An unnamed gentleman sat low in his chair at the 2016 Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) annual meeting in St. Louis, Mo. His event program tumbled to the floor as the churchman’s arms hung limp by his side. Soft snores communicated to nearby messengers, “The business meeting is now in session.”
Amy Whitfield, from left, Craig Culbreth, Ronnie Floyd, Barry McCarty and Adam Greenway rely on Robert’s Rules of Order to keep the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting running smoothly.
The man’s sleepy demeanor symbolizes the way many Southern Baptists feel about the denomination’s deliberative process: “Can’t we get on with more exciting things, like the Great Commission?”
The Biblical Recorder interviewed four of the SBC’s current parliamentarians to see if the allegedly boring yearly procedures – along with the infamous guidebook, Robert’s Rules of Order – are a vital part of Southern Baptist life, or just dead weight.
“Not all of it is exciting,” admitted SBC Chief Parliamentarian Barry McCarty. “Some of it seems rather routine, but the fact is the annual meeting is what enables the SBC to function.
“Southern Baptists for years have fielded the largest missionary force in the world.”
The yearly parliamentary session is the “vital connection” between the churches that fund and direct missionary efforts and the entities that enable them.
“Robert’s Rules of Order helps the Southern Baptist Convention do its Great Commission work,” said McCarty.
Not only does parliamentary procedure have the ability to harness the energy and resources of nearly 50,000 SBC churches across the nation, said the parliamentarians, guidelines like Robert’s Rules keep the convention moving forward while providing guardrails against both tyranny and chaos.
“There will be some set of rules that govern every meeting,” McCarty said. “Even if you have a dominant chairman who says, ‘Forget the bylaws, these are my laws.’”
Organizations, especially large ones, need an objective set of standards that protect the right of the majority to make decisions and the right of the minority to be heard.
“I love the fact that our denomination is not a hierarchical denomination,” said Amy Whitfield, who was appointed in 2016 as the SBC’s first female parliamentarian. “It’s the churches that are making decisions … That is my favorite thing about how our deliberative body works.”
Adam Greenway, also appointed in 2016 as part of a newly recruited parliamentary team, echoed Whitfield’s sentiment, “We’re committed to a robust and vibrant congregationalism. … The genius of the SBC is the fact that any messenger can go to any microphone and make a motion.” Greenway developed his parliamentary skills with the Kentucky Baptist Convention for more than six years.
Craig Culbreth said, “It allows everybody’s voice to be heard, even when they’re not in the room.”
Culbreth has served as an SBC parliamentarian since 2010, but has also worked with the Florida Baptist Convention for many years, along with other state conventions and associations.
At least one well-known Baptist leader challenged the democratic ideal during the 2016 annual meeting. Paul Pressler, one of the architects of the Conservative Resurgence, raised a point of order accusing the chair of unfairly denying him the opportunity to speak to a resolution under consideration.
The chair of the meeting, then-president Ronnie Floyd, ruled the point of order “not well taken,” which means the accusation was denied and no rules violation had occurred. Greenway explained the ruling, “The system is fair … There is an electronic microphone ordering box. It is a blind system. … It is purely based on the order in which they register, and depending upon the order of precedence in what they are attempting to do, in terms of an amendment, motion or point of order.”
He added, “I would reject any sense in which there is bias or preferential treatment.”
McCarty agreed, “Every messenger has the same right as every other messenger. That’s a good thing for people to see.”
Greenway said, “Even if you don’t agree with the decisions, there should be a strong affirmation that things are done with integrity, objectivity and clarity.”
In fact, the integrity of the process was the hot button issue when the SBC first hired McCarty as a professional parliamentarian in 1986. The Conservative Resurgence drew its fair share of critics, and a number of lawsuits were filed claiming that certain organizational procedures fell outside the bounds of the convention’s governing documents. McCarty has advised SBC leaders and messengers for 30 years so that each parliamentary maneuver follows proper guidelines and takes place in accordance with the bylaws.
Fair and orderly
Culbreth pointed to the high-profile SBC presidential election between Steve Gaines, J.D. Greear and David Crosby at the 2016 annual meeting as another example of a fair system at work. The initial vote gave way to a runoff between the top two candidates, Gaines and Greear. After the second round of votes were cast, officials were still unable to declare a winner due to a number of ballots that were incorrectly marked or submitted, preventing either candidate from achieving the requisite majority (more than half).
Debate sprang up immediately in the convention hall and on social media about the tallying procedure.
Parliamentarians and denominational legal counsel pointed to the convention’s bylaws and parliamentary procedure as the basis for how the ballots were counted. Questions about the tallies were quickly overshadowed when Greear withdrew before a third vote was taken, allowing Gaines to receive the election by acclamation.
Despite the controversy, Culbreth thought it was good for messengers to see an objective set of guidelines in action. “Thankfully there was a fair system,” he said, noting how tight the runoff vote had been. “There weren’t just good ole’ boys in the back room that said, ‘Hey, he’s close enough, we’ll give it to him.’”
The SBC annual meeting is one of the largest deliberative bodies in the world. That makes it particularly susceptible to disorder, especially because of its bottom-up polity.
“It’d be a nightmare not to have the best possible set of rules of order to conduct meetings that are that large and that complicated,” McCarty said.
He referred to Robert’s Rules as “the sound principles of a fair and orderly meeting that have long existed among English speaking peoples.”
Greenway was quick to point out, “Robert’s Rules of Order is not the Bible. It’s not on the same level of authority as the Bible, but it certainly does provide a useful service in helping us do what we do … allowing God’s people to make the decisions about our work.”
He also emphasized that “Parliamentarians don’t rule on anything. Our role is purely an advisory role. … It is the messengers’ convention, and those of us who are parliamentarians are servants of the convention.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests that newer churches are trending away from using Robert’s Rules in their business meetings, even if they are congregational in polity.
Culbreth agreed, “The typical Baptist church doesn’t have business meetings like they used to.” This pattern could produce a future where a growing number of Baptist messengers to the annual meeting are unfamiliar with the decision making process.
The SBC parliamentarians suggested that messengers familiarize themselves with parliamentary procedure and convention bylaws.
“Engagement is about showing up,” said Whitfield, “and if you’re going to show up, you have to know what you’re showing up for. You need to educate yourself. It’s essential to staying engaged in the process.”
Though they advocated for greater knowledge and involvement, none of the interviewed parliamentarians said it was necessary to memorize Robert’s Rules. The book runs nearly 700 pages. They did, however, name a few simpler resources.
The first was McCarty’s book, A Parliamentary Guide for Church Leaders. Greenway said it should be “mandatory reading” for Southern Baptist messengers to the annual meeting. He also pointed to the “tremendous work” accomplished by the SBC Executive Committee in making the convention’s governing documents available online and through the mobile app.
Culbreth offers a three-hour class to local associations entitled, “How to Survive a Business Meeting.”
He is also available to messengers during the annual meeting to answer questions about motions and other procedures.
“I did more of that this year than I’ve done in the last five years combined,” Culbreth said, “which is a good thing because it means people are interested in trying to find out how it works.”
Whitfield said, “Knowing the process helps us to participate in it and trust it.”
Only time will tell whether messengers will become more involved in one of the largest deliberative assemblies in the world or whether the repetitious motions, reports and points of order will lull them to sleep.
The SBC parliamentarians hope to see more engagement, and a closer recognition of how Robert’s Rules is a vital tool that mobilizes people and resources for the sake of the Great Commission.