Navigation Menu

Editor’s Journal: NAMB: A new era begins?

With the recent election of Kevin Ezell as president of the North America Mission Board (NAMB), a new era of change is certain to come for an agency of the Southern Baptist Convention that has seldom known calm waters. Since its formation at the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845, the Home Mission Board (as it was once known) has stumbled its way through history never quite knowing its place among the myriad (and ever-growing) SBC structures of ministry.

Initially, the Home Mission Board provided ministers in areas where gospel preaching was non-existent. The Board’s vision was to plant healthy congregations so that North America would rise in gospel strength on the solid foundation of healthy churches. Most domestic mission activity was centered in major metropolitan areas of the United States by other denominations, but America’s South soon became a harbinger for Baptists who found strength and momentum through cooperation among local churches. The establishment of state conventions prior to the formal establishment of the SBC immediately proved problematic for the HMB.

The division of labor among Baptist associations, state conventions and this new national agency charged with similar (if not identical) responsibilities as other Baptist cooperative elements brought tension. At times, the strain reached such a level that Southern Baptists across the nation demanded that the areas of overlap be eliminated between the HMB, state conventions and associations.

In 1882, a vigorous debate commenced regarding the issue of the HMB’s very survival. Many pastors found it confusing (and downright irritating) when representatives from associations, state conventions and now another Baptist missions agency, continuously came to them requesting the same level of participation and monetary support around what many saw as identical goals. In 1910, a proposal was actually made that the SBC’s Foreign Mission Board and Home Mission Board be merged so as to minimize confusion and limit direct fundraising appeals.

Even after the establishment of the Cooperative Program in 1925 (a funding mechanism specifically designed to limit the amount of direct solicitation in local churches), the HMB still did not fare well. Over the years, the agency became a large repository of denominational programs. Oklahoma’s William G. Tanner served as president from 1977-1986,  and often expressed frustration at the lack of a “coherent” vision for the Board. Under his leadership, the HMB almost doubled the size of its staff, restructured is organization and greatly multiplied its national programs.

By the late 1970s the HMB’s responsibility included church extension, language missions, missions education, mass evangelism, Christian social ministries, minority church relations, the SBC’s Mission Service Corps, rural-urban missions, chaplaincy missions, metropolitan area research and focus cities, church loans, interfaith witness, apologetics, refugee resettlement assistance, an urban training cooperative (UTC) and Assistance for Churches in Transitional Communities (PACT).

Following the passage of the Covenant for a New Century by Convention messengers in 1997, the North American Mission Board was born, restructured yet again and streamlined to become focused on church planting, evangelism, coordinating one of the largest civilian disaster relief agencies in the world and the former radio and television ministry of the wider SBC. Two stormy presidencies has left the agency floundering once again as to its ultimate role in service to local SBC churches.

At issue currently is how this national agency will interface with state conventions given the fact that cooperative agreements (written contracts between state conventions and NAMB for ministry cooperatively executed) will be phased out over the next seven years. NAMB will soon operate as a free-standing agency without direct ministry partnership with state conventions. Of course, NAMB may seek to partner with state conventions, but only as it sees fit to do so.

This has caused no small amount of angst among many who fear such an arrangement spells the end of the Cooperative Program and smaller state conventions in pioneer areas of the United States. This is fueled in large part because of the extraordinary familiarity with the current system of ministry operations. Legitimate skepticism exists for any future model—especially any new plan that even hints of a renewed competition between SBC agencies and state conventions.

Complicating the issue is the entire economic culture in which the SBC ministry structure exists. In the words of economist Joseph Schumpeter, a certain “creative destruction” is now surfacing in every economic sector in America—religious non-profits included. Long standing American institutions such as Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns can literally disappear overnight. Internet based companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter can appear out of nowhere and supplant even the strongest institutions and corporations. In like manner, local churches are now able to create for themselves a network of ministry partners and raise monetary support without the once critical requirement of denominational services.

The great dilemma for the SBC following the passage of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force’s recommendations is how this will be accomplished in an era of resource reallocation by local churches. The existing model of cooperative giving need not be abandoned. Yet, NAMB must work to instill a new creative passion that will recreate the agency in ways that respond to the needs of local churches and push money and authority back to them without requiring ultimate decisions be made at the top of a corporate-like structure.

Traditional bureaus of ministry service and maintenance might give way to something like temporary project teams that come together to solve particular problems or develop a new strategy and immediately disband. NAMB could become less programmatic and more resourceful given the economic realities and giving patterns of local churches. Innovation and adaptability are the new requirements for any agency—religious or otherwise —for survival.

Words of warning come from Timothy Tennent in his new magisterial work, Invitation to Christian Missions:  A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-First Century. Tennent asserts that Christendom has collapsed—even in North America. For Southern Baptists, this means that a prevailing “Southern” or “Christian” culture where the Bible and the Church was once highly esteemed no longer exists. With this collapse he believes “the structures built on its paradigms are no longer viable.” He believes that missological study and strategy must be quickly reunited with the realities on the mission field of North America where Christianity is no longer the dominant worldview. Tennet’s stinging observation and remedy: “We don’t know how to think about missions without ourselves being at the center (including sending structures, personnel, money and strategic planning).”

The great comfort and assurance for all involved during this era of unprecedented change for the SBC is that ultimately, the Church of Jesus Christ will move forward by the power of the One who said that He would build His church and the gates of Hell would not be able to prevail against her.

In the words of John Bunyan, “the holy war” which the Church fights is both initiated and finished by Jesus Christ—the victor against the power of the Evil One. The abiding challenge for Southern Baptists—can consensus be achieved for a new vision at NAMB?  The answer to that question will shape the direction of the agency and set the course for either a NAMB renewal or a NAMB funeral.

Author: Douglas Baker

View more articles by Douglas Baker.

Share This Post On
  • Doug:

    You have framed the situation relative to the NAMB in a few paragraphs better than anyone else.

    I think that you have let out the 1000 pound gorilla into the room. Namely, in this day and age do we need four layers of management [local churches, associations, state conventions, NAMB] to operate ministries in the USA. I don’t know this answer. But, in any case, I don’t think our current trajectory is sustainable.

    How about setting up a podcast with Dr. Ezell to get his views of where the NAMB is going?

    • Douglas Baker


      Thanks for your note. We do hope to interview Dr. Ezell at some point in the future.


  • Doug:

    I’m adding your column to my “NAMB History” file at the office! You’ve succinctly laid out many of the past and current challenges. To be sure, NAMB will be changing as we move forward. But one thing that won’t change will be our desire to work with fellow Southern Baptists in every corner of denominational life. With the challenges and complexities of lostness in the 21st Century, partnership is going to be more important than ever. Thanks for what you are doing to point people toward Him.

    • Douglas Baker


      Great to hear from you. Thanks for your note. May the Lord bless your work during these critical days.


  • Charles Womack, Pastor of FBC Bethany

    I am visiting my mother in law in Arkansas and am reading about some of the issues surrounding Ezell’s election to be the NAMB president that are mentioned in the Arkansas Baptist News. I was surprised to find out that the criticism of from David Hankins, Executive Director of the Louisana Baptist Convention, in regards to Ezell’s leadership of his church to contribute to the CP and the NAMB Annie Armstrong’s offering. I not into blogging or surfing news pages to find the news. I look to the Baptist Messenger to help me know what is going on. I found the information in ABN more informatiive and helpful. When will the Baptist Messenger start informing us about the issues and the events happening in our Southern Baptist Convention. If the Baptist Messenger has then I will stant corrected and aplologize. However, I cannot recall where the Baptist Messenger is helping me be informed about what is happening in our convention. I am hoping for better coverage of the news that I want and I believe my people want. I would appreciate your reply.

    • Douglas Baker

      Dr. Womack –

      Thank you for your comment. We published the announcement of Dr. Ezell’s election as President of NAMB. Both Dr. Hankins and Dr. Turner publicly commented prior to his election directly to the Board of Trustees of NAMB through a public letter. Information about Dr. Ezell’s biography and giving records were published by The Baptist Messenger as we ran the press releases both on-line and in the print edition of his nomination and election.

      With the public comments of Dr. Hankins and Dr. Turner, their newspapers were, of course, reporting significant occurrences in the life of their state conventions. We work to dominantly report the ministry outreach of Oklahoma Baptist congregations and ministry outreaches of the BGCO. We also constantly work to balance coverage here in the state with that of the national agencies/institutions of the Southern Baptist Convention.

      I am sorry that you felt we failed here. We constantly strive to improve our work, and your comment is a reminder that we certainly must remain diligent in our obligation to Oklahoma Baptist congregations.


      • Charles Womack


        Thank you for the response. Please feel free to call me Charles or Charlie. The “Dr.” is ok, but not necessary.

        In regards to the focus of The Baptist Messenger being . . . “to dominsntly report the ministry outreach of Oklahoma Baptist congregations and ministry outreaches of the BGCO.” and . . . “to balance coverage here in the state with the national agencies/institutions of the SBC.” I feel we are more focused on a one sided interest in the state, while neglecting the national SBC events that inform our people, especially the tradtional folk who support our CP empahsis and the offerings of our two mission boards. Oklahoma Baptist have an interest and ‘need to know’ what is going on in the SBC and its agencies. Many of my people depend on the Baptist Messenger to keep them informed about the SBC as well as the BGCO. The Baptist Messenger is our news source.

        I respect your editorial emphasis and responsliblity as the Executive Editor of The Baptist Messenger. However, I feel that we need the kind of information that can help us know what is going on with the SBC and its agencies.

        Charlie Womack

Read previous post:
“How I Almost Quit” by John Piper

The following is a brief introduction by John Piper to a very honest journal entry. As a pastor I appreciate...