Radically Redefining Transparency in the SBC: Part 1

Component Two:  Making Our Values Transparent:  We must also work toward the creation of a new and healthy culture within the Southern Baptist Convention.  If we are to grow together and work together in faithfulness to the command of Christ, we must establish a culture of trust, transparency, and truth among all Southern Baptists. . . .                            (Quoted from Penetrating The Lostness:  Embracing A Vision For A Great Commission Resurgence Among Southern Baptists, Page 8, The Great Commission Resurgence Task Force Report and Recommendations to the Southern Baptist Convention in Orlando, Florida June 15-16, 2010)

Transparency sure ain’t what it used to be!  After a 20 minute debate, messengers at this year’s Orlando Convention, with the urging of the GCRTF, voted to redefine transparency within the Southern Baptist Convention.  No, a literal motion to change the definition of transparency was not acted upon by the messengers.  But by affirming the Task Force’s after-the-fact decision to seal their own records, the practical definition of transparency has been radically changed — at least for now.  The unilateral decision to seal ALL records of their proceedings and to oppose even the partial release of records set the table for the redefinition of transparency within the Southern Baptist Convention.  For that, every Southern Baptist should be saddened. 

However, not all are saddened.  In fact, many rejoiced in the convention hall.  And many within the leadership class of the Convention are evidently quite comfortable without so much as a window of transparency into proceedings — not deliberations (this was not a jury) — which have the very real potential to radically redefine what it means to be a Cooperating Southern Baptist.  In order for grass-roots Southern Baptists to understand and comprehend the radical reprioritizing and redefining of our convention envisioned by certain leaders, I believe it is vital to start with the Task Force’s unilateral move to seal their records and the subsequent arguments advanced by Task Force members and others to support this decision.  There were four main arguments advanced by the Task Force members or supporters to defend sealing the records.  In the first part of a two-part post, I will address points 1 and 2 and in my next post will address points 3 and 4:

  1. Time and Money would make it prohibitive to release even partial records of the Task Force Proceedings
  2. Past Precedent of committees and/or individuals where records were sealed
  3. Promises of Confidentiality made by GCRTF that would be broken if required to unseal records
  4. Future Committees would not make recordings of their proceedings if GCRTF records were unsealed

Toward the end of the debate on the main motion to unseal all the records of the Task Force, an amended motion was offered by Doug Hibbard.  He moved that the

President of the Executive Committee, in consultation with a representative of Baptist Press, Legal Counsel, and the Historical Archives, release selected portions of the committee record to provide a window of transparency while preserving the promised confidentiality.

Dr. Daniel Akin, President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a member of the Task Force, spoke against this amendment to the main motion.  In response, Dr. Akin presented four problems with even a release of selected portions of the records:

  1. Release of even selected portions would require massive man hours to do
  2. Release of even selected portions would be an enormous cost, with fees for attorneys and other staff
  3. Release of even selected portions would lead to an arbitrariousness as to who would decide what is released and what is not
  4. Release of even selected portions would force the Task Force to break their word regarding confidentiality promised to certain individuals

I’ll include #4 in part two of this post when I analyze the confidentiality/broken promises argument.  When reviewing documents and recordings of the GCRTF, there is no question that this endeavor will take time and money, although I know of at least one attorney (and I’m sure there are others) who would be willing to offer their services pro bono to review any materials related to the GCRTF proceedings.  Will a review of all the materials take time?  Yes.  Will this review involve at least some financial outlay?  Most assuredly.  However, concerns about time and money should never prevent any of us, including our convention, from taking the right action.  As to the arbitrary nature of who decides what is released and what is not, start with the minutes of the Task Force’s meetings.  Surely there was a recording secretary for this group.  Are we now being told that no written minutes of the Task Force’s proceedings exist or in the alternative, that if written minutes do exist, that NONE of the minutes can be released before the end of fifteen years?  Our dysfunctional federal government releases portions of their proceedings, even though national security or other exigent circumstances necessitate some records remaining classified.  Surely the SBC can do better than the U.S. government.

A reliance on past precedent was used by both Dr. Mohler and by Dr. Greg Wills, a professor at Southern Seminary, to argue for the sealing of all records.  As a trained attorney, I have a passing acquaintance with the use — or misuse — of precedent.  Simply put, precedents are historical cases that contain similar facts, rulings, or reasoning that can be used in a present case to argue in favor of a particular outcome.  Precedents are controlling on lower courts if issued by a higher court (i.e., the Supreme Court’s precedents are controlling on all Federal Appellate or District Courts), although precedents are not binding on a court of equal stature.  For instance, past Supreme Court precedents are never binding or controlling on future Supreme Courts.  Drs. Mohler and Wills relied upon the following three precedents:

  1. The sealing of records of the SBC’s Peace Committee in the 1980s
  2. The sealing of the Diary of William Whittsett, former President of Southern Seminary
  3. The sealing of transcripts from a 1958 Trustee Meeting

I am unaware of the context of the 1958 Southern Seminary Trustee meeting transcripts that were sealed.  The nature of the discussions that were recorded were obviously of a sensitive nature.  However, contra to what Dr. wills says is customary, he could only cite one example of trustee transcripts being sealed.  Perhaps there are others that he failed to mention.  Regardless, this is neither a persuasive much less controlling precedent.

The sealing for 100 years of the private, personal diary of William Whitsitt, who served as the third President of Southern Seminary, is so dissimilar to the sealing of records from a messenger authorized Task Force that any reasonable and objective observer would not give any weight to this precedent.

That leaves the precedent of the Peace Committee.  A first reading of this precedent would indicate some similarities between the Peace Committee and the GCRTF.  However, on a closer reading, these two cases have less in common than what has been argued.  First , the Peace Committee was dealing with known contentious issues that affected, not the methodology of the Convention, but the theology of the Convention.  Second, the Peace Committee opened up all their meetings to a reporter from Baptist Press.  And lastly, according to an article in North Carolina’s Biblical Recorder,

SBC President Johnny Hunt originally promised that all meetings of the task force would be open to at least one representative of Southern Baptists’ press, such as a newspaper editor or someone from Baptist Press. Instead, all meetings were closed.

If true, then several questions need to be asked and answered.  Did Dr. Hunt change his mind about the transparency of the Task Force proceedings?  If yes, when did this occur?  If not, was he overruled by the Chairman of the Task Force or by the entire Task Force?  If so, when did this occur?  Was it early in the process or at the end of the process?  Why did the Task Force wait until the week before the Orlando Convention to disclose they were moving to seal all records?  I am unaware of any of these questions being answered by Dr. Hunt or anyone on the Task Force.

Finally, even if one could argue that the Peace Committee precedent was persuasive, it can in no way be considered controlling.  And for the Task Force to use the Peace Committee — some of whom were well-known “moderates” — to now argue in favor of the sealing of the GCRTF records is a bit strange.  Sort of like a conservative lawyer using the opinions of liberal Supreme Court Justices William Brennan or Harry Blackmun to support their case.  You might have to resort to it, but it would make for an awkward situation.

The first two points that have been addressed are the weakest and least offensive of the arguments that were used to keep the records of the GCRTF sealed for the next fifteen years.  Points 3 and 4, dealing with confidentiality and how future committees will operate, are distressing and revealing examples of a philosophy of leadership that calls for transparency, but does the opposite.  In part two of this post, I will discuss how each of these arguments, if allowed to stand long-term, will lead to a more radical redefinition, not just of transparency, but a radical redefinition of what it means to be a Cooperating Southern Baptist.  Stay tuned and check back Monday for the second part of this post. 


7 comments for “Radically Redefining Transparency in the SBC: Part 1

  1. November 16, 2010 at 12:57 PM

    Followed your links from SBC Voices…

    The main purpose for my offered amendment was to provide a way to balance the two needs. Given that the individuals making the decision what to release were members of the GCRTF, the control would have been very stringent. It seemed like the argument was originally “we talked about some matters that are legally necessary to be confidential” and then it was “we don’t have the time to do it.” In all, I had hoped that compromising in the middle would have satisfied both viewpoints. It didn’t.

    • November 16, 2010 at 1:51 PM


      I appreciate you taking the time to read my posts and comment. Obviously, you were an integral part of the floor debate on the motion to unseal the GCRTF records. I think that your amendment, requesting that some of the records be opened, and the Task Force’s strong arguments against ANY records being unsealed, helps folks to see that there is no middle ground as far as pro-GCR folks are concerned. The decision of the Task Force, who unilaterally sealed their own records, reveals a philosophy of governance and leadership that believes that the best way to reach a decision is behind closed doors with as little openness and transparency as possible. I analyze this particular argument at length in http://www.fromlaw2grace.com/2010/07/19/radically-redefining-transparency-in-the-sbc-part-2/

      I believe that your amendment, had it passed, would have helped defuse a lot of the continuing questions that surround the GCRTF’s work. Not only would it hve been the right thing to do to open as many records as possible, it would have also been wise politically speaking. That the Task Force strongly opposed your amendment perhaps tells us more than we might want to know. Thanks again for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. God bless,


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