Of Networks and Associations (by Bill Gernenz)

association graphic
Bill Gernenz is a pastor in East Texas and blogs at “Broken and Undone.” This is the first in a three part series on Associations that appeared at his blog. 

Tuesday morning brings about a dozen pastors/ministers/church leaders together for breakfast.  It is a wonderful time of fellowship that ends in a brief time of prayer.  I value my relationships with each of these men, BUT…

…though most of us are members of the same local Baptist association, there is not much else we do together.  I suspect most other local Baptist associations – and state conventions – have the same story.  Through associational giving, we support some common ministries but there is not much, well… association.

convention tweetThere was some recent discussion surrounding state conventions, and while I have had several conversations about the issue, to be honest I did not read much of what was said in the blogosphere.  One particular tweet, however, did catch my attention.  In short (as I read it), Tim Brister proposed that associations/conventions are being replaced by networks.  And in part, I believe there is something very true in his statement.  Consequently, there is also something very instructive.

From my observation, I believe that associations are struggling mainly because they do not do much associating.  Conversely, networks appear to be doing well  because they are indeed networking.(As best as I can tell for I am not in one.)  Now, I am not trying to be trite, but rather, touch on a need that all pastors have and few pastors pursue.  We need to be connected and networks appear to be doing that.  Associations are not faring as well.  I am trying to put my finger on why — and perhaps, you can help.  I have several theories and they are not mutually exclusive.

Associations are struggling because (1) they have a limited pool of pastors and (2) a diverse group of pastors.  Associations are more/less limited in who they are trying to appeal to, usually pastors of a particular denomination in a particular geographical setting.  Compounding the difficulty, not every pastor in an particular association will believe in cooperating in the context of that association.

Networks on the other hand benefit from (1) a kind of “open enrollment” and (2) those pastors who are a part of a network have chosen that particular network (as opposed to being placed in an association).  By “open enrollment” I mean that they are not geographically limited and are only as doctrinally-specific as the leaders (and perhaps their purpose) demands.  The benefits are great for those involved: a wide swathe of relationships with pastors of a like-mind who actually want to be there.  It is no wonder that our associations/conventions are hurting.

So where does that leave us – those of us who still believe in local associations and state/national conventions?  The truth is: I don’t know.  Smaller associations may continue to decline until the meaningless bureaucracy dissolves.  This (unfortunately) will also mean that some meaningful ministry will also be dropped (if not absorbed by an able church or established as an independent ministry).  Larger associations/conventions may continue to limp along, chasing their tails in a genuine effort to accomplish some good and minister to some churches, becoming little more than large banners under which sub-groups artificially co-exist.

I’m not satisfied with either.

I believe, the answer is up to pastors.  As valuable as networks are, there is something necessary and invaluable to the local associations.  And if the local associations can get it right, the conventions will begin to fix themselves.

Pastors must decide that joining together with other pastors of like faith is valuable.  Pastors must value doctrinal differences within orthodoxy.  Pastors must also gain an appreciation not only the fruit of local cooperation but for the kingdom mindset it cultivates and the gospel spirit it reflects.  All in all, cooperating with other pastors (some of whom we would choose as co-laborers) is a way for pastors to practice the very things we challenge our church members to do – the laying aside of personal preferences for the sake of kingdom advance.

I greatly value networks for what they provide for pastors and churches; I also greatly value associations for what they would require from pastors — and the rich partnerships, personal growth, and gospel fruit that result.


  1. Dave Miller says

    Figuring out how to make associations work today has been a real issue up here in the frozen north – you betcha.

    Good article. Thanks.

  2. dr. james willingham says

    The way the associations originally worked was that they were established by ministers and churches of like mind and were for the purpose of preaching to one another, to strengthen each other for the task of evangelizing a wide spread frontier. An association was about the closest thing that could be found in the Bible for anything beyond a local church. When the Moderates were in power, they treated preaching with disdain, a sure way to diminish the importance of any organization or structure founded for the purposes associated with preaching. Likewise diminished was the association’s efforts at prayer, that is, praying for a visitation, a reviving, and awakening as well as for the Gospel to spread in other lands. Any study of Baptist History and, indeed, of Christian History will provide justification for this understanding. If we want to restore the association along with our state convention and keep our Southern Baptist Convention, we need and must have a return to praying and preaching. Consider how Jonathan Edwards’ Humble Attempt inspired Carey, Fuller, Rice and others to begin to pray and then get involved and go to spread the Gospel in many places. During that period, the period of the First and Second Great Awakenings and the launching of the Great Century of Missions, a new nation was launched with more freedoms for the individual than ever in human history, a nation that began to learn to care for others, even when it was still locked in a lot of dark practices, e.g., slavery. Also in that period some 200 Congregational churches, according to C.C. Goen in his “The Great Awakening” became Baptists! And the South it should be added became a Baptist kingdom. In fact, the whole nation basically adopted our position on religious liberty, while still preserving the idea of a biblical and Christian basis for our political and national existence. Proof of this contention will be found in the interpretations of the founding documents and practices in the judicial and other branches understanding and employment of them for the same. For example, the Supreme Court in 1792 and, again, in 1892 refers to this nation as a Christian nation. A work by two scholars from Houston found that the basis for our founding documents for the US and the colonies and states, etc., could be said to be owed to the Bible for a dominant factor more than any one or anything else. E.g., 34% for the Bible, 8-9% for John Locke, and 7-8% for Montesquieu (French political philosopher). Now we are being taken off that foundation by a government in the hands of people who are really alien to such viewpoints, so much so that they are going to insist that we teach our children that morals count for nothing, that immorality, perversion, and licentiousness are acceptable forms of love. When believers fail to go along with such ideas, they will find themselves in concentration and re-education camps or dead.

  3. William Thornton says

    I noticed that the Georgia Baptist Convention voted in a new association this week, the Southside Baptist Network. Guess that since networks are working and associations are struggling the easy fix is to call your association a network.

  4. says

    Excellent article. This worked itself out in the previous association I was in… The most worthwhile thing the group did was pastors’ fellowship. And we had a good group for a lot of the time I was there and before my time, so I understand. I hope the new association (which, BTW recently changed its name to a “network”) will give opportunity for similar relationships to be formed.

  5. Chris Johnson says

    Interesting article brother Bill,

    It took me back to my early days in ministry in West Texas some 30 years back. The associations (networks) seemed to be meaningful because there was a common purpose. Out in the sparsely populated areas of WT ministry seemed to be more focused and well known within the association for the very fact that the participants made a concerted effort on a longer term project.

    Today, everything seems to have gone the way of the less concerted effort, where “tweeterized” values have replaced long term projects.

    Now that we minister in the inner city of Nashville, while we utilize the tweeting vehicle, our ministry and associations have to do with our deliberate method of long term projects. Not all ministries share that philosophy. So, maybe that is part of the loss of appeal for the historical associational structure. Lack of purposeful definition.

    Thanks for making me think about this subject again!

  6. says

    Thanks, Chris.

    I especially like your long-term language and the emphasis on purpose. I think my second post hits in the purpose issue pretty hard.

    I am also noticing the interaction with terminology. While admitting that the terms are many ways synonymous, I employed them in more of a common use way. It is sadly humorous that we commonly think changing our vocabulary transforms reality. Benefiting from networks and associations for the glory of God and the fulfillment of his mission will require honest humility and diligent labor. I pray those things for my heart and for my co-laborers and leaders.