Larry Jones and Feed the Children Ministries, based in Oklahoma City, are in the local news because of a lawsuit filed by five current Feed the Children board of directors who say that Rev. Jones made several decisions, without board permission, that have reflected poorly on the ministry. It goes without saying that nobody could know all the details of the problems at Feed the Children, and there are always two sides to every story, but it is evident that there are concerns by those intimately acquainted with the ministry. First, there seems to be a very serious nepotism issue at FTC. Jones family members are working for the organization and drawing large salaries. The board members have also expressed concerns over what they believe to be an abuse of authority. They allege Rev. Jones is centralizing the decision making process at the one billion dollar non-profit organization to include only Larry and close family members and friends - excluding those who question him. Board members also say that there is a curtain of secrecy over financial improprieties, and at least in one case, a cover-up of a $100,000 embezzlement. Finally, board members allege there are intimidation tactics used to prevent anyone from finding answers to legitmate questions being asked about the operation of the non-profit ministry. Thus, the board members have gone to the civil courts to protect the organization they love.
This past week I spent an hour on the phone with a man who is the Watchdog Blogger, a long time member of First Baptist Church, Jacksonville, Florida. The Watchdog has blogged about problems that he believes have arisen at his church, and his concerns seem to parallel those of the board members at Feed the Children. The Watchdog is highly educated, has a family that loves the kingdom and their church of many years, and is intimately acquainted with First Baptist Church, Jacksonville. The Watchdog has expressed his opinion that there has been a curtain of secrecy over a land gift and other financial benefits to pastor Mack Brunson and his family. He has also blogged about church salaries and benefits (i.e. several thousand dollars in office remodeling) given to Mack's wife, Debbie, Mack's son, and Mack's friends from a Dallas management agency. The Watchdog is most concerned with what he believes to be an intentional and radical change to the church bylaws which hands authority to a select group of trustees appointed by the pastor rather than the congregation as a whole. This bylaw change, according to the Watchdog, was pushed through the church business process with very little notice, discussion or debate. The Watchdog has also blogged about a number of other issues, raising questions that he believes need to be asked. The Watchdog has not gone public with his name, receiving a great deal of criticism for blogging anonymously, but explained to me he remained anonymous out of fear of retribution from powerful civic leaders who are members of the church and could intentional seek to ruin his name and business. He told me his compelling story, details of which are startling, because he said he trusted me.
His fears of retribution may well be justified. In 2006, when I blogged about my disagreements with doctrinal policy changes at the International Mission Board, changes pushed by trustee leaders behind closed doors, and doctrinal changes that exceeded the convention wide approved Baptist Faith and Message, I put my name to what I wrote from the very beginnnig and sought to only write about issues - leaving out all names. According to a former staff member at First Baptist Church, Jacksonville, Debbie Brunson, an IMB trustee herself at the time, told the staff at FBC Jacksonville that I was promoting the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and was a liberal. Debbie was herself an IMB trustee leader at the time, but never approached me personally about any of her concerns. Yet, she felt comfortable talking to members of her own staff about me in order to seek to make the issue about me personally and not the questions I was asking. The tired tactic of conservatives in authority is to call "liberal" anyone who questions them about what they are doing. My objections with the new doctrinal policies was a matter of conscience, but I soon found that gracious dissent, even when one signs his name to it, is treated quite harshly by those who consider themselves denominational elitists. When they don't like the questions being asked, they tend to move toward attacking the character of the person asking the questions.
When one visits with the FBC Jacksonville Watchdog it will take only a couple of minutes to hear his heart. He clearly has a concern for the health of his church. He sincerely believes that things are taking place that will eventually harm the future of FBC Jacksonville. I have expressed my disagreement with him about remaining anonymous, but I understand his desire not to have his name splattered all over the internet for people to google his name and see all the horrible stuff being said about him. There are a number of people who have said ugly things about me and have published their words on the internet. Try googling my name. It is not pretty. At one time that caused me concern, but not anymore.
The best changes in any organization only come when someone is willing to take the heat for speaking about the need for change. I have encouraged the Watchdog to stand by his convictions, to continue to write his blog, and to reveal his identity when he feels led by the Spirit to do so. He has already done it to certain people he felt needed to know. The sad part is leaders of FBC Jacksonville believe they have identified the Watchdog, and according to at least one person who was in a closed door meeting of church leaders last Monday night, the man alleged to be the Watchdog was accused of stalking Debbie Brunson and stealing the Brunson's mail. How silly.
Elite and powerful SBC leaders must be reading from the same playbook. Do what you want when you want. Don't accept being questioned. And, if somebody has the gall to question your decisions or actions, attack the person.
In my opinion there should never be any hesitancy for any Southern Baptist to ask any question he or she desires of someone in 'authority.' If a church member has a question about my salary or benefits, wants a copy of our church bylaws, or desires information about our ministries, he will be given answers to his questions in full -and commended for asking. The same freedom should be given to trustees and board members of Christian non-profits. Full transparency in all aspects of any Christian ministry is not just desired, it should be expected. However, it is my belief that there has risen a culture in the SBC, reinforced by training received at many of our seminaries (not all), that emphasizes pastoral authority and seeks to convince people that they are not to "touch the Lord's anointed." It's as if some leaders in the SBC expect to be treated as kings, and everyones' calling in life is to serve the king and tell him how wonderful he is. CHRISTIAN ministry should be just the opposite. Any leader should be known as a servant to all. A true leader welcomes all questions and answers them fully, and he will not care what people say about him because he is not in the ministry for personal advancement but for the kingdom of Christ's sake.
In short, nobody in the SBC should be considered untouchable.
In His Grace,