http://sbcoutpost.com/2008/07/11/exit-strategy/

The first, and only, time I ever met Ben Cole was at the Baptist Conference on the Holy Spirit at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas a little over a year ago.  At that time, I had only recently started attending denominational gatherings after a 14 year hiatus from church staff ministry, so my awareness of his position and influence among Southern Baptists and Texas Baptists of the SBTC stripe was somewhat vague. I had discovered his Baptist Blogger about six months prior to that, and read with interest, along with what I would also call amusement. 

I’ve been around long enough to observe many individuals who are labelled “young, up and coming, future stars” in Baptist life.  Most of them are, from my perspective, arrogant, full of themselves, and pushed by the professors and mentor pastors who have crowned them with the title.  Many of them, perhaps most of them, never achieved the celebrity status pronounced upon them during their early years.  That was pretty much my perception of Ben Cole as well, until I met him, heard him preach, and saw him at work at that three day conference.  Some of those things are there, to be sure, but there is a balance of humility and passion as well, and no observable selfish ambition.  He doesn’t really deny his own faults, in fact, it is almost as if he finds ways to use them in a positive way.  He makes big mistakes, admits them, and moves on.  He is undeniably brilliant and passionately motivated.  Depending on how he uses those qualities, he can be a positive, inspiring leader or a formidable opponent. 

So why is it that the Southern Baptist Convention cannot capture and hold the interest of Ben Cole? 

There are those who are breathing a sigh of relief that he is exiting the denominational political scene, and others who are hoping he doesn’t let the door hit him in the backside on his way out.  I think his exit tells us something about the SBC that we probably need to know, and broadly hints at some problems that may very well be the root cause of decline as well as the solution to reversing it if solved.  There are few young ministers Ben’s age who have had the patience and fortitude to endure the convention meetings, study the intricate twists and turns of the bylaws, and observe the activity as long as Ben has, especially for the purpose of attempting to bring about some kind of reform or change.  He was once in a position to be given a place among the leadership elite, something that any one of a hundred older wannabees are pushing and shoving in line to get. 

Those of us past 50, who were raised in a traditional Southern Baptist church are steeped in denominational loyalty.  The small congregation of 70 people in the small Arizona town where I grew up had all of the official programs in place, so I was in Sunday School and Church Training with Baptist Sunday School Board literature, in Sunbeams, R.A.’s and Pioneers on Wednesday nights, and then went to a Baptist college and a Baptist seminary.  I can’t remember how many times I spent a week in the summer at a youth celebration at Glorieta.  I spent two summers as a student missionary under what was then the Home Mission Board, now NAMB.  Each step of the way, the objective of “undergirding the work of the church and the denomination” was part of the program.  And while I don’t actually believe that our programs and strategies are superior to those of other Christians, I am used to them.  Because I had such a strong respect and admiration for the individuals in my home church who led these programs, and felt such love and acceptance from them, I still have good feelings when I am involved in these programs. 

Those elements of almost built-in denominational loyalty are no longer there, at least, not in the way they used to be.  No matter how controversial, Ben Cole’s exit from things Southern Baptist is disturbing.  Something didn’t connect, and I think it goes beyond the fact that the reform he advocated, while supported by a large segment of individuals in the SBC, could not be brought about.  Part of that may be that he, and others who agreed with him, did not have the patience to wait out the long, cumbersome process that would have been required to effect change in the SBC.  Perhaps, in the youthful habit of moving quickly from one interest to another, the priority of reform in the SBC slipped below the threshold of tolerance. 

Exit strategies can often give us hints as to how to solve the root problems.

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About LS

I'm 56, happily married for 25 years, B.A., M.A., career educator with experience in education as a teacher and administrator, native Arizonan living in Pennsylvania, working on a PhD and a big fan of the Arizona Wildcats, mainly in football and basketball.

13 responses

  1. Alan Cross says:

    Interesting analysis, Lee. While I have dabbled at SBC politics over the past year, I really decided to step away from active involvement after San Antonio. When I saw the Garner Motion disregarded, I knew that nothing would change. If it takes years to bring any change at all to a broken denominational system, why should we give ourselves to it? It is unresponsive and in many cases, irrelevant.

    Ben actually hung on longer than the rest of us. That does not speak to a lack of perseverance. We are all persevering at what God has called us to. But, in many ways, few feel called to saving the SBC. We would rather impact the world for Jesus.

  2. I agree with Alan, both in the interest of your observations and why he changed venues. I decided to step away after this last convention. Either it will change or it won’t. But then there is another problem of how long, if there is a change, will it last? New groups with their agendas come and go, President’s, trustees, xcomm, they change and change again, so will any change last 2 years? 4? A max of 10 years? That’s just not good enough for me. If things change I want it to be lasting, for the duration of our time as a Convention.

    I just don’t think that will ever happen, and I can’t bear the thought of anyone else who is otherwise qualified being excluded. Enough.

  3. Todd Pylant says:

    I had such mixed reactions when I read Ben’s last post. I have had the chance to have several conversations with Ben, and he is beyond a doubt an intelligent, passionate, insightful person. You outlined his faults well, but he does seem to have a humble side and generous side.

    But the question you asked is a very good one, “So why is it that the Southern Baptist Convention cannot capture and hold the interest of Ben Cole?” (Or should we say, the likes of Ben Cole.)

    So many reform minded Southern Baptists have given up on bringing reformation. Wade, Ben, Alan, and Marty have all moved on to greener pastures, and I can’t blame them at all. But for those of us who are left working in the Southern Baptist fields, what are we to do?

    Will our convention forever be held in the death grip of the fundamentalist, Baptist Identity, Landmark folk?

    I, too, would like to move on, but to what? The IMB is still the best thing going to take the gospel to the uttermost. And the CP is what makes that happen. But if the reformers all leave town, the life of the IMB will be choked out.

    I guess Ben is right, to wrestle with a pig, you have to get muddy. Life is too short for that, so we continue to send in our CP funds and mind the store in our congregation. It might not be right, but it is more life giving than trying to wrestle the pig.
    Todd

  4. Ken Coffee says:

    As one of the older veterans of denominational life, I can barely think of words to express the pain I feel at watching what has happened to the SBC I grew up in. I literally grieve at the current state of things in the SBC. I cannot help wondering what is going to happen to this once great denomination. I had some hope with people like Ben and Wade. Now, they are gone. And the sad thing is that lay people in the pews are totally ignorant of things many of us see. I cannot bring myself to discuss what I see with the laymen, because when I do it makes them angry. I pray for the convention. I do not profess to know what’s best, but God does. He and He alone has the answers.

  5. Lee says:

    Part of the problem is that Ben Cole and Wade Burleson are the ones who stuck it out for a long time. As Alan said, most of the others, who would rather impact the world for Jesus than mess with meaningless denominational politics, are already gone. That’s the only way I can see that explains why the movement they started didn’t catch on. One look around the hall in Indianapolis, with one of the lowest registrations in decades, and with just a handful of people under 40, and I mean a literal handful, and you can see what has happened.

    I observed this Baptist fascination with the pecking order of denominational prestige and prominence when I was in college. The political games, and the decisions that had to be made to determine who the important people were, hindered the work of the convention in a state where the population growth, and size of the unchurched population created a ministry opportunity almost unmatched anywhere else. But the Southern Baptists were too caught up in trying to figure out who the important people were, and making sure that they were able to hog precious resources for their own comfort, to make much of an impact. The Arizona Southern Baptist Convention, rocked by a political scandal that came about as a result of power politics, has lost its university, its physical plant, and a huge chunk of its financial strength. The BGCT has now been rocked by a similar scandal that is sapping its strength, and the SBC is still playing politics while its sharpest young leaders have left the building.

  6. Greg Alford says:

    I keep making this point…

    To effect change in the SBC you must be willing to go after the life blood of the Convention…

    The old song “There is Power in the Blood” is indeed true… and the life blood of the SBC is money; with the Cooperative Program being the heart. In fact some have said that the Cooperative Program is the SBC.

    Simply put: Control the Cooperative Program or create an alternate giving Program (and when enough churches start giving their support through this alternate giving Program) one by one the entities of the SBC can be brought to heel.

    You can pass resolutions till you are blue in the face and nothing will ever change… you start taking a few million dollars out of the Cooperative Program each year and you will soon get everyone’s full attention.

    Grace Always

  7. todd pylant says:

    Greg,
    Is there any organized attempt being made to create an alternative giving plan within the SBC? I would think any alternative plan would still have to support the IMB (despite the disputed policies), but it could defund other agencies in such a way as to gain attention and create reform.
    Todd

  8. Terry says:

    It looks like the only thing that will speak for us is our money. And who knows if that will work?

  9. Lee says:

    I have difficulty with the suggestion to use CP giving to bring about leadership change in the denomination. The trustees and administration of each entity control the details of the budget and it is very difficult to designate around them so that the field personnel, who generally do an outstanding job, are not affected.

    And creating an alternative giving plan would be a monumental task. As it is now, a significant portion of the 45,000 or so churches that contribute to the CP have little or no awareness of what goes on at the denominational level. They couldn’t care less who is in control, they are very independent and autonomous, and resistant to any kind of suggestion as to what to do with their money, including from the SBC leadership. Only about 20% of the churches have sent messengers to the convention in the last decade.

    It is the state conventions that control the amount of money that is passed along to the SBC from the churches. So an effort to set up some kind of alternative funding mechanism would either have to bypass the state level, or utilize it. Such efforts in Texas and Virginia have been met with the formation of alternative state conventions that have become mere pass-throughs in terms of CP dollars. In the BGCT, when the state convention cut the percentage forwarded to the CP, the uproar from the churches resulted in the state convention allowing them to determine the percentage, and the vast majority of them, more than 3,000, increased the portion that went to the SBC.

    Most of the current leaders are a decade or less from retirement, or promotion to their eternal reward. Those who have the patience to wait things out may be in a position to see some real change. Looking at the annual convention, a decade will have a major affect on attendance and participation. A reform movement with staying power might achieve some real change, especially if it focused on specific entities and not on the whole convention.

  10. Greg Alford says:

    Lea,

    I no longer believe the current system can be salvaged…

    If the “field personnel, who generally do an outstanding job” are doing God’s work, He will insure it gets done… (And I know that you agree with this next statement so we are not arguing here) He (God) is not dependent upon the CP. I often wonder what the SBC would have looked like if there had never been a CP which allows our churches to “outsource” their missions work?

    Brother Lea, I don’t have all the answers… Heck, most of the time I struggle to even ask the right questions… But I do know this one thing — It’s time for change in the SBC… major change! And if it is not soon in coming (with more and more young ministers heading for the exits) it will be to late.

    Grace Always,

  11. Steve Austin says:

    The last time there was a monumental change in the direction the SBC was going it took time and the very task someone has already referred to, getting the people in the pews upset. Enough people were made to be upset by the Fundamentalists in the 1970’s and 80’s that they attended the annual meetings in droves – on busses and in cattle trucks for all I know, hitchhiking – whatever it took. Those guys were mad enough to change things, agree with them or not. Taking the SBC back from the Landmarkists and their allies will take the same investment of time and emotion. I have no idea if it will be worth it to enough crusaders.

    I’m no CPA, but couldn’t groupings of churches decide on their own to do missions, perhaps starting with the hundred or two denied a chance to serve by the Hatley-Floyd-York triumvirate?

  12. Tim Dahl says:

    Todd,

    I’m not sure that the “IMB is the best thing out there” any more. More and more I’m seeing the traditional avenues of mission being cast aside by God, and more personal/intimate strategies being used. For instance, look at Northwood. Sure, they support the IMB; but I would say that 3-4 Northwood like churches combined would be making a greater impact than the 3K of phantom misisonaries that the IMB supposedly sends out. Not only that, but look at what is being taught. The IMB has been under control of the Fundamentalists for so long, they aren’t sending out Baptist Missionaries, as much as maybe Bible Church Missionaries. These men and women have more in common with DTS than the Pre-Hemphill SWBTS.

    I’m just saying that I think your reason for “staying true to the system” may be problematic.

    I love ya, and would like to hang out with you some soon.

    Tim

  13. tpylant says:

    Tim,

    I didn’t say the IMB was faultless, but still the best cooperative mission network “in my opinion.”

    I know how much you lean towards the CBF, so it would not surprise me that you would think that my “staying true to the system” is problematic. But, our church has the privilege of knowing many of these “phantom” missionaries through our mission home and through several SWBTS students who have been appointed through the IMB and NAMB who are now serving in Vancouver, Southeast Asia, and two more that are being appointed in the fall. I am pleased to be supporting the families we have hosted who are now in the remote villages of Mexico, Burma, Botswana, and Germany. While Northwood may be able to send out thousands of missionaries, our little church in Benbrook will never be able to do that. That is why we partner with other small churches to send missionaries to the ends of the earth. I don’t like the recent policies of the IMB either, but we are still part of the family, as dysfunctional as it might be at times.
    Todd