When I first began reading about “Valleygate,” I simply could not believe that it was real. Surely, I kept thinking, it was just a big misunderstanding, and considering the political atmosphere among Texas Baptists, it was being blown out of proportion to discredit the administration of the BGCT because of its more moderate position and its resistance to the conservative resurgence in the SBC. But as the details began to emerge, and the investigators report was made public last fall, just before the convention, the disappointment began to sink in. Some people, with influence and power, had bypassed channels and done favors for their friends without holding them accountable. The lag time in the executive leadership’s recognition of the problem, unwillingness to intervene, and delay in finally getting the ball rolling turned out to be a factor that pretty much made it impossible for the BGCT to recover any of the funds, or prosecute the perpetrators. It was a very real, very disappointing, disheartening, demoralizing event.
From the time that I was a student at a Baptist college, and became involved with the ministerial association, I realized that Baptist convention leadership was caught up in a system almost wholly dependent on influence peddling, and was a “good ole boy” network. Getting a nice salary in a denominational job, even in a small, cash strapped convention like the one in Arizona, was a matter of sucking up to the right people. I’ve never cared for that kind of system, and as a result, never really felt led to pursue a denominational job. And when you “know” people, the temptation to take short cuts in your work, and take advantage of your influential friendships, leaves the door open to scandal. The Baptist Foundation of Arizona is a prime example of exactly what happens when there is no accountability because of influence peddling. The reputation of Southern Baptist work in Arizona, and in many other places in the West, has been permanently damaged as a result of what was the largest non-profit swindle in American history. Valleygate is another example.
The question now is, “Where do we go from here?” How do we rebuild trust in a convention that was already in turmoil prior to the lost of $1.5 million in missions money?
First, there is still some house cleaning to do. It goes without saying that the staff members who allowed checks to be written and distributed without accountability should have resigned. The executive director’s retirement, which is an acknowledgement of his accountability in spite of the delay in carrying it out following his announcement, was a positive step in the right direction, as was the executive board’s tightening up of the convention’s existing policies related to the funding for new church starts. But there is nothing to guarantee that someone on the staff cannot over-ride those policies, which is exactly what happened the last time. The accountability, and the checks and balances, need to be visible and enforceable.
No one likes to discuss the need to clean house when it comes to jobs and salaries. But there will not be any increase in trust without some new faces in the convention’s administration. The new executive director will be a major key to restoring trust, and needs to be someone who is well outside the circle of influence of the good ole boy system. He or she needs to be someone that can quickly win the confidence of Texas Baptists, particularly the core constituency in the smaller churches. It is also time for others in the convention administration to consider making a career change, or taking retirement. The more open spots there are, the more places there will be for the new executive director to hire people who are qualified rather than connected, and who will be able, as a team, to work with the E.D. in restoring trust in the convention leadership. It may also be time for some of the executive board membership to step down as well.
The next president of the BGCT can also help things go a long way toward trust by seeing that trustworthy people are appointed to boards and committees. These people need to be brand new faces, not recycled people who have served on other boards, have a long Baptist pedigree, and are in positions of service because of who they know and not what they can do. My vote will go to the person I believe will appoint “regular” people from as broad and diverse a spectrum of Texas Baptists as is possible. One of the quickest paths to trust, in my opinion, would be for the next president to appoint a whole slate of people who have never served in a state convention office before, from a long list of churches that have never had a single member serve on a board or committee before. And these appointments need to be completely blind to the other affiliations or associations that these churches might have.
The emphasis needs to be shifted back to missions, and away from politics. That’s something that all Texas Baptists can support. There shouldn’t be any pushing or shoving in any particular direction. Be content to let churches do their own think with regard to the other groups with which they may choose to cooperate. And I think that is why it is important, particularly at this point, to let the BGCT vote on participation in the New Baptist Covenant. At least let the opposition to participating express themselves.
There are a whole lot of other factors which will affect the success and ability of the BGCT to move into the future and continue to remain viable. I think it is very important that the convention focus on becoming, and continuing to stay, relevant in all areas. It does not need to be distracted by battles over control, or scandals over money. Rebuilding trust is going to take time and patience for the long haul, and the possibility for the BGCT to split, or fragment, still exists. This is the Kingdom of God, people. Let’s get it together while we can.