FARMERSVILLE, Texas (BP) – Last week, I encountered at the SBC annual meeting (not for the first time) the idea that the Southern Baptist Convention ought to do away entirely with the resolutions process. The sentiment is widely held, deeply held and rationally held. The underlying rationale, if I might summarize, is that the resolutions process accomplishes nothing other than causing trouble.
I would like to offer an alternative point of view that I hope everyone will consider. Here’s my outline. First, I want to spell out some valuable things that I think our resolutions process contributes to our convention. Second, I’d like to propose some etiquette that, applied to our resolutions process, could help it not to be so troublesome.
Things resolutions accomplish
I believe that the resolutions process accomplishes some worthwhile things. Indeed, to go even further, I think that there are some ways that the convention would suffer from the absence of the resolutions process. What’s more, I think that having a Committee on Resolutions to process the resolutions that we make is the best way to navigate this process.
First, resolutions provide a means for our convention to create messaging about things like the Equality Act, and that’s something that we need to do. The Equality Act endangers the entire American experiment in religious liberty. Southern Baptists and Southern Baptist institutions will approach national and state legislators, executives, and bureaucrats with the resolution that we passed yesterday and will employ it both in the effort to prevent passage of the Equality Act and to challenge it in the courts if it does happen to become law. Perhaps you believe that Southern Baptists can accomplish this goal some way other than through the resolutions process, but you can’t say that the resolutions process doesn’t accomplish anything. It accomplishes this.
Second, resolutions provide a point of engagement for Southern Baptists in the Convention’s deliberative process and empowers individual Southern Baptists to have their voices heard. It’s easy for entity heads to have their voices heard. It’s easy for high-ranking entity employees to have their voices heard. It’s easy for trustees and committee members to have their voices heard. It’s easy for very influential pastors to have their voices heard. But it’s not easy at all for most of our pastors and for almost all of our laypeople to have their voices heard.
A lot of the people I hear wanting to eliminate the resolutions process are in one of those categories that don’t need the resolutions process in order to be heard. Honestly, I don’t always like what I hear when I hear all of the voices of the SBC, but neither do I like closing all of the doors for people to speak up. Yes, some resolutions may not pertain much to the core mission of the convention, but a lot of them do. It is good for our process to provide a way for people to speak about those things, and deprived of that, people will grow frustrated, or perhaps worse, ambivalent. Sometimes people leave because they’ve been engaged and they’ve wound up being offended. But I think we lose more churches from disengagement than from disappointed engagement.
Third, the existence of the resolutions process declutters the motions process. Right now, we can refuse to accept motions that are really just resolutions disguised as motions. Eliminate the resolutions process, and the same sorts of things will just start showing up as motions. That’s not a better solution. And if you both eliminate the resolutions process and disallow the making of resolution-type motions from the floor, the message to the messengers is that we expect them just to shut up and keep sending those checks. That’s not good, and it isn’t likely to be tolerated for long.
Of course, we could keep resolutions but abandon our current committee process for receiving, reading, reviewing and recommending them. I don’t think that’s a good solution. The committee is helpful for the following reasons:
First, the committee process requires that resolutions be submitted in advance. By imposing a timetable, this process tends to favor resolutions coming from people who care enough about their subject matter to work in advance and who are well enough organized to meet a deadline. That improves the quality of the resolutions that come before the convention.
Second, the committee process offers the opportunity to consolidate similar resolutions, vet them and prioritize them. As a member of this year’s committee, I read every submitted resolution for 2021 multiple times. You don’t want to do that.
Third, the committee process offers the opportunity to improve resolutions. You don’t have to be an English composition major to have a great idea for a resolution. Sometimes very good resolutions need a little editing to turn into great resolutions. With the current committee process, messengers only see resolutions in their very best state, as far as form and style go.
Proposed resolution etiquette
I do think there are a few things we could do that would make our resolutions process more productive and efficient and would make fewer people hate it. These aren’t rules. I’m not proposing any further rules that would handcuff the messengers. I’m just proposing what I think are some needed principles of resolution etiquette.
First, let’s try only to bring out resolutions that the broad swath of our messengers either already understand or can come to understand quickly. To pull a few examples from the 2021 process, our resolution “On the Sufficiency of Scripture for Race and Racial Reconciliation” touched upon topics that Southern Baptists have discussed at length for two years. Our messenger body knew what they thought about this. The resolution on “The Equality Act” touched upon pending legislation that messengers may or may not have already studied, but there are things that the messengers did already know – about the developing conflict between LGBTQ advocates and religious liberty – that made it likely that any messengers who did not already know about the Equality Act would be able to understand pretty quickly just from reading the resolution what was afoot. The resolution “On Sole Membership,” touched upon a topic that the messengers were not likely to understand, but we believed that a quick explanation could inform messengers about this resolution.
Second, if we could vote in favor of a resolution as it stands, let’s strongly consider not trying to amend it. Of course, if you could not vote in favor of a resolution as it stands, and if a simple amendment could make the resolution supportable for you, then by all means, propose an amendment. Amend resolutions to save them. But if you’re just trying to improve a resolution that is already good enough to earn your vote, as a matter of etiquette, please consider not trying to make any amendments.
My rationale for this is simple. We only have so much time to consider resolutions. Even if we were to double the available time, I’m still not certain that we would have much time left over. We knew this year that some of our resolutions contained content that the messengers were going to need to hash out in floor discussion in order to achieve a consensus. But we spent a significant amount of time on resolutions for which we probably all had agreement. These days, every resolution seems to be the target of some sort of amendment. We’ve all got the right to do that, but here’s how it’s a question of etiquette: Is my proposed friendly amendment so important that my neighbors should be deprived of time to ask their questions about genuinely controversial resolution topics? In general, if I can live with it the way it is worded, I should.
Third, your default vote should be “nay” until the resolution earns your “aye.” Don’t treat the committee as infallible; hold the committee accountable. You don’t owe the committee your unwavering allegiance, and any committee who expects that the messengers should uphold them at every point is being unreasonable. If you are consistent about this, and if the committee knows that the bar is going to be high, then the committee is likely to be more careful about the resolutions that it proposes.
Fourth, if you would be a resolution-writer, be prepared to submit your resolution multiple years. You engaged in the process. You wrote a resolution. It was beautiful. It was truth. I wanted it to succeed. But we only have a two-day convention, and we only have so much time for considering resolutions. We have to prioritize. Some resolutions we have to leave to the side. That doesn’t mean that we didn’t like your resolution. You should submit it again next year, when the volume of submitted resolutions may not be so high and the number of unavoidable topics may not be so imposing. Commit to a plan of patience, giving more than one committee the chance to consider your proposed resolution.
Fifth, avoid booing and catcalls. It’d be different if we were Pentecostals, perhaps, but it’s just unseemly for you to be so reserved in your worship and then so vocal, active and energetic in your disparagement of those who disagree with you.
Our resolutions give us a way to have a little release valve for our sentiments. They give us a way to let any and every church say something through the convention. They are needed. But we can still make them better. What other suggestions would you make? There is hope for the resolutions process, and I think we should do what we can to strengthen it.