Here’s how to force SBC entities to be accountable to people in the pew about their finances

Baptist News Global [Jacksonville FL]

May 23, 2023

By Mark Wingfield

Within the past week, Baptist News Global has run two news analysis pieces about Southern Baptist Convention agencies and leaders who are not telling people in the pew the full story of their financial situations.

There are policies in place within the SBC to prevent this from happening, but those policies aren’t always being followed. And in some cases, the existing policies are not strong enough to have any teeth.

This matters not just for the sake of Christian ethics but because of the hundreds of millions of dollars that flow from church offerings to the SBC and its agencies and institutions. The people in the pew — let’s call them donors — deserve a full accounting of how their offerings are spent.

“The people in the pew deserve a full accounting of how their offerings are spent.”

The most notorious offender in this regard is the North American Mission Board, where administrators and trustees have dodged every call for transparency and accountability for years. There was even a motion made from the floor of last year’s SBC annual meeting calling for greater financial accountability from NAMB and other SBC agencies — and that proposal got shuffled off to oblivion as such things always do.

The powers that be do not want greater financial accountability because, well, they’re the powers that be.

For perspective, in 2022 NAMB took in $43.8 million in offering money through the SBC Cooperative Program, plus another $66.5 million given from parishioners through the Annie Armstrong Offering, plus another $21.5 million in other contributions. That’s about $125 million in contributions in one year.

Yet because NAMB is classified by the IRS as a “church,” it does not have to file a Form 990, as all other charitable organizations must do, that reports more details of its income, expenses and financial standing. What financial information is required by the denomination for the SBC Annual is less than would be found on a Form 990.

Further, although NAMB undergoes an external audit every year, that auditor’s report never sees the light of public review. It is seen only by the trustees, who appear to be sworn to silence about what it says.

This is why NAMB has been plagued with allegations of financial abuse by internal critics — meaning pastors and lay leaders inside the denomination itself, stakeholders. These allegations include stories of investing tens of millions of dollars in residential real estate, doling out high-dollar gift cards like candy and using mission grants to coerce compliance by state Baptist conventions.

And yesterday, BNG published a blockbuster investigation of NAMB’s role in allowing one of its former executives, Johnny Hunt, to profit off his position and influence by doing business with an array of enterprises owned by Hunt and his family.

“Everyone who believes the full NAMB trustee board approved Johnny Hunt benefitting from contracts with his network of companies raise your hand.”

Yes, this appears to have been done in clear violation of NAMB’s own conflict of interest policies, which say any employee benefiting from doing business with NAMB must be approved by the full trustee board. Everyone who believes the full NAMB trustee board approved Johnny Hunt benefitting from contracts with his network of companies raise your hand. Any takers?

Here is a case where a solid policy exists but appears not to be followed. If that’s the case, the trustees are to blame. They are the ones accountable to the people in the pew.

Yet everything about NAMB is wrapped in obfuscation. They seem to have taken lessons from the CIA. There is no published list of NAMB employees; we don’t even know how many people are on the payroll. NAMB executives, particularly its communications office, never have a comment on anything. They seem to operate on the assumption that if they don’t talk about it, it won’t be real.

Lately, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary has taken a page from NAMB’s playbook, as its administrators and trustees have gone silent on accountability as well. As BNG recently reported — for not the first time — trustee leaders have publicly accused former President Adam Greenway of financial impropriety but refused to show the receipts.

They undertook an investigation and have refused to make public their findings.

For perspective, Southwestern Seminary last year took in $7 million in funds given by people in the pew through the Cooperative Program, plus another $10 million in other contributions and millions of dollars in tuition paid by Southern Baptist ministers in training.

And like NAMB, Southwestern Seminary is not required to file an IRS Form 990, only the lesser data required for the SBC Annual. Also like NAMB, Southwestern undergoes an annual external audit that never sees the light of day.

“Most other reputable faith-based charities in America disclose far more of their financial data than any entity of the SBC.”

Most other reputable faith-based charities in America disclose far more of their financial data than any entity of the SBC. Leaders of SBC agencies face less financial accountability than the vast majority of parachurch ministries and faith-based agencies not owned by a denomination.

There’s an easy fix to the problem, if messengers to the SBC annual meeting have the courage to try it: Make and adopt a motion to require all SBC entities to file an IRS Form 990 even if they are classified as “churches” and don’t have to. That would give an even standard for reporting across all entities that would match what other faith-based nonprofits are required to do.

A second step would be to make and adopt a motion requiring all SBC entities to make public their annual external audits. This also is a best practice of registered charities engaged in fundraising.

Accomplishing either or both these things would be exceedingly hard to do — not because the process is difficult but because the powers that be will do everything in their power to stop it from being. In a typical SBC pattern, such a motion would be referred by the Committee on Order of Business to the SBC Executive Committee for study, where it would die the death of a thousand “we can’t do that” arguments. Or it would be ruled out of order by the president or other presiding officer.

What convention messengers would have to do is be prepared to override the referral recommendation of the Committee on Order of Business or an effort by the presiding officers to rule the motion out of order — as happened last year. Remember, this kind of determination is what it took to get the sexual abuse investigation started. The powers that be didn’t want that to happen either.

There are smarter people than me who can come up with the right language and the right strategies to make all this happen.

“This is not a new problem in the SBC.”

And just to be clear, this is not a new problem in the SBC. One of my favorite stories of days of yore is told by a trusted friend who worked in communications for an SBC agency back in the 1980s. That particular agency was facing serious questions about its finances and operations.

My friend advised the agency head: “We’ve got to tell the truth about this.” To which the agency head replied: “We will tell the truth. We’ll just tell it one page at a time.”

What was true then remains true today. Institutions are inherently protective of themselves and do not want to disclose any more information than they are forced to reveal. Sadly, the SBC today has gone from “one page at a time” to “never a single page.”

That’s no way to be accountable to the people in the pew.

Mark Wingfield

Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global. He is the author of the new book Honestly: Telling the Truth About the Bible and Ourselves.