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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The Future of SBL - Dialogue with Members

Thanks to the colleagues who have shared their thoughts on the future of the SBL. I started an open discussion on the future of the SBL several years ago at the Annual Meeting. These contributions from the January Forum continue that conversation. I cannot respond to all the excellent suggestions. However, do not be surprised to see one committee or another "steal" some of the ideas. Thanks.

When I moved to Atlanta in 1994, we held, so far as I know, the first SBL strategic planning session with 15 leaders. Council has continued this strategic thinking. Those conversations have focused specifically on governance issues, improving our publications, expanding our reach beyond North America, creating new partnerships, and advancing the synergy between learned society and professional organization objectives.

After 1994 and over the next five years (through 2000), a variety of results came out of those discussions, including the governance structure revision approved in 2004. One could say that change was inevitable and fortunately the change was fairly gradual. Said another way, no dramatic shifts seemed to disrupt those five years.

However, three "external" factors seemed to have come together by 2003 that are producing change: 1) the internationalization of our organization and the recognition that scholarship surrounding the Bible is global; 2) the American Academy of Religion's decision to hold its annual meeting separately; and 3) the increased frequency of finding the Bible and religion in cover stories of our magazines and newspapers.

These factors suggest to me that more significant change had occurred than was noticed by any of us. I think more factors were imbedded in changes since our 100th year in 1980. This is not the place for an in-depth analysis. I will save that for later and use these three categories to respond: internationalization, AAR decision, and the Bible in the public arena.


The comments of Gerald West, Ehud Ben Zvi, and Joel Green certainly have key elements that relate to the international dimension of our work as scholars and as an organization.

Gerald West takes the general question about advancing biblical scholarship and answers the specific question about advancing biblical scholarship in all of Africa. His eight clear and direct answers will become more than "catalysts for creative thinking," as West suggests: they will become concrete suggestions to which SBL will develop concrete responses.

SBL has aggressively moved forward on the international front. Starting the International Meeting (IM) in 1983 has given us a framework to connect to scholars outside North America unlike any organization in the academic study of the Bible or for that matter any religious or theological association. Despite the IM, groups of people still think of us as a North American organization. The fact of the matter is that the percentage of our international members continues to increase, now we are at about 23%, and the number of those members in leadership positions stands at 19%.

It is correct that our strongest efforts have been in the European arena. Our IM this year will for the first time be held in Asia. We will hold a follow-up meeting in Perth with two organizations that invited us to hold sessions; hence a return to a continent where we held a very successful meeting with nine other organizations in 1992. The opening session of that meeting keynoted two Aboriginal scholars, Anne Pattel-Gray and Graham Paulson, who led a moving lecture and illustration with Aboriginal art and a live performance on Aboriginal spirituality and religion. We anticipate coordinating meetings in Australia/New Zealand each of the next several years, culminating in the major IM in New Zealand in 2008. Discussions are also underway to follow up the Singapore meeting with an annual meeting in Asia. For Africa we need to follow this approach in concert with organizations such as the Nigerian Association of Biblical Studies and the colleagues who partnered with us for the Cape Town, South Africa, meeting in 2000.

Another phase of the internationalization issue is related to publications. No one doubts that we need to make our books more "affordable to scholars and students in less affluent countries." We have begun conversations with publishers outside North America to see if there are ways that we might cooperate with them. Cooperation needs to be a two-way street: that is, we need to get them our current titles at prices they can afford and we also need to assist them in getting their publications to those outside their immediate confines. We need to think both "export and import."

Our publications are getting to a few libraries in Eastern Europe and Russia through a program started by SNTS. We have made new connections and have left books for the institutions that have hosted us at every one of our IMs. We have drawn new publishing partners from the countries that have hosted an IM. Equally important, we have drawn new colleagues to deliver papers and potentially to become authors. Our South African meeting was one of the first, if not the first, to have black African scholars on a program in biblical studies. We published a work that was influenced in part by that meeting (Reading the Bible in the Global Village, 2002).

The goal of our publications program is important to keep in mind as we think more fully about these international dimensions of publications. It is most constructive to think about a) what types of books we publish and b) for whom we publish. We publish works with a particular content (scholarly) for several specific markets (specialists, students, religious leaders, and general public). These two factors are important as we develop our strategies to meet the needs of our international colleagues.

One of the areas designated by Council for the use of our 125th Anniversary Campaign funds is innovative publications, print and digital. I have been reminded of a comment by the director of a strong university press nearly fifty years ago, who said that they exist "to publish as many good scholarly books as possible short of bankruptcy." When we take into account that our membership dues cover less than 30% of our entire operating budget, we quickly realize that we will not find funds from dues revenue to subsidize our publishing program. We can have a publishing program that is responsive to our growing international ambitions, but we also need to develop a business plan that realistically deals with these new needs.

To be added to the internationalization category, and referred to only briefly in the Forum articles, is the creation of a new generation of scholars. I could argue that our most important job nationally and internationally is to create a new generation of scholars. I think we have focused on this periodically, but not systematically. We have never had a strategic plan, despite the fact that one of the most consistent positive comments we get each year at the IM is the obvious encouragement we give students.

Council at the 2004 AM set up an initial set of steps to focus on students. In fact, this initiative was partially in response to a thoughtful suggestion from a group of students. We know that our IM has introduced a series of new students to SBL. Each year we have six to twelve students assisting us at the IM. We have student interns working in our office. Students from around the world are beginning to recognize that SBL is one of the few places where they can give a paper. I think we are headed in the right direction, and I appreciate the fact that some of the responses want us to increase our activities for students.

AAR Decision

The comments of Adele Reinhartz and Timothy H. Lim certainly have key elements that relate to the AAR decision.

Adele Reinhartz grouped the seven strategic visions into three categories: encouraging the study of biblical literature; organizing congresses for scholarly exchange, mutual support, and networking in an open context; and developing resources. I imagine that many members feel, just as Adele does, that the Annual Meeting (AM) is the central activity that comes to mind when we think of congresses.

We have developed an even more effective way of responding to the AAR decision to hold an independent meeting. From the moment we were notified of the decision, we decided to use our existing structures to develop new strategies to respond to this external factor (the decision of AAR). Within this new and changed situation, we began to measure the adequacy of our AM, and congresses in general, making use of SBL's decision-making committees.

Immediately upon being told of the AAR decision, the SBL Council spent significant time discussing the strategic issues. The Executive Director and staff were empowered to develop an action plan. Council then conveyed those ideas to the Program Committee, whose chair, Brian Blount, is on Council. The Program Committee and Council, in coordination with the staff have developed a plan to deal with concrete issues related to institutions who must determine how their financial resources will be used in funding faculty to attend meetings, potential employees and employers with job searches, organizations who have met at the time of the combined meetings, and the attendees at meetings who must teach Bible and related courses without having advanced degrees in biblical studies.

The Council, Program Committee, and staff are fundamental to the process of dealing with change. Equally important is the membership. We need their ongoing input, as in the January Forum articles to which I am responding here. We are always open to hearing from members as they express to us their diverse needs: teachers in a community college, university, seminary, and Bible college or leaders whose role is in a religious community, or for that matter any person in the wider public interested in the Bible and biblical studies.

Addressing the AAR decision began to show results already at the 2003 and especially at the 2004 AM. First, the Program Committee developed a streamlined process for program unit proposals. We have exceeded the number of new program units that even we imagined. This process has brought about the forming of over 30 new program units; fourteen were listed and working at the 2004 AM. One of the reasons a fast-track proposal process was developed was to accommodate the many individuals from related areas of religious studies who have wanted to work within the SBL framework. In addition, the Council, Program Committee, and staff continue to review existing program units. We have discovered that we were not adequately covering the diverse interests of our members.

Second, the Program Committee instituted four new lecture and discussion series:

Regional Connections - aspects of biblical scholarship of particular interest in the geographic region of the Annual Meeting (two sessions were held in San Antonio: "Recent Uses of Theory in Latino/a Hermeneutics and Teaching of the Bible" and "Myth and Reality: Issues in Scholarly Reconstruction of the Histories of the Alamo and the Bible")

Religion in the Public Arena - exploring the nature of public discourse related to the Bible and biblical studies (one session held in 2004: "Scripture, Sexuality, and the Body")

Dynamics of Bible and Theology - examining the use of and interplay between the Bible, biblical studies, and constructive theologies (sessions planned for 2005)

State of the Discipline - reporting on the status of the discipline in several subjects each year (sessions planned for 2005)

Third, the Executive Director and staff were asked to intensify conversations they had with other organizations and groups who have been meeting with SBL. Some of those conversations had already begun prior to the AAR decision. I can report that a series of conversations are underway with archaeologists, theologians, ethicists, and others.

The Program Committee has thought for some time that we needed to look at the style of presentation at our AM. We have tended to continue predominantly with the style of listening to papers and not taken seriously the "active concept" of meeting. One step that was taken at the 2004 AM was a new program unit that is dealing with best practices in teaching.

I cannot catalog all of the positive energy that is coming from the governance structures and the membership at large to move ahead and create an even better AM. A small group of members has expressed concerns that SBL might retreat to more narrow confines and not understand the relationship of the Bible to the areas of Judaic studies, Islamic studies, religious studies, theology, ethics, history of thought, as well as the role the Bible has played in the lives of many individuals and communities. I am convinced by the concrete results of the last nearly two years since the AAR decision that we are on the right track toward understanding both the depth and breadth of biblical studies.

In summary, we are developing new initiatives that address some of these strategic issues:

  • More program units to reflect the wider role of the Bible in the larger theological and religious academic scene;
  • Engagement with professional development issues for universities and theological education faculty;
  • Programs for audiences beyond the academic world that we have known were interested in biblical scholarship but for whom we had only had minimal programming;
  • Initiatives to address leaders in the religious communities on the role of the Bible in their communities;
  • Dialogue with scholars from diverse academic disciplines and areas of study to address issues of mutual concern and scholarly interest;
  • Efforts to capitalize on the vast international study of the Bible outside North America.

Bible in the Public Arena

The comments of Stephen J. Patterson and Joel Green certainly have key elements that relate to the issue of the Bible in the public arena.

The Bible in public discourse is a fact of life. This fact jumps out at us on the covers of news magazines, and not just those in English. SBL is called frequently by the media —small and large newspapers, magazines that focus on religion issues, and in some cases Publishers Weekly and other publishing world publications. Many of you will be familiar as I am with the type of call Stephen Patterson notes in his article.

Religious communities within Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the many theological persuasions within those traditions have an interest in the Bible and by extension in the role of sacred texts. Of course, sacred texts do not exist in abstract but in concrete forms, oral and written. As Patterson observes in his rhetorical question, "Is there a text in Western culture that exercises more influence for good or ill than the Bible?"

Joel Green notes that "SBL needs creative thinking about the public ramifications and the public dissemination of our work." Our decision made years ago to partner with HarperCollins to produce a series of one-volume resources was an excellent step. We have continued to revise those volumes about once a decade. The study Bible is at this moment being revised.

I referred earlier to the Program Committee's new lecture discussion series that will engage issues related to the Bible and public discourse. We have sporadically presented public programming at our congresses. In each of the succeeding years, we will increase these offerings at both the AM and IM. We also hope to have a plan together to begin these sessions on a more grass-roots level. Our regions are a logical place to provide programs for the wider public: university and seminary students, religious leaders, and all who are interested in the influence of the Bible on public and private life.

Our organizational objectives and not-for-profit status require us to make certain that we do not lobby for one or another political agenda. However, we do have the responsibility and obligation to share the diverse results of our scholarly work and listen to the responses. We need to thoughtfully develop our role as an organization whose members are "experts" asked to respond to issues that appear in the public arena.

One dimension of this occurs each year with Humanities Advocacy Day (HAD). Along with other organizations, many of whom are in the American Council of Learned Societies, we have sponsored this day to educate the US Congress about the importance of the role of the humanities in the public arena. We need to get more members involved with this Advocacy Day. In addition to educating Congress, we appeal to Congress for the funding of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Last year, for the first time in a long time, Congress managed to pass additional funding. Level funding is in the new budget that has come to Congress. (Look for additional information on the 2005 HAD elsewhere in Forum.)

The recent surveying of members on a "resolution" regarding values that was sent to Council demonstrates the enormous interest our members have in the diverse ways the Bible influences public issues. The response of over 30% of the entire membership —and the views were nearly split on agreeing and disagreeing with the resolution — shows that our members, irrespective of their political, religious, or theological views, will take the time to respond. In fact, nearly 50% took the time to write a comment regarding the resolution. (Look for additional information on the resolution in the current issue of the Forum).


On behalf of Council I want to thank you for your continuing commitments to engage in the dialogue about the future of SBL.

Kent Harold Richards,, Professor of Old Testament and Executive Director of Society of Biblical Literature.

Citation: Kent Harold Richards, " The Future of SBL - Dialogue with Members," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Feb 2005]. Online:


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