Southern Baptist state leaders accuse mission organization of strong arming

by Joni B. Hannigan |

NOTE: Since this article was first published, NAMB president Kevin Ezell, has written an article "How NAMB-State Convention Cooperation Agreements Work" and has stated NAMB's preference is Cooperative Agreements "be available to anyone" but that because of the "stated preference of some of the conventions" there is a "confidentiality" clause in the documents. Read full article here  

ATLANTA (Christian Examiner) – Several Southern Baptist state conventions leaders have accused the denomination's North American Mission Board (NAMB) of linking financial support from the national entity — funding for church planting and other ministries — to secretive Cooperative Agreements which include a clause that threatens to withhold ministry funds to the states if disclosures about the agreement — or concerns — are shared publicly.

Cooperation is the essential bond among Southern Baptists whose 46,500 churches are autonomous, but historically have rallied together around a common theology and the desire to work together in evangelistic missions at home and abroad.

Local associations, state conventions and the national denomination (which includes domestic and overseas mission boards and an extensive seminary education system) each adhere to a system of independent governance — driven by elections, boards and appointments — that provides accountability to the churches which ultimately are the centers of sustainability for a massive system of financing and budgets which includes special offerings, but for long-term health and growth relies heavily on the systematic and regular offerings of its members.

Increasingly, however, the particulars of how funds are distributed to state conventions (essentially returning a portion of what was sent to the national convention from the churches of these same state conventions) has come under scrutiny after revelations that NAMB places a restriction on the distribution of funds tied to the silence of state leaders about the "Cooperative Agreements" which in essence places 100 percent control of church planting in these states with NAMB.

Breaking the secrecy not only puts funding from NAMB at risk, but may even lead to dismissal, some state convention executive directors say.

The gag orders come at a time when Southern Baptists have reorganized their domestic missions strategy to focus on church planting as the primary means of evangelizing North America.

But statistics show, after five years, NAMB has fallen far short of the goals set as part of its reorganization.

Four current state executive directors — and a former one who claims he was terminated, in part, over disagreements related to the terms of a Cooperative Agreement — recently agreed to interviews with the Christian Examiner.

FORMER STATE EXECUTIVE CLAIMS WRONGDOING

Following an assertion by Will McRaney, former executive missional strategist of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, whose two-year tenure ended June 9 of last year, that he was fired after Kevin Ezell, president of the North American Mission Board, threatened to withdraw mission funding for the state convention unless state leadership dismissed him — Christian Examiner spoke with Randy Adams and Nate Adams, and two other state executives who confirmed there are concerns about the way the Cooperative Agreements are written.

"Unfortunately, I can't really discuss our state's Cooperative Agreement with you," one state executive told Christian Examiner. "I signed an agreement with them that I couldn't say anything critical of them and since I can't really define what that means – I can't say anything further. Our funding is dependent upon that."

Another state executive answered questions about his state and NAMB and how they partner together for church planting and evangelism, and are able to determine the location and number of church plants – but drew the line at talking about funding for these initiatives.

"There is a non-disclosure clause" in the agreement he signed, the state executive told Christian Examiner. "If I violate the agreement, that jeopardizes our agreement and I'm respectful of it."

On further thought, that executive stated "this is a new piece of the puzzle" and that previously the state executives worked under a collective agreement he believed was more "helpful" to all involved.

"I personally don't see a need for it to remain confidential," he said. "It is a little cumbersome."

The new confidentiality does not hinder the work between state executives, however, he admitted. "I can call any of the directors and they tell me where they stand. I'm sure this violates the letter of the law and violates the Cooperative Agreement; so it's a little awkward."

FUNDING, SUPERVISION, HEALTHCARE

Until the last few years, NAMB provided funding and health insurance at various levels in a number of non-traditional state conventions for missionary/employees, while the states provided supervision and the remaining funding.

Increasingly and with a new strategic plan, NAMB moved to grant 100 percent of funding and health insurance for positions while also providing direct supervision for those positions – which states counted on to continue to do ministry. In addition, NAMB is increasingly working directly through Send North America (SNA) cities and through what is called sending churches.

In order for NAMB to agree to fund those missionaries at 100 percent, it required the state to enter into a Cooperative Agreement with a non-disclosure statement, according to Randy Adams, executive director of the Northwest Baptist Convention.

More than 20 states initially entered into 100 percent agreements, but an estimated 6-7 states, including the NBC, opted against such an arrangement, after which time they were notified that their workers would lose health insurance if they would not agree to the new arrangements, Adams said.

Although Adams said he believes "NAMB's leveraging of health insurance pressured states into entering into the 100 percent agreement," the NBC was able to work out a plan by which the strategy for the state convention is localized.

"I felt like it was vital and important that the staff in the Northwest Convention had one employer and the strategy in the Northwest should be a local strategy and not a national strategy," Adams told Christian Examiner.

Adams previously addressed church planting in a commentary published in a Baptist state newspaper. He noted several state conventions had reduced staffs in order to send more money to mission enterprises via the Cooperative Program, but even so, "we are also planting fewer churches than we did a decade ago."

With the churches of the Northwest Convention contributing over $3.5 million to the Cooperative Program, Annie Armstrong Offering, and Lottie Moon offering (over $1.5 million of which is sent on to the SBC executive committee from the pioneer state), Adams said he is aware of the importance of cooperation.

That's why he appreciates NAMB's efforts, he said. Still, the difference is, "we used to collaborate with them ... but now we are told the decisions that are made for us."

Adams told Christian Examiner he believes McRaney raised several of these concerns in his recent postings regarding NAMB and although he has not yet heard NAMB address specifics of the situation, he said, "I trust Will."

"To me the accusations are very serious allegations and the specifics of those allegations, I think, require a response," said Adams, who told Christian Examiner he previously served as a trustee for a Southern Baptist seminary for 10 years. "They have basically just dismissed [McRaney's accusations] without dealing with the particulars of the allegations."

McRaney told Christian Examiner he believed NAMB trustees were "dismissive" and "uninformed" in rebuffing several requests he made to meet with them and discuss his situation.

Other than being sent a letter by NAMB attorneys within hours of receiving a letter from trustee officers who denied any wrongdoing — which McRaney characterized as an attempt to "shut me down again" — he claims the situation has received scant attention.

NAMB JUSTIFIED IN CONFIDENTIALITY

Nate Adams, executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association and no relation to the Northwest Convention's Randy Adams, spoke with Christian Examiner with the understanding that his state has entered into a Cooperative Agreement with NAMB that puts limits on what he can say about it.

Speaking positively, however, he said, "so far so good, we are cautiously optimistic" about the arrangement.

Offering an explanation for the rationale behind the agreements, Nate Adams said he believes there has been a "rocky road" between some state conventions and NAMB and that in an effort to provide strategic and focused efforts, they have moved ahead in this manner.

"NAMB is providing the funding," Adams said, adding that initially Illinois did hold out on the 100 percent agreement but the additional expense of health insurance was "a financial burden we couldn't bear."

Making it clear this is NAMB's "prerogative," Adams added that when it came to the states initially reluctant to enter into an agreement, "Will [McRaney] had the most severe conflict and Randy (in the Northwest Baptist Convention) is the last man standing, but most of the mid-size states saw the inevitability."

UNITY DESPITE DIFFICULTIES

Randy Adams said despite the difficulties, churches in the Northwest are experiencing a "resurgence" of growth with increased baptisms and Cooperative Program giving.

"At the same time, I believe fear has kept people from standing together and speaking out and addressing serious concerns and questions," Adams said.

Real unity is dependent on leaders standing up "under the light of day," he said.

Although secrecy about a Cooperative Agreement may keep a particular state executive and others mum about issues they would rather lay out on the table, one state executive (who asked for anonymity) said this "won't breed division" among state leaders.

In his opinion, "somewhere along the line there is a breakdown of trust ... and it's not between the executive directors," he said.

Forecasting what he hopes are better days ahead, the state executive said: "We all strive for unity and we would like to see nothing more than that there would be a return to a broad scale union between the state conventions, the associations, and the entities. That would be the pinnacle in the Southern Baptist Convention work for the future — that we have no boundaries, feel no concerns, and have no pressure.

"I do see more of a drive towards unity and would really love to see that continue on," he mused. "To not look for anyone to be raked over the coals."