Our annual sweatfest, the SBC Annual Meeting, is only a couple of weeks off. With the Greear/Hemphill presidential contest and the Patterson messes having consumed all the pre-convention publicity, you could be forgiven for forgetting that other things will take place.
One of these is the Southern Baptist Conference of Associational Leaders (SBCAL) which meets in Dallas a couple of days prior to the annual meeting. This year the SBCAL, as a part of their year-long study A fresh look at the time-honored work of associations within SBC life, will recommend a name change for what most of us know as our Director of Missions (DOM). The name suggested is Associational Mission Strategist (AMS).
Baptist Press reported on the upcoming SBCAL meeting a few days ago, DOM title change among report’s recommendations , and their headline captures the item most newsworthy for Southern Baptists – the name change. AMS is fine with me, although I’ll have to relinquish my understanding of that acronym as referencing the American Meterological Society. TV weather reporters who are members of the AMS don’t get a vote on the SBCAL name change. Items of more gravity, though, are in the “fresh look” study. Baptist Press noted one of these.
The report concludes by recommending that Southern Baptists establish a “professional development process” for associational leaders, plan more extensively for leadership succession within associations, maintain SBCAL as “a strong voice for associational missions” and engage in more effective associational mission work.
I’ve downloaded and read the SBCAL study. It has some interesting parts. The study references a previous survey by Jason Lowe (you can find the summary tables here). That survey was reported on earlier by BP here and I had a previous article on it: Baptist associations and the struggle with irrelevance.
Here’s a quote from DOM Jason Lowe in the BP piece:
When asked to describe the most exciting aspect of their local Baptist association, the most popular answer among church leaders was ‘nothing,’” said Jason Lowe, a Kentucky director of missions who led the study that looked into attitudes about the work of local Baptist associations.
Associations have a long history among us and have proven in times past their value to the local churches and our cooperative work. That is not self-evident today in my view. One thing is certain about Baptist associations is that every pastor has an opinion, sometimes more than one, on their local association and DOM. While “A fresh look at the time-honored work of associations within SBC life” is filled with serious-minded, sober, and interesting things about associations and their leaders, it may fail to capture the level of apathy among Southern Baptists about the 1100 or so associations.
To approach it positively, the study does speak a lot about “associational leader proficiencies” and “leadership tools” and other such things. Fact is, and this is what almost half of local church leaders said when asked, a huge proportion of our churches wouldn’t be affected if their association closed up. Not a few pastors look at their local associational leader and see a man in semi-retirement and certainly in a terminal professional position. SBCAL study team members are to be commended for gently calling for changes that contribute to this.
My experience with DOMs is limited and uneven. I found one of the half-dozen with whom I worked and served as a pastor who was personally helpful to me. The budgets for every association I was in (these were either rural or town and country types) was heavily consumed by expenses to pay the DOM, an administrative assistant, building costs, and not much else – classic monetary expressions of organizations whose main mission was to keep the organization going.
Associations are beleaguered. They don’t get CP money directly. They have to demonstrate value to churches for funding. Churches don’t need much of an excuse to cut associational funding, since they don’t see a lot of concrete benefit to their church.
Oddly, a number of pastors in my surburban and ex-urban Atlanta area, find more enthusiasm for their association than for the state convention. Some multi-staff “mega” or “super” associations have proven their value to pastors through a number of initiatives, including leadership training, church planting and other things.
I’ve been in only three associations and was heavily involved with two of these. All had fulltime DOMs. None of them needed a fulltime leader. Volunteers or a part time DOM would have done just as well. I started from zero in my knowledge of SBC associations. As a pastor, and my environment wasn’t atypical, I came to the conclusion that the DOM was a slot given as almost a sinecure to popular, seasoned, almost retired pastors who were happy to get out of the stress of pastoring a church to a position where they could get a regular paycheck and supplement it with a steady stream of pulpit supply invitations. That might not be fair but it was where the experencies led me.
The SBCAL concludes with this bit of optimism:
According to the report, “The relevance of local associations is not just a thing of the past, but is the current way most SBC churches are partnering with sister churches to engage their local mission field. By God’s grace we see a bright future of thriving local associations served by proficient leaders comprised of churches united by their faith and surrendered to Jesus Christ and His mission in the world.”
I agree with every word of this with only slight changes. Insert the word “some” prior to “associations.” Associations may grab (sans the mild expletive) the line from the splendid move with the KJV title, “O Brother, Where Art Thou”: “We’re in a tight spot.”
Changes are good. I hope the SBCAL group can influence the future for associations.
Likely most people here are better informed about associations than I. We all have different experiences but access to the same documents and surveys on this. I’d be interested in your take on it.