By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
In recent weeks, the actions of trustees, both at the Southern Baptist Convention and Tennessee Baptist Convention levels have been in the forefront. Carson-Newman University trustees took a bold action when they affirmed that the university would operate within the guidelines of the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message. Directors of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board dealt with the Cooperative Program and a reduced budget.
At the SBC level, trustees of the International Mission Board voted for David Platt to serve a Virginia Baptist church as a teaching pastor while performing his duties as IMB president.
Last week I participated in a leadership conference during the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board’s Focus Week at the Church Support Center in Franklin that brought strong remembrances of a man I once worked for who was an authority on the role of Baptist trustees.
Conference leader Randy Gravitt challenged us to remember some people in our lives who helped us get to where we are today. Several names immediately came to mind. Near the top was Arthur L. Walker Jr., former executive director of the Education Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, an SBC agency that was eliminated during a restructuring of the SBC in the mid-1990s. I served as his director of communications for nearly six years before joining the B&R staff in 1988.
Most Baptist leaders today do not even know Dr. Walker’s name or legacy. That’s a shame. He was a brilliant educator and theologian. He also was extremely knowledgeable about the role of Baptist trustees. I consider him one of the Southern Baptist statesmen of his era.
His book, Southern Baptist Trusteeship, was widely used in the 1990s as a resource for trustees. Walker’s book, along with Baptist Polity As I See It, written by another Southern Baptist statesman — James L. Sullivan, former president of the Baptist Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources) — should still be “must reads” for anyone considering serving in a trustee role.
Walker was a firm believer that trustees are stewards. “The biblical concept of a steward is a good basis for understanding trusteeship,” he wrote.
He observed that the election of trustees “reminds that the institution ‘belongs’ to others. Those elected as trustees are asked to maintain the institution so that it can best fulfill its function for all who are concerned, involved, or interested. The task to which trustees are elected requires an awareness that this responsibility affects many persons and involves several levels of commitment.”
Walker stressed that the “first principle of stewardship which trustees must acknowledge is that their service requires one to be “faithful to his master” (I Corinthians 4:2). He wrote, “The trustees of denominational institutions must answer to God, to whom the entity for which they have oversight ultimately belongs and for who glory both the entity and the trustee exist. If in the operation of any institution God is not glorified and His kingdom is not expanded, that He has established already His own modes for requiring accountability of those who are responsible.”
Dr. Sullivan devoted an entire chapter of his book to trustees. Though he did not specifically use the word “stewards,” you get the sense that he felt the same as Walker on the matter. Sullivan wrote, “Institutions are dynamic, fast moving and strong. They do a tremendous good when fulfilling their assigned responsibilities but can do irreparable harm if they get out of hand and veer from the purpose for which they are brought into being.
“Thus, trustees must be carefully selected, constantly alert, and fully loyal to the parent body as well as to the institution they are serving as trustees. Trustees need to be representatives carefully chosen for their diversified viewpoints and unquestioned loyalty. Differences in individual viewpoints among the trustees will precipitate discussions necessary for filtering out error and helping the institutions reach its optimum effectiveness.”
Fast forward 20-25 years from when those books were written and those words are as relevant today as they were then. Walker said it well, “Strong trustees make for strong institutions.”
Southern Baptists deserve strong trustees. Lest one forget, no Southern Baptist and Tennessee Baptist entity would exist were it not for the sacrificial giving of Southern Baptists through the Cooperative Program and special mission offerings.
Tennessee Baptist entities, from all accounts, have good boards of trustees or directors who balance the interest of the various entities with the expectations of their constituencies that they will strive to bring glory to God in all that they do.
In the trustee stories in this issue tough decisions had to be made. In the Carson-Newman story, details could not be reported because the meetings were held in executive session to ensure confidentiality. The fact that C-N trustees said the university would adhere to the BF&M is a significant action on their part. It draws them closer to the positions held by the majority of Tennessee Baptists.
I have heard Randy C. Davis, executive director and president of the TBMB, quote Proverbs 11:14 on several occasions: “Without guidance, people fall, but with many counselors there is deliverance.” (HCSB). He also has been on record as exhorting those who serve as a TBMB director to take the role seriously, to ask questions, and to engage with the organization so they can make the tough decisions when required to do so.
Trustees have to make decisions and sometimes those decisions may not be popular. Trustees cannot allow themselves to become “rubber stamps” for entity administrators. As both Walker and Sullivan pointed out, they have a “responsibility” to the institution itself and to those who fund those institutions.
IMB trustees have acted with caution. Trustees have said they are allowing Platt to serve during a “provisional period over the coming months” and that they will revisit it later.
Take the personalities out of the equation. Dr. Platt is an outstanding preacher with a solid reputation. No questions or debate about that.
But, in my opinion, the president of any Baptist entity, especially the largest Southern Baptist agency that receives the greatest amount of Cooperative Program funding, should not have a dual role. I have no problem with him serving in an interim capacity. He apparently has done that since February (with trustee permission), but there’s a big difference between temporary and permanent. Leading Southern Baptists’ largest missions-sending agency is an awesome task and requires undivided attention.
The leaders of Cooperative Program-funded entities need to be available to speak when invited to any Southern Baptist church regardless of size. They need to be available on an ongoing basis to advance the Great Commission, lead their organizations, inform Southern Baptists about their organization’s ministry, and promote the Cooperative Program.
Pray for wisdom and discernment for the IMB trustees. Let trustees know what you think. Tennessee trustees for the IMB are Edward D. Coombs Jr., Cordova; Jim P. Crockett, Hendersonville; Jordan L. Easley, Jackson; David B. Miller, Waynesboro; and Phillip D. Mitchell, Dresden.
And, while you’re at it, pray for all trustees — both of Tennessee and Southern Baptist entities. They have an awesome responsibility of being stewards of the institutions that God has entrusted to all of us.