Let me begin by saying that I love the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Since 1991, when I attended the founding meeting in Atlanta, CBF has been my Baptist home. And I love and respect my fellow Governing Board members, Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter and the members of the Illumination Project Committee. I am truly grateful for their work over the last year and a half to replace an internal hiring policy that was written as “the solution” and has since become “the problem.” I voted for the new hiring policy, but I was the only board member who voted against the implementation plan. Why did I do it?
I’ll tell you.
The old hiring policy (adopted in 2000) contained language that discriminated against gay people. It said that CBF would not hire any staff or send any missionaries who were “practicing homosexuals.” At the time that policy seemed necessary to keep those on the theological right from leaving the Fellowship. A decade later that same policy was causing those on the theological left to consider leaving. The center had shifted; the policy needed to be updated. It needed to be written in a way that did not discriminate, and after years of debate it was.
But added to the policy was an “implementation plan” (or “procedure”) which appears to have been written to reassure those on the theological right that although CBF would now be free to hire LGBTQ employees, it would not use that freedom recklessly. It would not, for example, send a married same-sex missionary couple to Nigeria (where some people have been stoned to death for “committing homosexual acts”). But even the idea of a “same-sex missionary couple” would be too much for some in our fellowship, and so the implementation plan included language about hiring for leadership positions “only those who practice a traditional Christian ethic of celibacy in singleness and marital faithfulness between a woman and a man.” And that’s what tripped me up: it appeared that we had removed the discriminatory heart of the old hiring policy only to transplant it in the implementation plan.
I understand the need to be culturally sensitive when making hiring decisions, and I understand that applies whether you are sending missionaries to Nigeria or New Jersey. But the existing bylaws of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship leave those hiring decisions in the hands of the executive coordinator, and I trust Suzii Paynter. I trust her to be culturally sensitive, but I also trust her not to discriminate. I can imagine her saying, “No, we are not sending a same-sex missionary couple to Nigeria. Instead we are commissioning a married, indigenous couple: a pastor and his wife who have been married 35 years and have three grown children. But we are sending a gay man to plant a church in San Francisco because he will have some inroads there that others would not have.” And suddenly it’s not about sexuality, but about mission. How do you communicate the good news of God’s love to the LGBTQ community? Well, maybe you send an indigenous missionary.
When I was a pastor in Wingate, N.C., my church voted to leave the Southern Baptist Convention because the SBC told us we could not ordain women. I don’t want the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to make the same mistake. I don’t want the hiring policy or the implementation plan to become CBF’s model for how its churches relate to members of the LGBTQ community. In my current church I’ve had the experience of watching a young man grow up in our youth group, go off to college, and “come out of the closet.” My church knows and loves that young man. And although some of our members have been able to accept him more easily than others, we would never kick him out. But here’s what I believe: I believe that no CBF church would kick him out. I find the churches in our fellowship to be universally kindhearted and compassionate. But one of our churches might counsel that young man to remain celibate while another would offer to do his wedding.
That’s what it means to be autonomous.
So, how should CBF make hiring decisions? The same way local churches do. I’m embarrassed to admit that I had to look up my own church’s hiring policy, written well before I arrived 10 years ago. Here’s what I found: “FBC does not discriminate in employment opportunities or practices on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or any other characteristics protected by law.” That’s our policy. What’s our practice? We look for the best person for the job. Our most recent hire was an interim pastor for our deaf congregation. Was it important that the candidate could speak American Sign Language? Yes. Was it important that he or she be straight? Not necessarily. The person we found is an ordained Baptist minister who is fluent in ASL and happens to be straight. He’s local and he loves our deaf congregation. He’s a good fit. Our congregation trusts us with those kinds of decisions.
The Governing Board of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has chosen not to discriminate in its hiring policy. Do we need to do it in an implementation plan? Or can we trust the elected leaders of this “denomi-network” in the same way we trust the elected leaders of our churches? If we can’t, we can do what local autonomous Baptist churches have been doing for centuries: find new leadership.
I love Suzii Paynter, and I trust her to make good decisions for CBF, decisions that consider the full theological diversity of our fellowship. If she needs help with those decisions I trust her to call in the Governing Board. I don’t need to see her “implementation plan.” I believe she will do the right thing. In the end, our identity is not about our policies or even our plans; it’s about our people. And CBF people, in all their newly illuminated diversity, are some of the best people I know.