to this year’s annual meeting with a new plan: Get the convention to vote to demand an outside, independent “forensic audit” of NAMB’s finances.
Critics of Ezell and NAMB went to this year’s annual meeting with a new plan: Get the convention to vote to demand an outside, independent “forensic audit” of NAMB’s finances.
That motion was made on the opening day of the convention by messenger David Um of Cambridge, Mass. He called for the newly elected SBC president to appoint a task force to audit NAMB’s finances “for the sake of promoting greater transparency.” The motion closely mirrored last year’s motion that prompted the investigation into the Executive Committee.
Except Um’s motion hit a roadblock with the Committee on Order of Business, which declared it “not in order” because it sought to exercise external governance over an autonomous entity, which would be in conflict with the SBC’s governing documents.
Specifically, the committee said the motion was in conflict with SBC Bylaw 32 and Article 4 of the denomination’s constitution. The chair of the Committee on Order of Business said neither the SBC president nor an external task force has the authority to conduct a forensic audit as the motion directed because such power rests solely with an entity’s trustees.
Again, that was not a satisfactory answer to Um and his allies, who see the NAMB trustee board as part of the problem they believe requires investigation. NAMB critics believe trustees have failed to exercise diligent oversight and have taken the word of NAMB’s longtime auditors without question.
‘Not in order’
Litton followed the lead of the committee and declared the NAMB audit motion out of order.
That set off a chain of procedural moves on the convention floor, beginning with an effort to overrule the not-in-order determination. At the direction of chief parliamentarian Barry McCarty, Litton said no, that could not be done.
Then another messenger appealed, comparing Um’s motion to last year’s motion about the Executive Committee.
“Last year, repeatedly we were told that we have sole ownership as a convention — as the messengers — and that we have sole ownership over our entities and I’m wondering how come we can’t put forward an investigation.”
“Last year, repeatedly we were told that we have sole ownership as a convention — as the messengers — and that we have sole ownership over our entities and I’m wondering how come we can’t put forward an investigation. That doesn’t seem right to me,” the messenger pleaded.
Again directed by McCarty, Litton said: “The question has already been asked. And the question has already been answered.”
The “answer” the parliamentarians gave boils down to this: The Executive Committee has a different relationship to the convention in session than do any of the other SBC entities. Thus, last year’s messengers were able to dictate actions to the Executive Committee but may not make similar demands of NAMB’s leadership.
Left unanswered is the question of what it means for the SBC to be “sole member” of NAMB’s corporation yet not be allowed to ask for detailed financial information.
What NAMB critics want
Frustration between state convention and NAMB leadership showed up several times during the annual meeting, including during a separate debate over changing NAMB’s program assignment to support Baptist campus ministries. Ezell was grilled by several messengers who work in student ministry and fear their programs will be treated the same way NAMB has treated state conventions in church planting.
In short, over the past decade NAMB has changed its strategy of working through state Baptist conventions and local associations in church planting and created its own superstructure that often bypasses state conventions. Tens of millions of dollars have been redirected away from state conventions and associations.
This set the stage for Will McRaney to be fired as executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland and Delaware after he opposed NAMB’s new tactics. McRaney filed a wrongful termination and defamation lawsuit against NAMB that is still winding its way through the courts. NAMB has been unsuccessful in trying to stop the litigation.
Last year, a large group of state convention executive directors went public with their concerns about how NAMB operates, accusing Ezell of being arrogant and spiteful and controlling. Subsequently, a group called NAMB Whistleblower created a public website and tip line.
One of the primary concerns of all NAMB’s critics is that the agency has more money than ever before but is producing fewer results than before.
One of the primary concerns of all NAMB’s critics is that the agency has more money than ever before but is producing fewer results than before. There are accusations of lavish spending on gifts and real estate that NAMB leadership has been unable to stave off.
Trustees say they receive and review annual audits from the firm NAMB hires to do its accounting work. Critics say those audits are not looking at the instances of misuse of funds they believe are being hidden. NAMB officials have repeatedly said they are not hiding any financial malfeasance and that trustees are fully engaged with their financial reports, which are only made public in summary form.
Unlike most other nonprofits in the United States, NAMB and all SBC entities are not required to file public Form 990 reports that detail their financial positions. That’s because SBC entities get a pass by being classified at the IRS as a church, not a regular charity.
In 2021, the most recent year for which actual financials are published from NAMB, the agency reported to the SBC total income of $181,765,375. Of that, $43,773,080 came from the Cooperative Program unified budget, $66,512,422 came from the Annie Armstrong Offering, and $48,824,635 came through “investment and interest” earnings.
That same year, the agency reported expenditures of $139,313,861 — $42 million less than it took in.
NAMB’s financial summary lists $61 million being held in operating contingency and $71.5 million held in endowment and trust funds.
— With additional reporting by Jeff Brumley