Organization Case Study: Southern Baptists put focus on unified messaging

Through its executive committee and Baptist Press office, the Southern Baptist Convention works to establish a uniform stance in the secular media and its own news coverage.

Through its executive committee and Baptist Press office, the Southern Baptist Convention works to establish a uniform stance in the secular media and its own news coverage.

Religion has been an American bedrock ever since the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, fleeing England in search of a home where they could practice their own religion freely and without persecution. Part of the glory of the American experiment is its kaleidoscopic array of faiths and the strict separation between church and state. Then again, the faith most representative of this colorful land is not necessarily the staid Roman Catholics, the glad-handing Episcopalians, or the hippie-fied Unitarians. When we seek a denomination that embodies the red-blooded, patriotic, and somewhat in-your-face ethic of the Christian US, there's no need to look any farther than the Southern Baptists. The majority of Baptists in this country belong to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), an organization that claims a staggering 16.3 million members drawn from more than 42,000 churches in nearly every state. The SBC is now 160 years old, and it is only getting stronger. One key to the SBC's success and longevity is its loose, democratic structure. Rather than having power flow down to the masses from a leader at the top, Southern Baptists gather in ever-larger groups to set the agenda for the appointed administrators. Individual churches form 1,200 county-level local associations, which give way to 42 state organizations, and they all come together in a yearly meeting to praise God, network, and decide what's going to happen in the year to come. Convention communications The Southern Baptist Convention's strongest element is just that - a convention. The SBC is essentially a network of autonomous Baptist churches that all get to send a number of "messengers" to the convention. That number is based on how much money the church donates to the group, but the figure is so outdated that the vast majority of churches are eligible to send the maximum of 10. "Of course, if they should do so," notes the organization's literature, "there would not be room in the convention center for them all." The thousands of messengers get plenty of work done at the convention, electing a president, an executive committee, and the members of a dizzying array of boards. The SBC has 12 agencies, which oversee everything from mission work to seminaries to ethics. Each board has its own communications office, but the most prominent is the executive committee, which implements the group's agenda and serves as the public face of the SBC throughout the year. And besides funding and financing church programs, its biggest responsibilities are communicating with its membership and the public at large. It fulfills that mandate through its Baptist Press division, which has a publishing arm and an imprint, as well as a news service and a "convention relations" office that handles both internal and external communications. "We don't call it 'communications,'" says John Revell, associate of convention relations. "The Baptist Press and convention relations would make up much of what some corporations would refer to as a communication division." The four-person convention relations staff has a wide range of responsibilities - media relations, fielding inquiries from people interested in becoming Southern Baptists, and distributing information to churches. The SBC often takes official stands or passes resolutions during a convention on hot-button issues like home schooling, abortion, and gay marriage, which account for much of the secular media's interest in the group. "When media contact us and we address them, it would relate to official action or statements that the Southern Baptist Convention has taken or made," says Revell. One challenge facing the convention relations team is the fact that the slate of issues they give voice to are subject to yearly changes based on the whims of the denomination's members. Revell emphasizes that the executive committee does not determine what positions will be adopted. Still, there is a common thread. "There is an ongoing concern of proclaiming the Gospel and addressing the issues related to the great commission, and advancing the kingdom of God," he says. Since 1946, the SBC's Baptist Press has been doing the proclaiming, functioning as a self-contained media outlet for the faithful. Its newswire service serves 41 state Baptist papers, various evangelical publications, and a few secular papers. It consists of a central news bureau and a publishing house based in Nashville, as well as bureaus in Virginia, Georgia, and Washington, DC. "We cover the same news that the Associated Press would cover," says Will Hall, the Baptist Press' VP of news services, "but we cover it from a Christian perspective that is largely missing in most media outlets." That coverage includes sending reporters to war zones abroad. The Baptist Press was embedded on an aircraft carrier through the Department of Defense and stationed a team in Baghdad using local connections. "We are focused primarily on national issues and international issues," Hall says. "But, of course, many state issues are of significance that they appeal to a larger audience than just the region." Recent Baptist Press stories explored the efforts to "scrub Christ from Christmas" and its objection to NBC's Today providing a platform for gay fashion maven Steven Cojocaru. "There's a huge seeker market in America - consumers who are making choices and looking for a message of faith and family values," says Hall. He cites research that found more than 80% of American reporters don't have a "practicing faith" and characterizes the Baptist Press as one of many services that are stepping up to fill that gap in religious coverage. "It's a cultural divide," he says. "It is very difficult for them to understand how [a personal relationship with Jesus Christ] is a motivating force in the daily lives of believers." Christian opposition The SBC's agenda, though, isn't endorsed by all of the US's religious folk, or even all of its Southern Baptists. The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy is the president of the Interfaith Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting cooperation between different religions and faiths. Gaddy, raised as a Southern Baptist, served on the SBC's executive committee from 1980 to 1984. But he left the group shortly after, horrified at what he says was a well-executed 10-year plan by fundamentalists to take over the SBC and its leadership. That plan, based on "manipulating religious language" and "mobilizing well-meaning religious people," succeeded, Gaddy says, undermining the historic trust of the membership in its leaders and causing the SBC to take a sharp rightward turn. Since that time, Gaddy says, the SBC has actively worked to break down the barrier between church and state, as well as to raise its own national profile. "There has been a studied attempt to be much more visible in media," he says. "Two of the earliest terminations of leadership [by the fundamentalist faction] were the head of Baptist Press and one of the major editors. So they do have that press secure." As great as Gaddy's distaste is for the SBC's agenda, he says that its strategy has paid off in terms of membership, which has increased nearly 60% in the past 44 years, according to the SBC. "The growth can be seen in an aggressive evangelism, in which the message is, 'We are right and everybody else, basically, is wrong,'" Gaddy says. "They have pictured themselves as the alternative to a secular society in which people have no morals and don't believe in God. You set that in the context of a nation in which the population is pervasively afraid. And you offer to people dealing with fear the possibility for absolute security. And that is a very appealing message." Revell disputes Gaddy's characterization of the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC, calling it "a gradual shift back to the [SBC]'s conservative theological roots" rather than a coup engineered by a minority faction. In an e-mail reply, Revell adds, "Most Southern Baptist churches I know are not so concerned with rigid indoctrination as they are with helping Christians grow in their loving relationship with God." ------- PR contacts Associate of convention relations John Revell VP of news services Will Hall

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