Monday, August 12, 2013

The Future of the Baptist Association: Identity Crisis

If you try to do everything, you end up doing nothing well.  That principle is never more clearly observed than when examining the way so many denominational entities operate today.

Last week, I spoke briefly about a number of issues that need to be addressed in the modern Baptist Association for it to effectively serve the 21st century mission of the churches.  Today I want to cover the first of those issues in greater detail: determining the purpose of the Association.

Many Baptist entities are currently in the middle of an all-out identity crisis.  To a large extent, this is because all of our agencies--at every level--are products of the modern missions era--an era that is fast coming to an end on a global scale! Another subject for another day to be sure, although you can read more about it here.

For a local Association to thrive among thriving churches in the 21st century, each will need to define its purpose and mission as defined by the churches.  A few simple principles can get us started:

1. Know Why You Exist.  For example, Mid-Maryland Association exists as a network of more than 60 churches that seek together to extend the Kingdom of God here in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area and around the world.  We do this through evangelism, leadership development, and church planting that brings a glimpse of God's Kingdom here on earth.  In short, we are an organization that exists for the sole purpose of missions mobilization.  By and large, our churches know this, and this is what they use us for.

Under this "missions mobilization" umbrella, we have four primary emphases:  Prayer Strategy (Association prayer team, Prayerwalks around neighborhoods prior to revivals or new church launches), Ministry Projects (Disaster Relief in New York and Oklahoma, Prison and Truck-stop ministry, partnership with local governments to serve the homeless, etc.), Leadership and Church Development (Pastor and spouse support, administrative support to help churches with office operations, leadership training, etc.), and Missions and Multiplying Churches (direct evangelism and church planting here in the corridor, and around the world).  We pray because that's where it all begins.  We serve in ministry because we want to touch physical needs as we point to ultimate spiritual need.  We work with church leadership because there is no forward mission without leaders.  And we share the Gospel and plant churches all over the world because we want to multiply the aforementioned efforts of ministry, prayer, and leadership development.

There are ten other Associations in the Maryland/Delaware Convention.  Their structures and mission are different from ours, and each contributes to Kingdom advance in its own way.  So when I describe our structure above, I'm not saying that every Association should look like ours.  What you look like and what you exist to do should be decided by your churches (I'll get to this in a moment).  But I am saying that at the end of the day, if you don't know why you do what you do, your organization is in trouble!

2. Connect to the context of your churches and surrounding culture.  Too many Associational leaders are concerned that the churches don't even know they are there, or just don't know why they are there.  But if you get to know your churches--I mean really get to know them and put their well-being and ability to reach their communities before any Associational "program"-- I can promise that eventually, they will know who you are, and they will be glad you are there.

Additionally, connect to the culture[s] that surround the geographic proximity of your churches.  Associational missionaries have the ability to do this in a way that no one at state or national levels is able.  County officials, school district employees and teachers, prison wardens, transportation workers, and planning commission administrators should know you by name if you serve a network of churches in their back yard.  Much of the "why" of your existence as an Association should be determined by the realities you observe in your area.  

My area is very "cause oriented," and has a soft heart when it comes to the disadvantaged.  So, we team up each year with County governnent offficials, local businesses, churches of other denominations, and ministries to the homeless to sponsor an annual 5K race.  That race has grown from 115 runners the first year to nearly 300 in subsequent years.  We have raised thousands of dollars since beginning this effort in 2011, and all of it has gone to a Day Center that serves more than 200 homeless families in the 3rd most affluent county in North America.

In short, the mission of the Association is to bring churches together to bless their region in the name of Jesus, and the role of the Associational Missionary is to help pastors and lay-leaders understand how best to get this done, and equip the churches to lead the effort.  You can't do that if you don't know the churches AND the communities in which they reside.

3. Learn to say "no."  One of the psychological effects of not knowing your purpose is the perceived need to accept any and all assignments that a church might want to give you.  I've seen this happen at multiple levels of our denomination--a staff member is charged with substantive response to any need, even if that need doesn't match the capabilities of the organization.  The end result of this approach to serving churches is a burned out staff and an organization that continues to bleed to death from ultimate irrelevancy.  

As an example, our Association simply doesn't do "conflict mediation."  We tried it many years ago, and it didn't work out so well--and probably because that isn't the reason the churches brought us into existence to begin with.  And since they hired me, they probably want to stay even further away from this particular approach to serving churches, since I tend to be more of an arbitrator than mediator, and as such would most likely just make the problems worse.

Saying "no" to providing mediation doesn't mean we don't think its important.  Actually, it means we think its important enough to get it right, and since its not within the scope of our mission, we are quite sure that we won't get it right (just ask a couple of churches where we attempted this.  I'm glad they are forgiving!)

Additionally, I don't hold meetings during "working hours" that have no purpose.  I love the people in our churches, but I can't do what they pay me to do if I'm always having lunch with a pastor with no aim for what we hope to accomplish together.  To be sure, I'd like to think I'm a friend to all our pastors, and many of them have become dear friends of mine.  But I'm not compensated to be a "friend." (and honestly, who has to pay someone to be their friend--really?)  I'm expected to move our collective mission efforts forward.

Saying "no" to what you can't do also frees up the time you need to do what you do well.  I want our churches to see us as their "first phone call" regardless of their need--not because we can meet every need, but because they have grown to trust us to serve them well--and will believe us, even if we say "that's not what we do, but the [state convention/NAMB et al ] have a great way of helping you with this......"

.4. Allow local churches to determine "all of the above."  If you are an Associational Missionary, you can lead them in this discussion, but the final decision should belong to the churches as a whole, who deserve the ability to determine their own collective identity through your Association.

At this point, I want to "push back" a bit against some allegations I've heard in recent years from church leaders--most notably pastors.  Too often, I've heard them speak about how "useless" the local Association is, how "entitled" they feel to receive continued support from churches, regardless of whether that support represents a good investment.

OK pastor, fair enough.  But let me ask this really simple question::  If the local Association is really in such bad shape (and I can certainly believe this is true of many of them) whose fault is it--really?

If you come to the Southern Baptist Convention in Baltimore next year, and move from the floor to instruct or direct any national entity to do anything, you will immediately be ruled out of order and told to sit down.  That's because Southern Baptists believe that our national entities are best governed indirectly through elected trustees.  Most Associations (including ours) don't operate this way.  In many ways, the local Association is the only level of our denomination that is completely under the control of local churches.

So let me ask again, if your local association is a mess, who should we see about that?  It belongs to you, so if enough churches believe it needs to be revived, or direction needs to be corrected, then get together, talk about how best to do it, and then get it done!

At base, the Association is nothing more than churches leveraging their collective strength to multiply the growth of the Kingdom.  If seen in this light, I believe the brightest days are ahead--if strong, contextual identity and purpose is established.  But that identity should allow for a radically de-centralized approach to mission, which is what I'll talk about in the next post.

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