A Conversation with Frank Page about the Ministry and Future of the SBC

Dr. AllenDr. Page, it is an honor to host you on campus at Midwestern Seminary and to host you most specifically in the Spurgeon Room. We are here seated by Spurgeon’s desk, Spurgeon’s books, talking about matters pertaining to the convention, to the Lord’s work currently, and what we anticipate and pray he will do in the future. You are here in town on the front end of our faculty workshop, which will be tomorrow, and we look forward to hosting you for that conversation. I want to begin this conversation with you just talking a bit about the executive committee as a whole. Before you would talk about the committee structurally, maybe a word or two personally about how the Lord prompted your heart to want to accept that call to lead it. Please make it a personal narrative as you lead us in that discussion.

Dr. Page: Thank you, Dr. Allen. It is an honor to be here with you today. Yes, I was approached a little over three years ago now to become the president and chief executive officer of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention. I actually had little interest in that at the beginning. In fact, I thought in my mind—as a pastor out yonder in the convention—that it was a political office that dealt with problems all day long, and I didn’t really want anything to do with that. I didn’t see it as really truly connected. As I prayed about it, I did feel God’s leadership and that indeed it could be a ministry of encouragement. That is why I call myself the CEO, or the Chief Encouraging Officer, because I think it can be a way to encourage unity, purpose, dream, vision, and I am excited about that. So I became president of the Executive Committee. The Executive Committee itself is a group of trustees, and the trustees are men and women from all over the nation. The staff of which I am a part works for the Executive Committee itself in doing these things. And yes, you are right. Many people think of it as a large, bureaucratic office of hundreds of thousands of employees, and many people in this convention do not understand it. I get requests every day wanting me to help a church or to do something for a person—thinking that our ministry is one of great programing, or dealing with churches or church planning, or church health, or assistance. The truth is, we have a fairly narrowly defined structure. For example, our 29 employees on the Executive Committee staff—that’s it, including secretaries and custodians.

Dr. AllenRight, and that is mind-boggling to most, because they would assume that our denomination would be similar to others that have this expansive organizational structure. I remember my first time driving through Nashville—being aware of its being the home of our denomination and seeing buildings like LifeWay, like the Baptist hospital there, but not knowing that it was LifeWay or the Baptist hospital. I was thinking all of those buildings together comprised our denominational bureaucracy. Of course, as I began to serve at Southern Seminary and got to know the denomination more personally, I obviously understood that was far from the reality. Nonetheless, some people still think that we have this larger bureaucratic footprint, and they think a lot of Cooperative Program dollars go to support that. Speak to your slice of the Cooperative Program pie.

Dr. Page: Sure, that is an excellent question, Dr. Allen, and I will tell you that it is relatively small. It was small when I got there, and it is smaller now. Here is why: when I arrived on the scene in 2010, our part of the Cooperative Program allocation budget was 3.4 percent. Now in most businesses and organizations, that is an extremely small overhead. We do recognize every entity and agency has its own overhead, but the overall administrative group, the Executive Committee, already was small. It is now down to 2.99 percent. Our convention asked us to do that when the GCR [Great Commission Resurgence] met in Orlando. While it was not a mandate that we had to follow, I took it seriously, and I believed we could do more with less. So we have begun to reduce our overall allocation so that more might go to the ministries of the convention.

But specifically, let me say what we do. For example, we have a very small Corporative Program development office that works with state conventions, and I will come back to that. We also have a legal group that works because we are—as a convention—having to deal with litigious issues from time to time, so we deal with that. We also have a public relations area that we call Convention Relations and Convention Communications—Baptist Press and SBC Life. We answer questions every day from people wanting to know what we believe about this… How does one become a Southern Baptist? How does a church become Southern Baptist? So we deal with those issues every day in public relations.

We also have a large group, probably our largest group—is in the finance area. In the finance area we do receive a lot of money. We do not keep it. We do not hold it. We send it out immediately. In fact, our business and financial plan office says we never hold money more than four days. So it comes in from the churches to the state conventions, then to us, and we send it out immediately to the field: to Midwestern Seminary every week, or to the International Mission Board, or the North American Mission Board, wherever it is designated or in the budget to go. We take that very seriously, but we have a high level of accountability in our finance office, and we are very proud of that. We take that as a serious God-stewardship. Again, we are not a large organization. We are really one of the smallest. The only smaller Southern Baptist organization is the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and it is not smaller by much.

So, we are very excited about this work because it not only does that which I have mentioned, but we also help coordinate and keep focused all of the entities and agencies of the convention. I have tried to do that by rebuilding trust, by rebuilding relationships with each of the entity heads, by going to see them individually, and by praying for them where they are. So, I like that, and I believe that is the key. Let me go on to say, if it is okay, that in the Southern Baptist Convention there are two words that are extremely important as we deal with entities and state conventions. Those two words are dependence and interdependence. This is very difficult for people to understand, but Southern Baptist entities and agencies are by-and-large independent. Midwestern Seminary has its own board of trustees that governs this institution, as is true with LifeWay, Guidestone, all of the seminaries, and all of the mission boards. They are all independent to a level, but we are all dependent upon each other. So there is an interdependence, yet there is a dependence, and that is what makes Southern Baptists extremely unique.

Dr. AllenThank you, that is very helpful. One of the other aspects of the Executive Committee staff that I would just point out in this conversation, and again, I think this is different than many would think from a distance. It is just how warm-hearted, how church-centered your staff members are. Maybe from a distance one would think it is this elite group of denominational functionaries, but it is not. It is normal folks who love Christ, who love the church, who love Southern Baptists and seek to serve and help and further the mission and the ministries of the churches of the convention. They are all active in their local churches.

Dr. Page: Every Monday morning we gather for prayer. We have a time of sharing with whom we have shared Christ this past week. We ask each one of them to tell us about what you did; who you talked to; who are you praying for; and it is exciting. I do not have to make them do that. They are soul-winners. They are witnesses. They all talk about what happened in their church yesterday; what happened in their Sunday school class yesterday; and I am very proud to serve with people like that.

Dr. AllenWell, under your leadership, I am yet to meet a member of your staff who came across in any way other than being genuine, humble, Christ honoring, and simply seeking to serve the Lord and the churches of the convention. I want to just pause for a moment and talk about the other two important words: Cooperative Program. I would love for you to update me, and us, on how you perceive those giving trends to be, and of course there is concern as you look at the trajectories over the past two and a half decades. Just give us an update on the Cooperative Program.

Dr. Page: Thank you, Jason. I really am somewhat encouraged. While we have gone through a very difficult time economically in our nation and certainly in our convention, we have seen a downward trend in the average church’s Cooperative Program giving for almost two decades. In fact, one can track it. It has been very predictable that every year we drop two tenths of a percent from a high of way above 10 percent, down to 5.46 percent, but we have evidence this year that for the first time ever, that decline has stopped.

Dr. AllenLet’s just pause for a moment. That is a newsworthy announcement if that is indeed true .

Dr. Page: It is. It is. Now we know that one year a trend does not make, and so we are kind of cautious. A at the same time, this is the first year it has not declined. Part of that is that we have had a major emphasis called the “One Percent Challenge.” Right now, we see almost 20 percent of all Southern Baptist churches, some say higher, have adopted the One Percent Challenge. Many churches with younger pastors have said, “We can do that. That is attainable. That is easy. Yes, we can do one percent more.” The church I pastor, which gave way over 10 percent, in Taylors, has adopted the One Percent Challenge. I was so proud of that. My son’s church in Oklahoma City—he has just moved to Richmond—adopted the One Percent Challenge. So, many, many have. I will have to tell you that I credit much of that to Dr. Fred Luter who not only adopted that challenge for Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, but then did a video to every state convention that was shown in their convention last year—a personalized message to Minnesota-Wisconsin or Utah-Idaho, or to Alabama, or Mississippi, or wherever it might be. He did a personalized video to every single state convention for us.

Dr. AllenThat is how you champion the cause. Good for Fred Luter and good for us. When you look at that, what appears to be very good news, and I think as I assess this, at least anecdotally, I see two, perhaps, on the ground reasons, and of course there are more. You have done a superb job leading this and getting us talking about it. But one [other] is that I do think as you begin to talk to people at the convention and other places, you have two things going on. We seem to have less crowds coming to the convention, but we seem to have a greater sense of unity and warmth and harmony and folks seem happy. So, I think there is a general pleasure with what is going on at the convention level. The other thing I think we are doing a better job of as a denomination—and I would love your reaction—is getting away from de-personalizing the Cooperative Program. To put it positively, we are doing a better job of personalizing it. We are not just giving money to bureaucracies; we are giving money to 5,000 missionaries overseas, giving money to several thousand local missionaries and church planters, giving money to 15,000 seminary students. These are real people. These are not their missionaries; these are our missionaries. These are not their seminary students; these are our seminary students. I think we have done a better job of bringing that message to bear.

Dr. Page: I would agree. The way I say it, Jason, is we put a face on missions. I think our mission entities and our seminaries have done a much better job of personalizing it by putting a face on it, and that must continue because we are in a day and time where people want to see where their money is going. They want to have a hand in directing it sometimes. One of the things we have done to help that we no longer ever, ever say, “Give to the Cooperative Program.” We give to Southern Baptist missions and ministries through the Cooperative Program. That is a crucial distinction, and we want it known that we are not about building up a denomination. We are about supporting missions and ministries, which includes theological education. It is done best, we believe, through the Cooperative Program, which again, emphasizes the independence, but also the dependence that we have for one another. It is a voluntary, cooperative—which makes up who we are—unified way of funding those missions and ministries. So, we are trying to put the emphasis where it really should be, and that is on serving our Lord and doing the missions and ministries he has called us to do. It is not by giving to a program, but by giving to missions and ministries.

Dr. AllenThank you, that is very well said. I want to move the conversation forward from kind of the structural and programmatic way the convention operates to the current state of the denomination and then as we move the conversation, go toward the future. Just tell me, our readers, and our listeners where you think the denomination is.

Dr. Page: I think we are at a crucial time, Dr. Allen, of reassessing, of looking to see who we are. As you well know, the convention went through many years, in fact decades, of struggle as it attempted to discern where it was regarding belief in the Bible. Well, those days have finished. Those battles are over, and now we have to decide what we do with it. So, I think it is a time of reassessment, and I am praying that we will really, truly put the emphasis on winning our world to Christ. We do that by providing good theological education, providing missions opportunities, by providing ministries to churches who are hurting and need to turn around. There are many things that we can do to really see the Great Commission accomplished. We are in an anti-denominational age. I am not unaware of the culture in which we live. So, we realize that we face sometimes a daunting challenge of helping people get involved in a movement that is sometimes not popular culturally. Many people would say that as you look ahead to the Southern Baptist Convention, it is going to be a much smaller, leaner, meaner organization. It might be. If we are going to follow cultural trends, and we are to predict using those predictive analyses, we might say that we are headed toward a much smaller future. I think that is not taking into consideration a huge number of students who are now being trained in our institutions who are on fire for the Lord; and who believe that the future is going to be better than the past, and who believe that planting churches and helping existing churches can turn this nation around to reach it for Christ. I am not ready to say that in the future we are going to be half the size that we are now. I am not ready to do that. I am not ready to give up and wave the white flag. I think we have some bright days ahead of us.

Dr. Allen: You know, I agree. I am so encouraged, oddly enough, by the convention. I am so encouraged by the students on this campus. I am so encouraged by the entity leaders. Many folks have asked me, “As a seminary president, what has encouraged you most?” I could talk about this all day, but one of the things I am most proud of is that I have been able to get to know, at the personal level, the different entity heads. I find these to be godly men who love Christ, who love one another, who love the church, who have a profound sense of call, and they are not just playing denominational games. They are giving their lives to this cause, and I am encouraged by that. I am encouraged by the students on this campus who show up ready to serve Christ, forsaking the scorn of many, often times including their own families. They are here to serve the cause of Christ. So, I think a part of the equation that we will have to see is, are we ready for this? Are our churches ready to support missionaries who are ready? Are our churches ready to support seminary students who are ready to train? Are we ready to support financially, to support in prayer, to support in spirit that which we are seeing accomplished at the national level?

I want to talk about two aspects of the current denominational conversation and get your take on how we are handling these. I think I know what you will say, but still would love to hear you speak to this. First of all, the great generational transition that is taking place. Tell us about that. What encourages you about the under 40 crowd? What do you see? How do you think the transition is taking place?

Dr. Page: Well, I think we are seeing some great days in generational transformation. You have some people who say, well, they have left the denomination. I meet with a lot of young ministerial groups, and they run the gamut from more Calvinistic groups, more contemporary groups—methodologically different—to the more traditional types. I find among them a deep passion for the gospel. I find a common thread among those groups of people who love the Word and who are passionate about seeing it accomplished and seeing the nations come to Christ. There is a deep concern among all groups for seeing the nations come to Christ and seeing more people go into the hard areas and doing the hard things, and that is encouraging to me. Yes, we do have methodological challenges that are out there between the more traditional—we might call them “legacy”—churches, and those that we might call the more contemporary types, but I see a common thread of passion for the gospel. That is why I am encouraging people to stop talking at each other and about each other and just sit down and talk with people of various generational groups, and you will find some great things happening.

Dr. Allen: Speaking of not talking past or at, but talking to one another, brings me to the topic of Calvinism. You, in a stroke of great denominational leadership, announced and led a Calvinism taskforce. Obviously, these conversations were privileged and much was shared, but I want you to take us behind the scenes as much as you can about what took place, about what encouraged you, about what you found to be the greatest challenges, about what you found the be the greatest joys in that process, and about where you hope all of this will lead.

Dr. Page: Thank you, Dr. Allen. That was an exciting time for me. It was a frightening time for me. To be honest with you, I did not know if it would work. In fact, I would say in all honesty, not even a month before the convention, I would have said if you would have called me and said, “Dr. Page, do you think this is going to work?” I would have said, “I doubt it. I think I will have to stand up in Houston and say, ‘I tried, but I failed. Let the wars begin.’” The truth is, God showed up. I brought together this council of men and one woman, purposely choosing leaders on both sides of the issue; strong-willed leaders. In fact someone would say that besides the dear woman there, almost everybody in that room was alpha males—and they were. I knew it was a risk. My own board officers kindly, lovingly, for love for me said, “We would rather you not do this. It is too big of a risk.” I knew it was, but I knew that the vitriol had reached a certain level. We saw some extremes on both sides: arrogance on one side—I would say—and an extreme anger on the other side. So much so that groups wanted to kick groups out of the convention and to purposely alienate other people, and I thought, that is just not right. I pulled them together to say, “Guys, can we pull together some things to say, ‘Yes, we are going to agree on this, and this we are never going to agree on that, but let’s make some clarity.’ Here is the bottom line, how are we going to work together in the future?” We began working, and Dr. David Dockery, my dear friend, helped me lead that process. He really helped me lead. I watched as he led the group. Certainly I was a part of it, but particularly when we came to a writing committee, he pulled together people from various groups and it was just amazing. I really could not have asked for it to have gone better. At the end we saw, and here is what people need to hear: Southern Baptist Calvinists and Southern Baptist non-Calvinists agree on so much more than we ever realized we ever agreed on. When I would sit down with an Al Mohler or a Mark Dever, it was amazing to find that we had so much more in common than we might have thought. “Well, I agree with that,” he would say. “Well, I agree with that.” Well, there are just some areas where we said we are not going to agree on this—and that’s okay. We said we are going to respect each other, so we began to develop some strategies of how to work together. Part of it is mutual respect—to quit categorizing people too quickly, to start talking to people. We have found in talking to various people that sometime the labels we put upon them were inappropriate. They were inaccurate because when you say you are a Calvinist, what does that mean? That runs the gamut from a 1.5 Calvinist like me, to other people who are called a Calvinist when they are truly not very good Calvinists. Then there are non-Calvinists who are probably more Calvinistic than you ever realized. So the labels, we began to realize, have been inaccurately used and inappropriately used. Let’s start talking to each other and say, “Now, what do you believe about this?”

Dr. AllenYou know, that is a very good point. I have actually been working on an article about theological labels. I will tell you this was something that I came to realize incrementally over the years, but in a very clear way about a year and a half ago. I was about to preach in a church, just a moment before the service was beginning. The organ was playing; the choir was seated; and the service was about to start. I was a guest preacher. An elderly gentleman came up to me and said, “Dr. Allen, we are so glad to have you here. By the way, before you preach today I have one question. Are you a Calvinist?” He did not say it with a mean spirit. He just said it. I just kind of chuckled, and I said, “Sir, I have to be honest. I have no idea what you mean by that.” He laughed back and said, “To be honest, I do not know what I mean by it either.” I just said, “Sir, I will talk about it as much as you want after the service. For now, let me just say I believe in preaching the gospel to all people and that anyone who responds will be saved.” He said, “That is all I wanted to hear.” I was not saying that to minimize or to mitigate or trivialize what are broad and deep issues, but the reality is that is what he wanted to hear. There was a saying during the controversy. Jerry Vines said, “The moderates use our vocabulary, but not our dictionary.” One of the things I have found again and again is that everyone on this issue seems to be using their own vocabulary, but everyone has their own dictionary. I have people that I think are deeply Calvinistic who disavow Calvinism, and other people whom I didn’t think were Calvinistic, but who affirm that title. One of the things I have been wrestling with is how we use more biblical terms in the first place. Coming to that conversation with an attitude of “love hopes the best, believes the best, expects the best of one another,” and then dealing with these issues with truth and integrity. People ask me about my leadership here, and what I intend to do. I say, “Look, I hope to eclipse the conversation. I hope to eclipse that debate. I do not want to get gummed up in fratricide denominationally. I hope to eclipse that conversation—that debate—as best we can.” As you led that conversation, were there any surprising aspects that brought you incredible joy? Or any parts of that where you said there is a lingering concern here for our denomination?

Dr. Page: Yes, that is a great point. I will never forget when it began I lost a friend over it. I had a friend in a church who was what I would consider an anti-Calvinist after I really began to hear from him. He was so angry at me that I would talk to these people and sit down with them. He thought they needed to be removed from the convention. One of the great things…as we finally finished it, I got another letter from him apologizing. He said, “You know something, Frank, as I have watched what is going on, I have realized that we need each other. The world is killing us, and we need Calvinists and we need non-Calvinists.” So, I regained a friend, and I thank God. He watched what was going on, and he saw people trying to work together, and that was very exciting. I also have to tell you, Dr. Allen, I got to know people that I had not known before. I am going to tell you, that was a great blessing to me—to meet people and to develop relationships with people. I don’t mind using some names. Tom Ascol, just a pure gentleman. Mark Dever said, “Would you come and preach at my church?” I said, “All you have to do is ask.” He will, and I will preach there with great delight. So, part of it was, again, stopping talking about or at, and start talking to people. All of the sudden, you find out that there is a reason for this fellowship.

Dr. AllenYes, and you touched on another thing that I feel just a profound urgency about. That is what I would call the “godly man factor.” I think about it in terms of our chapel here. There are certain people who many not preach expositionally as I would desire. There are certain people that may not land on a topic or two that I would desire, but their life exudes godliness. I know when I have them on campus they are not going to preach a model sermon, perhaps. It is not going to be the most powerful sermon, but there is a godliness to their life that I want my students exposed to. Again, not to sound just like a denominational employee here, but the fact of the matter is, the more I am in our denomination serving with people and getting to know people in leadership, the more I am genuinely impressed by people who exude godliness. That is a very encouraging sign.

Dr. Page: It is to me, and that encouraged me on that council. I have to agree with you that we serve with some great men and great women.

Dr. AllenPlay the sage for the moment. Most people who will be listening to this or reading this will probably be younger. Play the sage and give a word of encouragement going forward about them and the denomination, and about why they should be involved in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Dr. Page: Here is what I say to people, particularly of a younger demographic, Dr. Allen. Do not give up, but do not accept blindly denominational words or verbiage. Evaluate, study, check it out. For example, the Cooperative Program, check it out. If you look at it—you study it thoroughly—and if you do not like it, do not support it. But I challenge you to study it. Do not just listen to people say, “Well, it is antiquated.” Study it. Ponder it. Look at it. Look at it from a scriptural viewpoint as well as from an efficiency standpoint, and then make your decision. So, do not give up on working in our churches; do not give up on the traditional church. Many people have. Listen to the Spirit of God, watch for the call of God in your life. There is not enough discussion about that these days. Let God lead you, but keep your mind open. Do not just accept any one paradigm that is out there, whether it is old or new. Evaluate, look at it, pray though it, and make your decision. I believe you will come to the right one. I am going to tell you right now while we, for example, talk about the Cooperative Program. We encourage people to give to missions through the Cooperative Program, but we celebrate all missions giving. You know, if designated money comes to Midwestern Seminary, we say, “Praise the Lord!”

Dr. AllenIndeed we do.

Dr. Page: That is right, and if it does come through the Cooperative Program, fine. If it does not, praise the Lord!

Dr. AllenThank you for your time and for this conversation. It has been encouraging to me, and I trust it will be encouraging to those who listen to and read it. Thank you so much.

Dr. Page: Thank you so much.

*Recorded in the Spurgeon Room on August 16, 2013

topicsSpurgeon Room Conversations

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