Just this week I returned from serving on the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee. Our February meeting was full of important decisions impacting the cooperative work of churches that identify themselves as Southern Baptist congregations.
My fellow trustees listened to amazing reports about our international missionaries and new church planting in North America. We were challenged to hear how our six Southern Baptist seminaries are adapting their work of equipping tomorrow’s church leaders. We heard from the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission about the loss of religious liberty in our culture.
Russell Moore expressed that we are living in a time of judicial importance. It is possible that the Supreme Court’s decision relating to Hobby Lobby could make any religious thought outside the four walls of a church house illegal. And such a decision would override centuries of freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment.
As I listened to the reports, I confessed to being spiritually and emotionally overwhelmed at all the amazing things our God is doing through cooperative Southern Baptists. In the DNA of a disciple in a Southern Baptist church is that cooperative spirit that enables us to be part of Acts 1:8 ministries 24 hours a day/7days a week/365 days of the year in every time zone of the planet.
How is that possible? How do all these ministries get the work accomplished? We use the trustee method. Historically, our churches elect trustees to oversee the work we support with our intercession and resources.
When the Southern Baptist Convention was organized in 1845, one of its first tasks was building a framework for the perpetuation of its cooperative ministries. The original constitution of the Southern Baptist Convention called for “as many boards of managers as will be necessary for carrying out the benevolent objects it may determine to promote.”
According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists, the parent body chose these “managers” in annual session from the cooperating churches. In 1946, the constitution of the Convention was modified to limit the number of years any one manager or trustee could serve. The Convention messengers created a revolving method of electing the trustees to terms of office instead of an “annual” vote.
Where did the national convention get that idea? The answer is the state conventions, like the Missouri Baptist Convention.
State conventions were already operating ministries like children’s homes, hospitals, literature production, conference centers and universities. They used the trustee method to manage the assets of the convention and its ministries. The ministries did not belong to one individual, single church or group of churches. The ministries belonged to ALL the churches and the churches in annual session elected the individuals who would manage or set policy for the day-to-day operations of those ministries.
Are boards of trustees a Scriptural concept? Great question. There is not one verse in the entire Bible that says, “Thou shalt elect boards of trustees to do Great Commission tasks.”
In a 2007 article for the Center for Theological Research, C. Bart Barber wrote an excellent treatise on the importance of Southern Baptist trustees. In that article he addressed that particular issue. He writes, “There is no outright biblical command to set up boards of trustees, no indisputable list of qualifications for service as a trustee, and no description of trustees.”
However, Southern Baptist history is populated with a spirit of cooperation – a cooperation that expresses itself through various ministries that are much more expansive than any one church or one generation, and those ministries are operated by convention-elected trustees.
There is no way the annual meeting of the convention as “committee of the whole” could coordinate the assets of their cooperative ministries. So they opted to select managers or trustees to be stewards of the convention’s assets.
Barber goes on to exhort that “stewardship is simply the act of entrusting one’s goods, rights or duties to another person’s management. Service on a board of trustees is nothing more and nothing less than stewardship. The Bible does not command the specific establishment of boards of trustees to oversee missionary enterprises, the training of pastors or the production of Christian literature. If churches may rightly cooperate with one another in such engagements (and Southern Baptists have concluded that they may) there are few arrangements more biblical than the selection of stewards (or trustees) to oversee and manage their cooperative work.”
Trusteeship is an honored opportunity, a sacred trust to serve the Lord by serving the churches that entrust their assets to the trustee. While trustees must become “ambassadors” for the specific ministry they oversee, they must never lose sight of the reality that these assets do not belong to them or to any group of people. They belong to the churches and serve as extensions of the local church’s ministry.
In Missouri, the Lord has raised up some great, godly people to serve as the trustees of our state ministries. There are some awesome Missourians who serve our national Southern Baptist ministries, too. Pray for them. Pray they are wise, prudent and discerning so that our state and national ministries can fulfill what God has commanded us to do: “Go and make disciples …”