The forthcoming book by a former trustee of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board exposes several ethical shortcomings in the management approach of IMB trustee leaders. Wade Burleson’s book, Hardball Religion: Feeling the Fury of Fundamentalism, covers his controversial tenure as an IMB trustee and will be released in April.
Wade Burleson's book, "Hardball Religion," will be available in April.
Much of Burleson’s story was made public on his and other blogs, numerous news reports from religious and mainstream publications, and during debates at annual meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention, but he adds greater detail in his book. Burleson names those he previously left anonymous and offers more description of how people acted and what they said during his attempt to prevent and repeal IMB policies with which he disagreed.
Burleson’s primary concern in his book is what he sees as the attempt by fundamentalists to further “narrow the doctrinal parameters of fellowship and cooperation” within SBC life. In particular, he opposed new policies that require IMB missionary candidates to have been baptized in a church that teaches “eternal security” and to have avoided privately praying in tongues.
However, much of what Burleson documents is not merely the narrowing of parameters, but unethical behavior by leaders. He explains that Southern Baptists should learn and care about what happens at their institutions because “it is our duty to ensure that things are done ethically, judicially, and biblically.”
Burleson critiques a lack of transparency, attempts to squash dissent, violations of rules, backroom politicking, and the usage of unsubstantiated personal attacks. These ethical lapses create a cautionary tale for Christian leaders on how not to run a ministry organization.
One of Burleson’s primary targets in his book is the use of private trustee forums where the public is not allowed. Although such forums were not supposed to be used to conduct business, Burleson notes that the IMB trustee leadership used the forums to debate business matters and deal with policies and motions to silence his dissent. He argued that such private sessions should be rare and used only for security reasons.
“The Southern Baptist Convention needs and demands transparency, the free flow of information, the ability to dissent, and cooperation in the midst of differences on tertiary issues,” Burleson argues in his book. “If Southern Baptists involved in Christian ministry cannot say something publicly, then it ought not to be said.”
Another major argument Burleson offers is that dissent should be allowed within Southern Baptist life. He argued that IMB trustee leaders attempted to silence his dissent on certain policies and berated him for being a “rookie” trustee who dared to question the leadership.
Burleson explains in his book that one of his goals is to offer “a call for Southern Baptists to see the importance of having multiple voices speak out, representing different positions on various issues, when some Southern Baptists are vigorously pushing to silence all dissent within our convention. The chorus of forced uniformity and unity that is being sung by some SBC leaders must be interrupted by the individual voices of reason that cannot be silenced.”
Burleson also details how trustee leaders violated the guidelines for trustee behavior even as they inaccurately accused him of doing so. He critiques the IMB trustee leadership for finding and screening trustee nominees to give to the SBC’s nominating committee, which is a violation of the SBC’s bylaws. Burleson also notes how trustee leaders met with a select group of trustees to discuss business and plan actions, which is a violation of the guidelines established for IMB trustees.
Related to these bylaws violations of trustee leaders is Burleson’s complaint that politicking occurred outside of trustee meetings in order to affect board decisions. He recounts several such meetings that he noticed and offers details of what he heard people saying at these caucus gatherings. He also argues that other individuals, like Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson, also worked to impact board actions. Burleson believes that part of the reason trustee leaders worked to remove him from the board is because he confronted them about the caucus meetings.
“There are 89 trustees on the IMB, but only about two dozen (who gather in an informal caucus, in violation of trustee bylaws) control the direction of the entire board,” Burleson writes. “But the IMB caucus group was active in ensuring that only those who agreed with them were nominated—an act that violated the [SBC’s] bylaws.”
Finally, Burleson accuses some IMB trustee of making unsubstantiated and ad hominem attacks against him and other individuals like IMB President Jerry Rankin. He explains that he repeatedly challenged critics to provide evidence for the claims against him but that they never did. Additionally, he writes about trustees who resorted to name-calling and “colorful descriptive language” to make personal attacks instead of responding to the issues.
“What infuriated me was that, once again, a charge was made in public without substantiation,” Burleson writes about an attack against him during a trustee meeting. “That was not only unethical, not to mention anti-Christian, but it was a violation of the ‘new’ policies on trustee accountability voted on at the last meeting in March.”
Although some critics will likely call Hardball Religion an “SBC-bashing book,” Burleson clearly maintains a desire to see the SBC prosper. He does, however, acknowledge, that he now doubts some of the claims he previously accepted, such as about the firing of IMB missionaries in 2003. As a result, he pledges to continue to fight to inform grassroots Southern Baptists whenever someone is being wrongly attacked in Southern Baptist life.
As Burleson works to reform the SBC, it remains to be seen how many Southern Baptists will accept his advice and how many will instead, as Burleson once did, merely accept whatever the leadership may tell them. Yet even for contexts outside of the IMB or the SBC, the warnings in this story shed light on how unethical actions can harm and distract a ministry organization.
Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com.