In part one of this series I put forth historically what the purpose of the Baptist association is. The history and purpose of the association is well documented (well beyond what I have documented here). My working definition of a Baptist association is “a collection of churches who share common beliefs that come together along specific geographic boundaries and voluntarily cooperate together in carrying out the Great Commission”. In much the same way that the local church is challenged in carrying out its purpose, the Baptist association is as well. I have been involved in the local Baptist association for over ten years. I have seen some good things where the association was able to fulfill its purpose. I have also seen some bad things where the association struggled in fulfilling its purpose.
Through my years of associational involvement, I have seen, and am seeing, certain challenges plaguing the local association. Let me say right here that I am not anti-association. Just the opposite. I want desperately to see the association succeed. I also believe in being honest. Introspection can be a positive and helpful thing. I want to share what I feel are the challenges facing the Baptist association today.
Challenge #1: The training and support that is offered to the local church at the associational level is readily available at the state level.
For the most part, the local Baptist association has ministry areas that closely mirror those of the church. The association may contain departments such as Sunday School, Discipleship Training, Music, Youth, Men’s Ministry, Women’s Ministry, WMU, and others. From time to time the association may offer training and resources to help the local church to be better equipped in these areas. This same type of training and resourcing is available to every church at the state convention level. Often times this training and resourcing is available quicker, in greater volume, and from staff with years of specific experience. The church has to make a decision. As a pastor, I have to answer a question much like this one, “If it becomes necessary to receive some of my training and resourcing from the state convention, why would I not receive all of it from the state convention?” This is the challenge of assistance. The association faces the challenge of being an effective and consistent avenue of training, support, and resource.
Challenge #2: The local Baptist association may not be able to adequately resource and support the local church with the ministries that are specific to their own community.
This is not the same as challenge #1. As local churches explore their community, as they determine felt needs, as they identify new and specific ways to communicate the gospel, there will be a need for specific help and support. Churches are discovering new and emerging fields of ministry in the community that reflect segments of the population. These segments could include multi-housing ministry, skateboarders, resort and vacation settings, and the military. Each one of these fields requires specific support and even specific training. As a pastor, I have to answer a question much like this one, “Once I have identified ministries specific to my community, where is the best place to go for training and support?” This is the challenge of relevance. Can the association, in its present form, be of real and lasting help to the church? To be fair, the association cannot be “all things to be all people”. But, if the church determines that business as usual will not reach people with the gospel, the Baptist association faces a decision as well.
Challenge #3: The local Baptist association taking on ministry that is the responsibility of the local church.
I was once part of an association that felt that if the churches in the association were not doing ministry at a level they thought was acceptable, the association would sponsor that ministry. Instead of encouraging the churches to develop a comprehensive men’s ministry, the association sponsored the event. Instead of providing training on how to do it, the association just did it for them. That may seem fine on the surface. That may work for a time. However, it is not profitable for future ministry. Here is what I mean. In the event the association was no longer able to sponsor this type of ministry, the local church had not been equipped and empowered to do it. I witnessed this same practice in the area of youth ministry. Instead of bringing in training and empowering the church, the association just did the ministry. As a pastor, I have to answer a question much like this one, “Is the local Baptist association capable of performing ministry for the church instead of strengthening the church for ministry and hope to remain needed? This is the challenge of priority. Here is the struggle as I see it. Can the association do ministry, of course. But, the association has the responsibility to first assist and equip the local church to better conduct ministry.
Challenge #4: The local Baptist association faces financial challenges as their sole source of support is the local church.
Associations have budgets. These budgets are met by contributions from the local churches that cooperate in the association. Each church determines how much money is forwarded to the associational level. This amount usually either a percentage or a specific amount. The challenge for the association is to encourage and persuade the local church to give in a consistent manner. There are times that the vision and priority of the local church and church pastor do not match up with the vision and priority of the associational leadership. Southern Baptist churches have a desire to cooperate. It is in the very DNA of the church to do this. It is not always easy for the local church to support everything the association does and plans to do. There are times when differing visions of purpose strain the cooperation between the church and association. Churches want to see the funds used in a meaningful way. Churches want to see real life-changing ministry taking place. As a pastor, I have to answer a question much like this one, “Am I able to stand before my congregation and assure them that the money that is sacrificially given to the Baptist association is being used for the furtherance of the gospel?” This is the challenge of accountability. Right or wrong, when visions differ at the associational level, churches don’t give as much or they reduce their giving. This is challenging to the association because, again, their entire source of funding comes from the church. If the church decides to re-route their giving to what they deem as meaningful, the association still has a budget to meet and must make up the difference.
In my next post, I will share what I feel is the future of the association.