Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Future of the Baptist Association: Spreading our Influence

There is much talk these days among organizations of all stripes about "de-centralization."  For most, this term simply means a spreading of a still-centralized bureaucracy to more than one location.  But the essence of whether an organization is truly de-centralized surrounds the location of three things:  power, personnel, and money.  It doesn't matter how many locations your organization finds itself in.  If these three things are all still fully controlled by your organization, your organization is not de-centralized!

When local Associations began their work more than three centuries ago, the term "de-centralized" didn't exist, but the concept was embodied in these loose networks of cooperating churches nonetheless.  If the Associations of the future are going to be effective, this same organizational culture must permeate our cooperation once again.  But what would this look like?

Well, here are a couple of examples from our recent work in Long Island, New York.  Find the article here, and the video here.  On this particular effort, three of our churches worked together, and you can be introduced to these great people around 2:30 into the film. 

This is simply the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what our churches are doing together, and we could never pull it off without the following:

Decentralized Strategy:  If every part of an Associational strategy is "funneled" through the office, then the reach and influence of the Association will always be limited.  Conversely, if a strategic framework is adopted by the Association at large, and contextual strategies are developed at the level of local churches--with the Association providing counsel and networking with other congregations to embolden the effort--then the mission potential of the Association becomes infinite!

This is one area where Associations can complement churches, and do something with all of them together that a single congregation could never accomplish.  If every strategic decision has to come through my office, then ultimately the Association can do no more than a single congregation could do all by itself, and in that situation, why would you keep around an organization with no inherent Biblical warrant just to do something that another organization with Biblical warrant could do?

For example, we encourage most churches to "sink the shaft deep" in no more than two areas or people groups in the world.  A local church can make a significant difference if its mission is focused.  But if the mission of a single local church is spread too thin because of multiple emphases, "dabbling on the surface" becomes the norm, and meaningful cultural transformation is never realized.

At the same time, I lead a network of more than 60 congregations.  A network that large--even at the local level--should have a significant presence, and be making a significant impact on every part of the planet!  As a result, MMBA is working through our churches in partnership to spread the Gospel of Jesus and plant churches here in the Baltimore Washington region, and also all over the world.  We are at work together in places like the eastern Caribbean, Africa, East Asia, India, and more.  But the contextual strategies for each of these efforts was developed--with Associational help--at the level of a local church which said "we will take the lead in this particular effort" or "we will be the primary mover in engaging this particular people group."  There isn't a single new church in our region without a local church sponsor, and there isn't a single effort we do overseas that is without a local church driving the effort.

Decentralized Budgets:  When it comes to budgeting, some very good questions have recently been asked by churches relative to denominational entities.  However, there have also been some very shallow and surface-level assumptions in some of these questions.

For example, during the GCR discussions, one could often hear the question "how much of this budget is going to salaries?"  While the question is legitimate, there was unfortunately sometimes a premise behind that question--a premise based in the business world that sees all salaries as "liability" or "overhead."  Problem is, if an Associational staff are doing their job, they are far more than simply "overhead."  They are a central part of the mission!  I've never heard anyone look at the IMB's budget and ask "how much is going for missionary salaries?" We wouldn't think of doing that, because its the primary reason we give to the IMB and to Lottie Moon!  We have to start thinking of stateside mission endeavors in the same way.

To make this shift, we have to stop looking at Associational budgets like "pie slices."  And the best way to do this is to stop asking "how much goes to..." and begin asking a more important and all-encompassing question:  "What are they accomplishing with the money we are investing?"  Where local Associations are concerned, the lion's share of benefit doesn't come from money "going in" and then "coming back out" to the same churches who donated to the cause.  In fact, that leads to a phenomenon I describe as "ecclesiastical socialism."  Don't worry, I'll deal with that one in great detail in the next post!  :)

In MMBA, part of my role involves developing partnerships within, and without this network of churches.  As I write, our leadership teams are putting the final touches on our proposed 2014 budget, and we anticipate that next year we will receive nearly $200,000 in designated partnerships alone.  More than half of that amount comes from our own churches, who in addition to their giving to our general budget, have also agreed to partner with us in one or more of several initiatives we are at work on together.  Around 75% of general budget giving goes toward salaries and other administrative costs, but the people who earn those salaries have brokered efforts here and around the world in which churches and individuals will invest directly.  These include our work together planting churches in East Asia, our collaboration with eastern Indian pastors to develop theological education for rural pastors in southeast India, and local church planting projects.  When all is said and done (and pending affirmation of our suggested plans to the Association at large) we anticipate investing around $490,000 next year in our collective work, with around 40% of that amount going to pay staff salaries.  But only $258,000 of that amount is expected to come from our churches through "general budget giving."

If we simply took the general fund giving and played the "pie-slice" game, we would never be able to compensate properly (someone once well-said that if you pay your staff peanuts, you get monkeys working for you!).  But most importantly, we would never have been able to accomplish what I've described above and more!   Other Associations I'm aware of have only a small, 100% "administrative budget," meaning that none of their monies "go back to the churches," but they are being very effective nonetheless at bringing the churches together for potent mission.  

It takes money to effectively run an organization, but if we want to maximize our investment at the local level, we have to start thinking differently.

Decentralized Credit:  In his book "Good to Great," Jim Collins talks about "Level Five Leaders," individuals who are hardly ever in the spotlight, but do such an outstanding job directing the organization that he or she more greatly empowers those who are in the spotlight.  

Every Baptist Association should aspire to be a "Level Five Missions Organization."  For this to happen, we have to "spread the wealth around" when it comes to who gets the credit.  As I mentioned above, because of our work in Long Island, New York, more than 25 homes have been repaired or totally rebuilt after Hurricane Sandy.  At this point, we get local press coverage nearly every time we send a team up.  But the headline always contains information about the church leading the effort, with very little mention of the Association.  (See here and here if you missed the links above.  In case you can 't tell, I'm awfully proud of these folks!) 

Likewise, three years ago we started building a partnership between our churches, local businesses, and one of our county governments to raise money for a ministry to the homeless in our area.  That partnership resulted in an annual 5K race that has grown to nearly 300 runners.  Our Association staff still handles all the logistics, collects the money, and leads the coordination, but this event now belongs to the people of Howard County Maryland!  And the material we include in each runners' packet contains very little information about us, but does contain the website and contact info for every MMBA church in this county--and a clear presentation of the Gospel!

Conclusion: Its time for Associations to stop talking about what they are doing, and begin talking about what churches are doing together by using the Association as a resource.

To use a physics analogy, is your Association a centripetal or centrifugal organization?  For many decades now, most Associations are organized in a centripetal way--a way that forces movement back toward a fixed center.  But that's no way to build an effective and energized network of congregations, and its certainly no way to spread the impact of the Gospel widely.

Instead, work toward transforming your Association into a centrifugal organization--one that forces movement "away from center."  Associations should be about leveraging and spreading the influence of all our churches.

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