Every year, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) holds a big Annual Meeting. These meetings summarize the denomination’s performance over the previous year and chart a course for the following year. This time around, the Annual Meeting has a slightly different flavor. And some of the stuff happening this year might well be unprecedented in the SBC’s recent history. Join me today for a look at what’s going on–and why it might be important to us.
(See endnotes for how Annual Meetings work, if you’re new to this whole thing.)
Back to Basics.
The denomination continues to focus on fixing its many-years-long decline.
Theme: “Gospel Above All.”
Translation: oh god oh god please let’s all just agree to ignore all these scandals, cuz y’all, they are SERIOUSLY cutting into our bottom line, y’all.
I don’t think it’s an accident at all that this theme got chosen in a period of nonstop scandals for the SBC. The “Abuse of Faith” scandal might not have dropped yet, but #ChurchToo and the Paige Patterson scandals had. Abuse of women and systemic racism, at the very least, hit a crescendo last year.
Those scandals, paired with the SBC’s decline, likely prompted the denomination’s leaders to start whining for everyone to stop paying attention to all those distractions.
J.D. Greear, in his presidential address, tried to tell Southern Baptists to quit being so danged political. But his speech rang quite hollow to me. He’s sure not suggesting they give up the culture wars that got them into bed with politics. No sirree!
Running Home, Tail Between Legs.
Host City: Birmingham.
The SBC, of course, contains member churches around the world and all across the United States. Their Annual Meetings always take place in the US, though. Generally speaking, SBC leaders choose sites for the meetings years in advance, trying to alternate between heavily-SBC-dominated and less-dominated areas.
See, if they hold their Annual Meeting in a city that doesn’t actually contain a big nest of Southern Baptists, the turnout is way smaller. That’s because the people coming to these shindigs tend to be really strapped for money. Their churches already had to donate a certain amount of money in order for them to even be allowed to attend. But if those messengers can’t afford the travel fare, time off, and hotel/food costs involved, then they simply can’t go–and thus can’t vote in resolutions, offer them, or mingle with their fellow Southern Baptists. So the SBC must hold meetings all over, so messengers can actually participate.
Low attendance looks really bad, as you might guess. But meetings’ attendance has suffered for a while now–check out this chart. Notice that the further away from the Deep South the Annual Meeting strays, the lower the attendance numbers get. 2017’s meeting, in Phoenix, barely broke 5k messengers. 2018, in Dallas, almost hit 10k.
We don’t know yet what the numbers look like in Birmingham this year. One Southern Baptist thinks attendance won’t be super-high. But in comparison to some of their more lackluster years, it might actually be decent.
Holding the meeting in a state and city known for being overrun with Southern Baptists–and driveably close to other such nests–helps a lot that way.
From Moment One.
An Inauspicious Prop: The 1872 Broadus Gavel.
This one requires a bit of explaining. The SBC opens their Annual Meetings by having one of their top officials hand a gavel to the denomination’s president, whoever that is. The gavel they use belonged, many years ago, to a fellow named John A. Broadus. Broadus helped found the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; he was also a very important person in the early days of the SBC. And he was also a white slaveholder–unsurprising, I hope, considering how the entire denomination got its start.
Considering the SBC’s recent pretend-focus on racial reconciliation, the use of this gavel ain’t a good look. And some African-American members of the denomination have been bringing up that fact–not that the white dudes in charge are going to change. Don’t miss the header pic in that link, by the way. The people on stage with J.D. Greear–who are all African-Americans–look like they are feeling the total opposite of impressed with him.
Some of the African-American members of the denomination spoke up about the pain this gavel very rightly causes them, and what it means to them as a symbol of oppression.
In response, Al Mohler–one of the biggest names in the SBC and, of course, a white dude–whined about how harrrrrd it’d be for the SBC to go breaking with tradition like that.
Won’t SOMEBODY think of the mediocre white men’s fee-fees?
An Unprecedented Meeting Setup.
Pretending to care about ending racism represents only half of the Annual Meeting’s goals.
Interestingly, this Annual Meeting features something that nobody can remember seeing in a meeting for the SBC’s entire modern history. And this very unusual move reveals the SBC’s other agenda item.
Every year, the SBC’s meeting features a Pastor’s Conference. That’s normal. They talked about modeling their lives after the Beatitudes.
But this year, someone held another competing conference at exactly the same time.
The competition called their thing a “Founder’s Conference.” They also aimed it at pastors as an audience, but they talked about different stuff. And there, presenters discussed “Mature Manhood in an Immature Age.”
I agree with Wade Burleson: the people involved in that second conference probably used “mature” and “immature” as dogwhistle code for fundagelical culture warriors and, well, everyone else. And they clearly wanted to stomp very hard on the growing numbers of men and women criticizing complementarianism.
Indeed, quashing criticisms of racism and sexism seems to be the entire theme of the SBC Annual Meeting this year.
The Sexist Roots of the Modern SBC.
Just as older generations of Southern Baptist leaders were marked and animated by racism, their more modern leaders fight tooth and nail to preserve misogyny.
In fact, that latter goal led directly to the so-called Conservative Resurgence of 1979-2004(-ish). Here’s how it went down:
In 1979, the Southern Baptist Convention found itself ripping apart due to internal bickering. The main fighting centered on just how politically conservative the denomination would be, going forward. At one point, SBC member churches could embrace a wide spectrum of political stances and doctrines. A few power-hungry players, however, wanted to make the denomination hardline conservative–even if it meant losing churches that refused to play along.
One of the main points of contention at this time involved women’s rights, especially focusing on female pastors. The anti-abortion culture wars had heated up, drawing in evangelical churches and polarizing them. The architects of the takeover clearly knew that if women got into pastoral roles and took more leadership positions within the denomination, then their push for a more fundagelical, conservative denomination would likely stop dead in its tracks. So this incursion of women into upper ranks had to be stopped at all costs.
The deed was done, and done with ruthless efficiency–by turning the SBC’s own bylaws and traditions against it. These power players put their own men into positions that let them kick out dissenters and shore up support in key political arenas–at which point their agents voted to advance the takeover’s goals, one by one.
The denomination lost something like 1900 churches in that fight. When the dust finally settled, SBC leaders had achieved the white male supremacist safe space of their most mediocre dreams.
No Turning Back.
The current white-dude leaders of the SBC fought like rabid hyenas to get what they have now. No way, no how will they willingly lose that hard-won ground. That victory cost them too much to even consider turning away from the self-serving principles that kept them fighting all those years.
And if they don’t initiate change, then no change will happen. The people they’ve stripped of power very specifically cannot change the organization by themselves. The architects of the Conservative Resurgence deliberately set the modern SBC up to prevent such a disaster.
That’s why, sure, they’ll host “victim’s panels” of women discussing the abuse they’ve suffered and accusing the SBC of dealing with it poorly. Sure, they’ll let some African-American members up on stage to discuss the denomination’s unending racism. They’ll even make mouth-noises about putting new measures in place that they claim will totally have an effect on all that sexism and racism.
But that’s where their patience with maintaining their own farce will end.
The Agenda for the Meeting.
As you get the news about the SBC’s meeting this year, be watching for them to subtly dogwhistle about their real agenda: stomping as hard as possible on attempts to change anything.
They’ll want to act like they totally do care–while ensuring that nothing whatsoever changes. In simpering and offering crocodile tears and Jesus smiles to the women sharing stories of abuse, they hope to stave off any kind of real change.
But in the end, they’ll drill down on the systemic structures that allowed that racism and sex abuse to happen. They must. Doing anything else will cost them too dearly.
Nothing will change, because nothing can change–not without negatively impacting the power base of the white dudes at the top of the SBC’s hierarchy.
Ultimately, Good News.
And in its way, that news is the very best we could possibly hope to hear, those of us who tremble in fear at the idea of the SBC gaining more power than it already has.
If I’m right, then this news means that they will continue to bleed members and credibility.
Y’all, the SBC’s money isn’t infinite. The people walking away from them by the hundreds every day take their wallets with them. The ones who die in the traces don’t bequeath much at all to their onetime “church homes.”
And all that culture-war stuff the SBC does costs money. Ingratiating themselves with politicians costs money. Missionaries and church plants and Vacation Bible Schools–it all costs money.
From the look of the spreadsheet I’m maintaining, it looks like the SBC’s money is drying up.
Decision Time Approaches.
Sooner or later, even the largest churches will find themselves staring down the double barrels of a very difficult command decision: Lights or missionary sponsorships? A paid staff member or church babysitting programs? A building of their own, or perhaps no church at all?
That simple truth may explain the frantic, balls-to-the-wall, throw-it-all-out-there-and-hope-something-sticks feel to this year’s Annual Meeting–and yet that feel of “SSDD.” They care about regaining their lost dominance, sure, but they care way more about maintaining that white male supremacy. In trying to grab for both, they’re on track to lose almost everything.
If you ask me, that’s the real “good news” here.
NEXT UP: You might notice I didn’t talk much about Beth Moore. That’s because she deserves an entire post to herself, which she’ll get next time. Oh, and an LSP on Monday as always–continuing a theme of sexism-for-Jesus. See you soon!
How SBC Annual Meetings work: Not all of the SBC’s member churches get to attend the Annual Meeting. In order to get permission, a church must offer full-throated support to the SBC’s culture wars, adhere to the fundagelical doctrines the SBC mistakenly thinks are “biblical,” and donate a certain amount of money each year to the SBC’s main office. (In order to be allowed to call themselves Southern Baptist at all, they must agree to the first two at least.) Meeting this trifecta of requirements puts the church involved into a state of “friendly compliance.”
Once they achieve this status, churches may send “messengers” to the meeting. At the meeting, messengers vote on resolutions. They also hobnob with other SBC peers and leaders. Messengers also participate in panels and roundtables and whatnot that might even shape the future of the denomination (but probably not).
They pay for all of this, of course: the travel fare, hotel and food costs, and the meeting fees themselves.
Churches that can’t or won’t send messengers don’t get voting rights. (Back to the post!)
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