A letter by the former president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), claiming his ouster was employing a strategy to keep him “in psychological terror,” was leaked to a liberal news organization, but was withheld from ERLC trustees for more than a year by the board chairman.
In addition, the leaked letter was withheld by ERLC Trustee Chairman David Prince from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Executive Committee’s ERLC Study Task Force. The letter, written by former ERLC President Russell Moore, mailed Feb. 24, 2020, to Prince, was leaked by an unidentified ERLC trustee to the theologically liberal Religious News Service on May 29. The letter has fueled a raging controversy over Moore’s leadership, subsequent departure and how SBC trustee boards operate.
A week before Moore sent his letter to Prince, the SBC Executive Committee voted to form a task force to investigate how recent ministry statements made by Moore had impacted church giving to the SBC. Prince and some ERLC trustees strongly opposed the task force and ordered the ERLC staff not to cooperate.
Moore claimed to be a victim and accused the SBC of harboring racists and sexual abusers – accusations that were accompanied only by anecdotal proof and were vigorously denied by leaders.
When I asked if SBC Executive Committee Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Ronnie Floyd knew about the letter before it was leaked, I was referred by Jon Wilke, media relations director for the SBC Executive Committee, to the public relations office at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where Prince teaches. Prince did not respond by press time.
The withholding of such information by a handful of trustees from the entire trustee board raises questions about how SBC trustee boards work when controversial issues arise. Trustees deserve some measure of privacy and the freedom to speak forthrightly and engage in spirited debate over issues. But when millions of dollars are given by Southern Baptists, transparency, in the end, is required, and Southern Baptists have every right to expect that all elected trustees will have full access to all information pertaining to an issue.
This is “the rub” on the leaked Moore letter. Most of the ERLC trustees did not see the letter until it was leaked. Had they had access, they may have been able to avoid the simmering controversy. For example, in the letter Moore alleges the EC’s ERLC Study Task Force was created to keep him “in psychological terror.” Some ERLC trustees, who did not see the letter until it was leaked, said they may have been able to help Moore with the “psychological terror” issue had they known.
“I am saddened by Dr. Moore’s departure, because it seemed preventable with earlier trustee attention,” said Jonathan Whitehead, an ERLC at-large trustee and member of Abundant Life Baptist Church in Lee’s Summit. “At our last annual meeting, I asked other ERLC trustees if they had any sense that Dr. Moore was becoming dangerously isolated from his colleagues and constituents. This was dismissed as conjecture. I made a motion to get help in assessing the ERLC’s morale and performance. I was accused of violating Matthew 18.”
Just days before Whitehead made his comments, The Washington Post reported that, as Moore departed, he was isolated from SBC leaders and disconnected from many Southern Baptists.
“Well-intentioned trustees can love their heroes out of shared ministry and into shared memory,” Whitehead said. “Baptists have put too many fine young theologians into this system, only to see them leave frustrated, exhausted and hurt. We must act differently if we want to see different results.”
One danger Southern Baptists face with such a trustee system is when one group forms a “clique” and seizes control. Then their priority becomes “protecting” the organization’s leader. There cannot be two boards – only one. Communication must be open to all members. This appears to have not been the case with the ERLC board, and there are fears that it is happening with other boards within the SBC.
There is a time to cheerlead and there is a time to just lead. Southern Baptists need to thoughtfully and prayerfully look at their trustee system. Perhaps some type of checks and balances system is in order along with a humble acknowledgement that we are all fallen sinners and that there is wisdom in the counsel of many.