If you live in the south, your Baptist association is a different thing than it is here in Iowa. Our state convention has a little over 100 churches, most of which struggle to become self-supporting. Your association is probably larger than our state convention. Some associations in the south have more employees than our state convention, and perhaps larger budgets.
Until recent priority changes from NAMB, our associations had missionaries funded through NAMB. In Iowa, we had 7 associations and 5 DOMS (they change the NAMB designation about every 3 weeks; I can’t keep up with what the current nomenclature is). NAMB is no longer interested in funding associational missionaries and so our local associations in Iowa no longer have the leadership we have had in the past.
My DOM, until assignments recently changed, covered a territory larger than several states – two associations combined. Get out a map and look at western Iowa. Our two associations extend from Minnesota to Missouri along Iowa’s western border and a hundred or so miles in. The DOM’s car has several hundred thousand miles on it.
But in that vast area, there are actually very few churches. Sioux City happens to have two of the larger SBC churches in Iowa but only a handful of the other churches in Northwest and Southwest associations are self-sufficient and able to fund a full-time pastor. Many are bivocational. In total, there are only around 30 churches between the two associations (can’t remember the exact number, but 30 is close).
Since our DOMs have been funded by NAMB, they have been employees of the BCI (Baptist Convention of Iowa). Our recently retired exec, Jimmy Barrentine, worked hard to respect associational authority, but the reality is that DOMs were nationally funded and employed at the state level. Because of that, our associations are not really autonomous, as most associations in the south are. Jimmy tried hard to fight this perception, but we tend to view the association as the local franchise of the state convention.
Associational work in what used to be called frontier areas is a little different than in Alabama, Georgia or Florida, isn’t it? And it is changing dramatically. As I mentioned, NAMB is no longer interested in funding associational (or state convention) infrastructure. I think the new term they use is something like, “Church Planter Catalyst.” Their priority is to fund church planting, and local church health is not part of that. Whether that is a good strategy is obviously a point of debate. But the fact is that we no longer have NAMB-funded DOMs in Iowa.
And Iowa associations generally do not have the financial strength to hire a DOM. A couple of our associations are considering doing this, but they will struggle to put together a respectable salary package. And our western associations simply cannot do it (unless the DOM is willing to give up luxuries like living indoors and eating).
So, the future of associations in Iowa is definitely in doubt. And, to be very frank, I am not sure that associations will survive in Iowa as a viable institution. Beyond dispute, whatever our associations are in the future, it will be a very different thing than what they have been in the past.
I would make the following observations.
1) We liked the old system, but the results were not such that we can refuse to look at new ways.
We have liked having NAMB-funded DOMs in Iowa. They have been encouragements to small, struggling churches and their pastors. We have churches that are 50 miles or more from any other SBC church. Pastor to pastor fellowship becomes unwieldy. But the DOM was able to be a touchpoint, a connection for these lonely warriors. My DOMs have been friends, resources and advisors. One was a very close friend and prayer partner.
But when you look at the overall success of this system over the 22 years I’ve been in Iowa, it is difficult to point to our statistical success and say that it is unwise to change. I am not saying that our system hasn’t worked, but I am saying that it has not worked to the degree that we could refuse to consider the changes being made.
2) Cutting off Baptist welfare may be a good thing in the long run.
I’ve been in more than one meeting in which the assumption was that we can only do that which NAMB funds. Our state has been living on what some of us call Baptist Welfare. We receive far more CP funds from NAMB than we actually contribute to the CP. Many of our state staff have been NAMB/CP funded as were all of our DOMs. Most of our church plants have been NAMB (or HMB) funded.
Now, NAMB has redirected the flow of funding for infrastructure into church planting. Those funds will actually increase, which is nice. But right now, we struggle to find the established churches that are healthy enough to start other churches to make use of that funding.
In the long run, though, being forced to do things on our own without NAMB funding may be healthy for us. Independence may lead us to trust in God’s provision, not just NAMB funding. That may strengthen our faith and aid Baptist work in Iowa. In the long run…
3) In the short term, there will be pain.
Things are unsettled here now. As funding for our missionaries has been pulled from us, what do we do? Do we disband our associations? Do we seek to hire our own DOMs?
Here is the problem. Iowa gets NAMB funding based on a formula. We give a certain amount and NAMB matches that (they give much more to us than they receive from us). But now Iowa associations are looking at trying to find a way to hire their own DOMs. Where is that funding going to come from? Simple…and tragic. They will likely reduce their CP giving to fund their DOM. It is very likely that several churches are going to defund CP (to some extent) to fund associational work. That will have some negative consequences.
If churches cut CP giving to fund that to which NAMB has reduced funding, our CP giving decreases. When CP decreases, so do NAMB matching funds. Then we have to make more cuts.
Hopefully, church planting efforts will succeed and we will have many more churches contributing and our giving will increase and things will get better. That is obviously the hope. Is it a reality? We will see. But in the meantime, the budget re-prioritization is causing a lot of discomfort and upheaval.
Questions to Consider
1) Is what is happening in Iowa unique or are other new-work states experiencing similar issues?
2) Is funding local associational work a worthy priority, or are we wise in putting all of our eggs in the church planting basket?
3) Are associations even necessary or useful in this scenario?
Two local associational realities impact this question. First, we have a few churches spread out over a large area, making all associational work more difficult. Second, if the associations are really just local franchises of the state convention, do they serve a separate function?
Please note: this post is not meant as some kind of shot against NAMB. They have made decision about their priorities and they believe those decisions are wise. Perhaps they are, especially in the long run. In the short run, the denominational eggs have been scrambled and things are tumultuous. My focus is not so much on NAMB, but on how those of us in new work states can respond to the denominational new world order.