Update on Financial Transparency Efforts in the SBC: Will Messengers Get a Vote or Not?

Rhett Burns

The Current State of Play on the 990 Amendment and the Likely Scenarios and Outcomes in Indianapolis

Messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting will gather in Indianapolis next week to deliberate action on several high-profile and important issues. One of them is a financial transparency motion I made at last year’s meeting. 

If passed, the motion would require SBC entities to provide the level of information normally made public on the IRS Form 990 in a similar scope, detail, and quality to SBC churches. That sounds somewhat technical, so let me explain. In short, this amendment would require our SBC entities to provide more financial transparency to our churches than they currently do. As I’ve summarized it before, 

“On Form 990, a non-profit organization discloses detailed financial information and describes its mission, significant activities, and governance. Organizations report their revenues, expenses, assets, liabilities, accomplishments, the number of employees, their three largest program services, top contractors, and select compensation information. Additionally, 990s require organizations to answer questions about policies related to conflicts of interest and, related, to disclose transactions with trustees and other interested persons.    

This is crucially important financial information for the churches of the Convention to have in order to rightly evaluate if our entities are “on mission” and if our trustees are doing their job. 

After I proposed this amendment to the SBC Business and Financial Plan last year, the motion was referred to the Executive Committee, which has yet to decide whether or not to bring it to the messengers for a floor vote in Indianapolis. 

Let me be clear: This is a decision for the churches and the messengers of the SBC. This is not a decision to be made by a subcommittee of the EC or even the full EC itself. The EC has a responsibility to bring this amendment out before the messengers for a vote, and the messengers have a right to vote on it. 

Will that happen? It’s unclear. But I am praying that the EC does the right thing. 

The Current Status of the Financial Transparency Amendment 

What is the current status of my financial transparency amendment? What can messengers in Indianapolis do to ensure that Southern Baptist churches receive sufficient financial disclosure from our entities? Let me walk you through the possible options—the different scenarios—for how the EC might decide to handle this amendment. 

The Executive Committee’s Committee on Convention Finances and Stewardship Development is tasked with evaluating the motion and making a recommendation to the full EC. That committee initially considered the motion during last September’s EC meeting when entity heads were allowed to speak about the motion to the committee.

Then, during February’s meeting, I was invited and allowed to speak in favor of the motion for five minutes and answer questions from the committee. One entity head addressed the committee after me, speaking against the motion. Behind the closed doors of the executive session, the committee decided to table any action on the motion until they met this coming Monday, one day before the annual meeting. 

One of the following scenarios will happen at that meeting on Monday, June 10, triggering the different recommended messenger actions that I explain here.

Scenario #1 and #2: The EC Kills it in Committee, and We Renew the Motion from the Floor

Scenario #1: The finance committee votes against bringing the motion to the full board of the Executive Committee, thus defeating the motion in committee. 

Scenario #2: The finance committee votes to bring the motion to the full EC board, but the full board votes against bringing it to the messengers for a vote on the floor of the annual meeting. This, too, would defeat the motion. 

Recommended Messenger Action for Scenario #1 or #2: In the event of these first two scenarios, messengers should be prepared to take action on the Convention floor. If the Executive Committee kills this common-sense amendment—if they fail to do the right thing and bring it out for a vote—I plan to renew the motion from the floor. 

Like last year, it would likely be referred to the Executive Committee again. At that point, I would appeal the chair’s decision, asking messengers to vote to bring the motion to the floor for a vote. 

The vote to overrule the chair would require a two-thirds vote of the messenger body, and then a simple majority is required to pass the amendment. I encourage messengers to have parliamentary perseverance and not grow weary in doing good through all the necessary votes. 

I am confident that it will pass overwhelmingly if the messengers can vote on this motion. Again, it is our right to make this decision. It is a legitimate motion. It was an orderly motion. We have the right, as SBC messengers, to make these changes. The EC, on the other hand, has no right to kill it in committee. Instead, they have the responsibility to bring it out for a vote. Therefore, if they fail in that area, we must renew the motion from the floor and prevail there through the will of the messengers. 

Please be ready to act to overturn the chair’s ruling and help us secure an up-or-down vote on the amendment. 

Scenario #3 and #4: Advancement by the EC with Opposition or Support

Scenario #3: The finance committee votes to bring the motion to the full EC board, and the full board decides to bring it to the messengers for a vote on the floor of the annual meeting with a recommendation against adopting the amendment. This is what happened with the Law Amendment last year. While not ideal, this scenario would at least allow Southern Baptist messengers the opportunity to exercise their will and decide what level of financial transparency they want from their entities.

Scenario #4: The finance committee votes to bring the motion to the full EC board, and the full board votes to bring it to the messengers for a vote on the floor of the annual meeting with a recommendation to adopt the motion. I believe this is the wisest decision for the Executive Committee and the one that best promotes unity and trust in our convention. 

Recommended Messenger Action: In scenarios #3 or #4, messengers should be prepared to vote in favor of the amendment. They should be resolved to resist fear-mongering from entity heads and their proxies and to vote against any amendments that would weaken the amendment to require less than 990-level financial disclosure. 

Scenario #5: The EC Offers a Watered Down and Ineffective Substitute Motion 

Scenario #5: The Executive Committee defeats the 990 amendment motion but instead brings out an alternative motion regarding financial transparency. One can only speculate what that alternative might be. Still, one educated guess is a plan to make all the currently available financial information, such as those found in the Annual Report and Ministry Reports, more easily accessible.

Recommended Messenger Action: While accessibility is commendable, and I would welcome it in addition to the 990 amendment, messengers should consider this action unacceptable as an alternative to the 990 amendment. It would be a half-measure that does not address our most pressing problem: the currently available information is insufficient. For example, the current disclosure does not include key information that the 990 requires, such as executive compensation, transactions with trustees and interested persons, top contractors, and legal expenditures.

The 990-level information allows Southern Baptist messengers to evaluate the trustee boards they have appointed and our entities’ broad-level financial health and trustworthiness.

A plan that only makes the insufficient currently available information more accessible is an attempt to placate messengers with a mirage of transparency without requiring actual transparency. It is a distraction and stonewalling tactic that messengers should reject.

If they go this route, I will renew the motion from the floor, seek to overturn the chair’s ruling of referring it to the EC, and lead the Convention in an effort to secure an up-or-down vote on the motion this year.

Scenario #6: Death by Delay

Scenario #6: The finance committee defeats the 990 amendment but proposes forming a task force or study group to study financial transparency and report back to the convention in 2025. 

Recommended Messenger Action: Messengers should recognize this delay tactic as one of John Kotter’s four ways to kill a good idea. Such procrastination keeps Southern Baptist eyes off of Southern Baptist mission’s money. We do not need another study group. We need an opportunity to vote on the motion as presented last summer.

Again, if they go this route, I will renew the motion from the floor, seek to overturn the chair’s ruling of referring it to the EC, and lead the Convention in an effort to secure an up-or-down vote on the motion this year.

Conclusion: Trust the Messengers and Remember that the Convention Answers to the Churches

This is the heart of the issue: Will Southern Baptists be allowed to decide what level of financial transparency we want from our entities? Or will the denominational bureaucracy attempt to make that decision for us?  

The good news is that in the Southern Baptist Convention, the messengers to the annual meeting have the final say. Authority rests with the messengers. But that means messengers must come to Indianapolis prepared to act. They must come ready to insist that our entities properly account for our mission dollars. And they must be willing to persevere through much parliamentary procedure to act in their church’s best interest.

Let me close this update with the same exhortation from my first article on the issue. Because the truth hasn’t changed, SBC churches deserve financial transparency from our entities. Providing it would go a long way towards rebuilding trust.

“Christ is watching. He knows where every penny came from and where every penny is spent. Nothing is secret that will not be revealed, nor anything hidden that will not be known and come to light (Luke 8:17). It would be far better to bring our finances into the light now that we may honor what is good and correct what is wrong, thus honoring Christ—who sees every detail of every financial transaction in the SBC.

The time for financial transparency is now. The time to restore trust is now. Because the time to win the world to Jesus is now.

Pray with me that the Executive Committee will have the wisdom and courage to do what is right and bring this motion before messengers for a vote in Indianapolis.”

  • Rhett Burns

    Rhett Burns is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Travelers Rest. A lifelong Southern Baptist, he previously served with the IMB in Central Asia. He resides in Travelers Rest, SC with his wife and four children.