Third: Transformation of General Board
On the strength of being proportionately representative of the constituency of ABCUSA, the General Board is given twelve functions in the Bylaws. The first two are: “(i) give general oversight and direction to the life and mission of the Denomination and serve as the legislative body of the ABC/USA; and (ii) set policy in the areas of program functions, planning, coordination and evaluation and, with the National and Regional Boards, adopt common goals and objective for the Denomination.”
However, the accompanying Standing Rules and Covenant of Relationships (not to mention tradition) create organizational conflict (even paralysis) by limiting (or confusing) the General Board’s authority to accomplish these tasks at the same time it directs other responsibilities. This conflict has existed since the earliest days that the organization envisioned by SCOR/SCODS was implemented.
I think there are two things driving this plan to reduce and redefine the General Board as a much smaller, non-representative Board of General Ministries (BGM). First, there is a desire to move beyond organizational conflict and paralysis. Certainly, I agree with this goal. Clarification of BGM responsibilities, especially in relationship to other ABC partners, is absolutely essential. But does this plan do that; and is it the best way to accomplish it?
There is a cultivated notion that it is the preoccupation with “legislative” matters that has stalled the denomination. I do not accept that argument. That is not hard to document from the agendas of the General Board for the last 10 years. Besides, the first and foremost legal responsibility of any board of directors is governance (which is not the same as “legislation”). While governance is not as much fun as program design and micromanagement, it is irresponsible for any board to neglect its governance functions.
If the present multiple board arrangement is unable to implement goals, how is the proposed arrangement, with independent boards, going to be more effective? Since we are (apparently) committed to uncoupling and greater independence, then the potential authority of BGM to implement anything is greatly compromised. Consequently, the responsibilities of BGM must be radically modest when compared to the functions of our present General Board. While the plan is moving in that direction, I am not certain it has gone far enough. In particular, it must uncover and confront the implicit or assumed functions of the Board. I think people will be surprised at how much is being given up.
The second driver to reduce and redefine the Board is finances. It has become clear that common funding is no longer adequate to support a large, representative body. But is this merely a financial issue, or is it a symptom of something deeper? Are American Baptists unwilling to commit the financial resources necessary for such a body? Or are they saying that the body, as it presently exists, does not adequately represent them? Are American Baptists willing to vest anyone with the kind of authority that is necessary to effectively achieve goals???
I agree that a radical reduction in the size of the Board is inescapable. However, there are consequences that cannot be ignored. While it may be legal, a very small, non-representative Board has no moral basis on which to claim that it speaks for constituents. That would be arrogant presumption. To couch such pronouncements, goals, public witness, or whatever, in language that “this is merely the Board’s opinion,” is a fine point that will escape most people and a betrayal of those it purports to represent.
As the size of the General Board has been reduced over the years, it has dropped below the number necessary for even nominal representation. The danger of elitism and classism is real. As the Board shrinks even further the prospects for disconnect with constituents is a certainty. This situation is problematic for me, because I believe a Baptist denomination exists to serve churches (not vice versa). I also believe that it is important for Baptists to speak together as a public witness on a variety of issues. One colleague has said that “The existing policies, resolutions, etc., must carry forward because they define who American Baptists are.” I agree. So, if we are to set goals and speak, but a board is not adequately representative of the constituents to do so with integrity, then we must find another way to give voice to our constituent churches.