HOUSTON – They’re perhaps the most appreciated words at the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Annual Meeting: “I recommend we advance the agenda 20 minutes.”
The bearer of that good news has been a Missouri Baptist: Andy Chambers, a member of West County Community Church. His day job is senior vice president for senior development and professor of Bible for Missouri Baptist University, but he has served each summer as the chairman of the SBC Committee on Order of Business working behind the scenes to ensure Southern Baptist can accomplish their tasks.
The committee – along with the elected officers of the convention – plan nine months for the two-day annual meetings of thousands of messengers. Their second task is simply keeping the business sessions on track.
“Everything from making sure the speakers and leadership are at the right place at the right time to managing the clock. Probably our most important task is the disposition of motions.”
Any motion from the floor goes through Chambers and the other five members of the committee.
“We work every breakfast, lunch and dinner of that week discussing the motions made and trying to figure out the most appropriate way to handle them; whether they should be referred to an agency or discussed and voted on the convention floor,” he said.
Chambers said the SBC bylaws and constitution provide a clear path most of the time, but occasionally committee members will have to make a judgment call, something that is sure to rub at least a few of the thousands of messengers gathered the wrong way.
“Our goal is just to help Baptists deliberate in a fair, edifying and unifying way,” he said. “If you don’t hear or see us, we’ve done our job well. There’s a lot of stuff in play and we don’t get it right every time, but that’s the goal. You’ve got to keep that in mind while you watch the time.”
Even a seemingly no-brainer task such as advancing the agenda a few minutes when reports or business finish early requires some forethought and wisdom. Advance it too far, and messengers may miss certain business and it could cause reports or business items to be split across two sessions. It can even be a matter of setting tone.
“I was talking to [Vice President, Convention Communications and Relations at SBC Executive Committee] Sing Oldham all through the discussion of the Boy Scouts resolution (see story, pages 1 and 18). We wanted the International Mission Board (IMB) report to be the highlight of the morning, not resolutions. We decided that if we could get through that resolution, we could take a breather, celebrate the IMB work and come back to finish the rest later. I think I might have set a record for advancing the schedule this year,” he said. “But in the end, we were right on time so it all worked out in the end.”
A secondary goal is to take pressure off the SBC President – in this case, Fred Luter, pastor, Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, New Orleans – so he can focus on presiding over the meeting.
“If he turns around with a question, we’re there with an answer or a solution,” Chambers said. “We try to anticipate any problems and solve them for him before they’re there.”
Chambers said working with Luter has been one of the biggest blessings of the (volunteer) job.
“To work with our first African-American president and to listen, talk and pray with our committee to get behind his leadership was a privilege.”
Chambers is one of three stage personalities at the SBC meeting in recent years (the other two are Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) Executive Director John Yeats who serves as the SBC recording secretary and the MBC’s team leader for strategic partnerships, Jim Wells, who serves as the SBC registration secretary). He said getting up to speak under the bright lights in front of a crowd up to four times larger than the largest congregation in Missouri can be intimidating.
“It is intimidating until you get through the first 30 or 40 minutes,” Wells said. “Then you just focus on what’s happening and you don’t worry about it.”
Chambers has served on the committee three years and rotated off when the closing gavel fell last week in Houston. Before he was appointed to that committee, he served the same function for the MBC’s annual meeting for three years. After six years, he’s going back to being “just” an ordinary messenger.
“It’s a ton of work and I’m tired, but I’m extremely humbled,” he said. “I’ve come to respect the people that work full-time in Nashville, and the Southern Baptist process. I’ll miss the great seat, but I’m happy to go back to being a messenger.”