Just Trust Us

Every Other Organization Opens the Books. Why Not the SBC?

Resistance to calls for financial transparency in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) are, frankly, bizarre. Nearly all organizations similarly situated to SBC entities provide 990 disclosures as a matter of public accountability and best practice.

Yet, strangely, the SBC Executive Committee just today killed a motion to require the same practice of Southern Baptist seminaries, colleges, mission organizations, and other institutional efforts. Rhett Burns (senior pastor, First Baptist Church Travelers Rest, South Carolina), made a motion in New Orleans in 2023 that would have required each Southern Baptist entity to provide 990 level financial disclosure.

His motion was referred to the Executive Committee which decided it would not advance the motion for adoption, opting instead to work with SBC entities to “determine ways to enhance transparency.”

To this Presbyterian, this sounds a lot like Congress hauling social media, big pharma, and big tobacco in to humbly ask how each industry would like to be regulated. I thought Baptists were about democratic accountability and the power of the messengers. My understanding was that the Executive Committee is supposed to act on behalf of the Convention, which is to say the messengers, rather than acting as a handmaiden of the entities.

All that Burns and other Southern Baptists are asking for is what most organizations do without being asked in an effort to serve their donors and constituents.  

To illustrate the point, North Greenville University, Cedarville University, Dallas Baptist University, Carson Newman University, Union University, Anderson University, California Baptist University, Letourneau University, East Texas Baptist University, and Oklahoma Baptist University, all provide standard 990 disclosures. But colleges attached to Southern Baptist Convention seminaries do not: the College at Southeastern, Boyce College, Spurgeon College, Scarborough College, and Leavell College, do not. Looking to the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), Covenant College and Covenant Theological Seminary both file 990s.

Baptist seminaries outside of SBC purview like Dallas Theological Seminary and Mid America Baptist Theological Seminary provide 990s, but the SBC seminaries do not. Other seminaries in my own Presbyterian circles like Westminster, Mid-America Reformed, Puritan Reformed, Greenville Presbyterian, and Reformed Theological Seminary all provide 990 data.

Mission organizations like Frontiers USA and the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism do while the IMB and NAMB do not. Compassion International, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Cru (Campus Crusade), World Vision, Focus on the Family, and Young Life, among many others disclose financials.

The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), predictably, does not disclose its financials while larger conservative activist groups like Alliance Defending Freedom, Heritage Foundation, the Conservative Partnership Institute, and Family Research Council all do. Why not the Southern Baptist public policy arm which ostensibly represents more than 13 million people? What gives?

All that to say, the types of disclosures being requested from SBC entities by Southern Baptist messengers are ordinary and ubiquitous. The action of the Executive Committee today does nothing to quell suspicions that the entities created by the SBC to serve the SBC are mismanaging Convention resources—the very basis of cooperation. If you have nothing to hide, why not open the books?

Moreover, how would any Baptist hope to combat fraud in their denomination without disclosures? This is not complicated. Best practices for financial transparency exist already and are employed by a host of similarly situated organizations. No need to reinvent the wheel here.    

Why would the Executive Committee not let Southern Baptists vote on the Burns motion? How can SBC messengers, the tithers in the pews, exercise good financial stewardship within their polity without basic financial transparency? How can trust between rank-in-file Baptists and their entity heads exist without basic accountability? Maybe someone from the Executive Committee can tell this Presbyterian how the SBC can be governed so exceptionally which is to say, unlike any other organization.

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline is the Editor in Chief at American Reformer. He is an attorney and a fellow at the Craig Center at Westminster Theological Seminary and the Director of Scholarly Initiatives at the Hale Institute of New Saint Andrews College. His writing has appeared in the American Spectator, Mere Orthodoxy, American Greatness, Areo Magazine, and the American Mind, among others. He writes regularly at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post.

3 thoughts on “Just Trust Us

  1. Seems like a good situation to import a standard adverse inference: if you don’t want me to have information to which I am arguably entitled, I’m allowed to assume you’re doing something I wouldn’t appreciate.

  2. The guys behind the upcoming “Business of Religion ” also have a booth at tge SBC convention. That’s got to make some folks uncomfortable !

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