The trustees of the North American Mission Board took an unprecedented step March 19 when they unanimously elected Geoff Hammond to be NAMB’s new president. What makes his election interesting to Virginia Baptists is that he comes to the position from the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia, where he was the associate executive director.
According to information on its Web site, the SBCV came into existence in 1996 because the Baptist General Association of Virginia was unresponsive to attempts to move it to a more conservative position.
If the BGAV was so theologically contaminated as to require the formation of a new state organization, and Geoff Hammond was the No. 2 person in that organization, what must be his attitude toward the BGAV?
The question is more than academic, because the BGAV has had a working relationship with NAMB (and its predecessor the Home Mission Board) for decades. Although the BGAV sent on nearly $7 million to SBC causes, it received last year $333,558 from NAMB for mutual kingdom purposes.
By comparison, the SBCV, which gives $4.1 million, receives $650,000. Historically, NAMB has provided money for strategic ministries in which both it and the state can partner. In addition, NAMB has provided salary and health care supplements for state convention personnel it appoints as NAMB missionaries serving within the state. To be appointed, a missionary has to affirm the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.
After news broke that Hammond was being recommended, I called his office and left a message requesting an interview. His secretary returned my call saying that he was not granting interviews before he was elected but that after his election he would be available. Since his election, however, we have been unable to get together because NAMB’s public relations director, Mike Ebert, says he is unavailable for interviews. Only one interview has been granted–that being a conference call for state paper editors.
Unfortunately, I was away leading a revival during the time set for the call. Ebert now tells me I missed my chance. Despite my protests that the BGAV needed some answers from Hammond himself, Ebert contended that two other states also have two state organizations. At length, however, he did agree that the situation with the BGAV is unique, and he understood that we have some questions that really don’t pertain to other states.
He maintained that since Hammond is working from offices in Richmond and Alpharetta, Ga., he would be hard to catch. I replied that I am sure this is true, but my office is not more than a few miles from his Richmond office, and I could be there within 10 minutes.
Ebert said that it is his time that is the problem. He is just too busy to talk with me. I am not at all suggesting that he is not busy; I’m sure he is. Nor do I even hint that his schedule is not hectic as he attempts to end one ministry and simultaneously begin another. But to say to the BGAV, “I am too busy to listen to your concerns,” does not bode well for either of us. Ebert has offered to pass on to Hammond email questions I submit, however.
One of the other editors, during the phone interview, asked him, “Based on your role with the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia convention, what is your thinking about openness when dealing with all Southern Baptists and across the political and philosophical spectrum? Is that your goal?”
He responded: “The answer is an absolute yes! NAMB partners with all state conventions and I remind folks that my experience with Southern Baptists is from birth, in churches, on staffs and representing all Baptists as both a NAMB and IMB missionary. I look forward to doing that as I have the privilege of leading NAMB.”
I appreciate his reassurance, and I have no reason to believe he is not a man of his word. But his words are partly what troubles me. At another point in the interview, Hammond remarked: “The Baptist Faith and Message of 2000 holds us together. A church must feel it’s a part of the greater whole. There are a lot of folks who may look and be different, and express themselves differently in church life, but we’re all Southern Baptists.”
What about those Southern Baptists who would violate their sense of God’s leading and their sense of theological truth were they to embrace the Baptist Faith and Message 2000? Since many Virginia Baptists are of the BF&M 1963 variety, where does that leave them?
It is curious to me that one of the top leaders of a state organization that came into being because its founders considered the old one so flawed theologically that they had to separate themselves from it now feels that he can “absolutely” work with it. Apparently, we aren’t that bad after all!
Granted, Hammond was not a part of the first wave of SBCV leadership, so perhaps he doesn’t fully buy into our “flawed theology” rhetoric. I suspect, however, that he does.
But the nagging question remains. If, in their minds, the BGAV was so theologically misguided that the SBCV folks couldn’t even work with us, how can Hammond have no trouble working with us now?
A cynic might point to the fact that the BGAV gives nearly $7 million each year to the SBC as a big reason for his new attitude toward the BGAV.
But I am not willing to make that assumption. He would not be the first leader to adjust his thinking when faced with new realities. Things look different from the top chair at NAMB than from the second chair in the SBCV. At least I hope they do.
It may be that Hammond is magnanimous enough to actually set his own theological precepts aside to work with a group he believes is in error at some points to achieve together our great mutual kingdom calling. Until he gives evidence otherwise, I choose to believe this about him. I suspect I would even like him if I ever get to meet him. After all, in this respect he would be no different than those great Baptist forebears who came to realize their differences were keeping them from being faithful and obedient in doing kingdom work.
Who knows? If Baptists can focus on our mission, respect our differences and allow the Holy Spirit to direct our efforts, God may still use us in reaching our world with the message of Christ. But any group unwilling to do these things will become increasingly marginalized, petty and irrelevant.
I pray, for the sake of Christ’s kingdom and four-and-a-half million lost Virginians, that Hammond can and will “absolutely yes!” work with us.
I hope that the Great Commission is compelling enough to cause us to enthusiastically embrace a common mission even if we all cannot support the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. And I trust that one of these days I can report on a conversation the two of us have had about these things.
Pray for those in positions of authority.