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Wise as Serpents: Why the SBC adopted a board of trustees model

April 6th, 2017 / By: Gary Ledbetter | Editor in Chief / comments

Jesus more than once exalted “common” sense or decency in the course of his teaching. In some of those cases he acknowledged that even unbelievers do this; other places he referred to the self-evident reasonableness of behavior with a spiritual application. Some strategies that work in a business application translate easily to the life of churches or institutions with a godly purpose. This is why books intended to support the work of tech companies or financial institutions find popularity among Christian leadership gurus. People have common traits whether they are church members or sales associates. 

Some of the things we observe in our neighbors are true of us, even the smartest of us. When Jesus compared mortal fathers with our heavenly father in Matthew 7, he said to his followers, “if you then, being evil …” Proverbs 14 says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” This verse does not say, “There is a way that seems right to an unbeliever…” Here, we are warned of our need for revelation and “many counselors.” 

This is why Southern Baptists have adopted a board of trustees model for our institutions. Those trustees find God’s best leader for the institution, our churches hail their decision as sagacious, and then those boards govern that leader’s work on behalf of those churches. We don’t send only famous pastors and accomplished laymen to serve on those boards; we include your pastor, housewives from your church, and average laymen on those boards. Why hobble genius leaders with amateurs who only visit the head office a few times (in one of our institutions only one time) each year? Isn’t it more efficient to let a godly leader run free toward greater accomplishment? 

It is more efficient, usually. Autocracy can be the most efficient form of governance. But we’ve also observed that “there is a way that seems right to a man.” Our goal should be wisdom rather than efficiency. A good leader will sometimes find the pace set by 40 board members tedious, but a wise leader will know his own limitations. Here are some reasons why even our most crucial Great Commission work benefits from board oversight. 

Gifted and God-called leaders are not infallible—Remember the great, unsolicited advice that Moses’ father-in-law gave him about delegating authority. Moses might have said, “Who spoke to the burning bush, you or me?” Instead Moses heard and took good advice from someone not called to be the leader. Jethro actually confronted Moses when he said, “What you are doing is not good.” 

None of us knows what’s coming—In Ecclesiastes 8, Solomon reminds us that none of us knows the day of his death or the outcome of the days between now and then. The best we can do is seek the Lord, who does know those things. The New Testament witness is that God’s people better discern the will of the Lord corporately. We saw this when the apostles sought a replacement for Judas, again when the church appointed servants to care for widows, and even in the deliberation of the apostles over the ministry of Paul to the Gentiles. Even the best of those leaders made mistakes, misspoke or sinned in the course of a God-called ministry. They seemed to value the companionship and correction of those who shared a commitment to the same work. 

The work of Southern Baptists flows outward from churches—Clothing retailers or fast-food companies live or die depending on how well they hear their customers. They need people to choose their products over their competitors’ and give them money. Our mission is grander than fast food, but it still depends on the trust and support of churches and laymen who agree with how our mission is being implemented. A Southern Baptist leader fails when he loses touch with those who sent him, who appointed his board and who express agreement with the direction of his ministry by funding it. A leader’s friends and direct reports—advisors he selects—cannot be the only voices he hears. 

These are a few of many reasons why even the tedious system Southern Baptists use is better than the alternatives we’ve found so far. Those to whom we are accountable should be as diverse as those who sent us and empower our ministries. That is why I believe responsible and fair news media should have access to a bit more than any chief executive (or his lawyer) is comfortable with. The presidents in Richmond, Alpharetta, Washington, Nashville, Dallas, Fort Worth, Louisville, New Orleans, Wake Forest, Kansas City, and Ontario all need those they lead to know their work in a way not crafted solely by corporate public relations staff. 

We need counsel and accountability, unless we are exceptions to biblical descriptions of mortal, limited, fallible men. There is only one leader like that, and all of us already serve him.