The ERLC Treats Tithe Dollars Like Monopoly Money

Sam Webb

Shining a Spotlight on the Financial Misdeeds of the SBC’s “Ethics” Arm

On our first date, my wife told me a story about how, when she was a child, her father was so competitive that family games of Monopoly would inevitably end with her or one of her siblings in tears. During the games, her father would exercise his expert negotiation skills and good-natured, fatherly cunning to dominate his children.

Her mother would sweetly remind him that Monopoly is just a game; the money is fake, and the real estate is no more than cardboard. My wife, like so many others since the Parker Brothers published the game in 1935, learned valuable life lessons about family dynamics, market competition, and, especially, money from playing Monopoly.

The real estate may just be cardboard and the money fake, but the lessons learned carry over from childhood to adulthood. 

It’s Just A Game—Until It Isn’t 

These Monopoly lessons are so culturally familiar that when Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) President Bart Barber referred to “Monopoly money” at an Executive Committee meeting on February 19, 2024, everyone knew exactly what he meant.

Josh Wester, chairman of the SBC Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force (ARITF), announced to the Executive Committee that night the ARITF’s intentions to create a new, independent non-profit organization outside the SBC “to help Southern Baptist churches and entities prevent and respond to sexual abuse.” 

Wester admitted that “the current legal and financial challenges facing the SBC and the Executive Committee” would encumber and delay any actions desired by the ARITF. So the ARITF decided to take its interests outside the SBC and create its own organization: the Abuse Response Commission (ARC). 

The action of ARITF members to create their own organization so they can pursue their agenda “unencumbered [by the SBC]” and “without [the] delay” of SBC policies and procedures—not least of which is the SBC Business and Financial Plan—is an audacious act of hubris that should shock the conscience of Southern Baptists. 

A group of unelected, unaccountable persons decided unilaterally to act outside of its given mandate to create an unaccountable organization with Southern Baptist money.  No messengers approved an organization outside the SBC to ostensibly carry out the work of the SBC. This act is in direct violation of the SBC Business and Financial Plan, Section 15, on New Enterprises:

“No new enterprise involving expenditure of money shall be authorized by the Convention except upon favorable action by the Convention in two (2) succeeding annual meetings.”

On these grounds alone, the ARC should be considered dead on arrival. In fact, as Josh Abbotoy and Jon Whitehead argue, ARITF should be wound down itself: “If the Chair firmly believes that the members don’t think ARITF is viable, and if it has no path to progress, it should be shut down–not allowed to linger and waste offering plate dollars.”

But it gets worse. 

ARTIF Has No Path Forward, So Why Give It $250,000? Because It’s For ARC

Even more scandalous than the creation of the ARC is the call of Wester before the Executive Committee to expend money on this new enterprise, and that “we have to do it [ARC] together.” Wester attempted to shame the SBC into funding this unaccountable nonprofit that very night: “If this is the SBC’s response to our sexual abuse crisis, the SBC must come together to invest in this initiative.” He reported to the Executive Committee that the ERLC would “make a significant investment” in ARC. Wester said that President Barber and other entity heads—collectively known as the Great Commission Council—demonstrated strong support for ARC, insinuating that those leaders would make sure ARC is fully funded.  

It is lost on Wester, though, that ARC is not “the SBC’s response to our sexual abuse crisis.” It is the response of a select number of SBC insiders seeking to wrest control and finances from the SBC to pursue its agenda “unencumbered and without delay.” Ultimately, it cannot be both inside and outside the SBC; this is an effort to be inside the “SBC family” but outside the control of the SBC family. 

Thankfully, IMB and NAMB entity heads stood with financial integrity and declined to fund ARC. Their courage is commendable. Other members of the Great Commission Council should follow their lead and not be pressured to treat SBC funds as Monopoly money, violating the SBC Business and Financial Plan. 

Barber and Leatherwood have chosen a different path. Barber spoke from the heart when he made a comment that night about seeding ARC with Monopoly money. He later had to apologize for his foolish words. But more egregious than Barber’s slip is the commitment of the ERLC to “make a significant investment” in ARC. The SBC Business and Financial Plan Section 16 states:

“No entity shall make any appropriation to any cause or for any purpose other than for the promotion of its own work except by the approval or upon the instruction of the Convention or of the Executive Committee.”

Despite such clarity in our legally binding governance documents, at its March 2024 board meeting, the ERLC Board of Trustees approved the pact made between Wester and Leatherwood. Over the objections of some ERLC trustees, the ERLC Board greenlit the transfer of $250,000 from the ERLC to ARITF to help ARITF “wrap up its work.” This transfer of funds is curious because the ARITF has a remaining budget of at least $1 million and, by Wester’s own admission, has no path forward other than ARC

Therefore, the only reasonable conclusion is that the “significant investment” from ERLC to ARITF is to fund ARC. 

Self-Dealing SBC Elites Refuse to Answer to the Messengers

This measure of unaccountable self-dealing, akin to the banker in Monopoly lining his own pockets when the other players aren’t looking, should be totally unacceptable to every church in the SBC that generously gives their money to fund our Great Commission work.

SBC Committee members cannot take Convention money and spend it on themselves. They cannot decide their private group is the best way forward, and give hundreds of thousands of dollars to it. This puts their personal interest and agenda in conflict with the Convention’s interests.

Furthermore, it must be repeated that the “significant investment” made by the ERLC is in direct violation of SBC Business and Financial Plan Section 16. The $250,000 was originally budgeted for the ERLC, and it designated the funds to hire an organization to oversee an audit and assessment of sexual abuse in the SBC. Those funds were never employed, however, because of the separate work of Guidepost Solutions. Rather than return those budgeted funds to the SBC Executive Committee, which is itself near bankruptcy, Leatherwood and Wester devised a plan to funnel the funds to an organization outside the SBC for use by Wester and other ARITF members “unencumbered and without delay.”

The SBC faces a trust and integrity crisis. Calls for financial transparency are regularly met with pompous platitudes and condescending dismissal. The ERLC would not even provide a video recording of its virtual March 2024 Board meeting when requested, instead pointing to a Baptist Press article as a “good summary.” These self-appointed “abuse response” commissioners believe they can create new enterprises involving expenditures of Southern Baptists’ money without any approval or oversight of Southern Baptists. 

These actors—Wester, Leatherwood, and every trustee at the ERLC who approved this—apparently believe they can transfer money to any cause and for any purpose without the required approval and necessary oversight. They are all complicit in this act of self-dealing to fund their own agenda in their own way—with accountability to the Messengers sacrificed on the altar of inconspicuous financial and political maneuvers. 

Current SBC “leaders,” particularly at the ARITF and ERLC, may think their business and financial moves are made with Monopoly money. They act like this is a game with only self-dealt hands and self-made rules.

The reality is they are not playing with cardboard and fake money but with the hard-earned and good-faith-given tithe money from millions of Southern Baptists. 

Such audacity should result in a clear message from SBC messengers this June in Indianapolis: 

Shut down the ARC, do not pass “Go,” and do not collect $250,000

  • Sam Webb

    Sam Webb is a partner at Webb Strahan, PLLC, and Elder at University Park Baptist Church. Sam has been involved in Southern Baptist life for decades, serving as a deacon and elder in Baptist churches and preaching regularly. He has taught courses at several institutions, including Texas A&M University, Trinity Law School, Houston Christian University, California Baptist University, and Liberty University. He holds a M.A. in Religion from Reformed Theological Seminary and a J.D. from Texas Tech.