A new future began to emerge for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Fort Worth, Texas June 20-22, 2012. The retirement of long-time Coordinator Dan Vestal was front and center throughout the meeting. Add to this the retirement of Terry Hamrick and the return to the classroom of Rob Nash (and the departure of still others in summer 2012), CBF is undergoing an unprecedented change in leadership, unprecedented.
And, the General Assembly approved the 2012 Task Force Report altering CBF’s future organizational structure.
The first shoe dropped in Fort Worth with the retirement of Dan Vestal and the approval of the 2012 Task Force Report. There is another shoe to drop, in the not-too-far future.
Baptists, with their individual centered-polity, are heavily influenced by cultural shifts; thus, the Temperance Movement led Baptists to do a very unbiblical thing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, remove wine from the communion cup. In the early twentieth century (Industrial Age) Baptists adopted the organizational model of the day and created the Cooperative Program and a strong Executive Committee. This new industrial model gave birth to the creation of a very strong national organization (SBC), strong state organizations (state conventions) and significant associational organizations. State and associational organizations (as well as the SBC) existed prior to the early twenty century; yet they were transformed in the first three decades of the twentieth century based on the industrial model. By the late 1950s the industrial model was fully absorbed into the way Baptists went about their work at the national, state and associational levels.
With the emergence of the Information Age the industrial management systems of the SBC began to unravel. The decentralization of the computer age did not sit well with the well-oiled machine of denominational life. Individuals and coalitions wanted more influence; attendance at annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention swelled and the Takeover and Conservative Resurgence were on!
In the formation of CBF (another expression of decentralization) organizers opted for a very different kind of national organization; a weak central office to lead the movement and very weak connections to partner state and CBF organizations. I use the term ‘weak’ with no malice; the term suggests the system itself was not dependent on employees in a central office but found energy and leadership in a larger constituent base. As an example, the original Coordinating Council was the ‘center of gravity’ in the early Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Later this was changed and the Coordinating Council became more advisory in nature with influence shifting toward the professional staff. CBF started with a weak central office, shifted to a stronger central office structure where employees ‘resourced churches’ and is now moving back to a weak central office structure.
With a weak national office in CBF’s early years, most state CBF organizations followed the Movement’s lead and created weak to very weak state CBF chapters. CBF of Florida was the early exception. CBF of Florida emerged early and moved quickly to become a strong presence on the national CBF scene and a unifying force in the state among CBF churches and congregations willing to passing money along to CBF. Instead of creating a weak state office, Florida CBF opted for a strong central office formatting itself on the old state convention model of the SBC . Up until the last eight years, Florida CBF was an anomaly. Now since the 2012 Task Force Report, CBF of Florida is seen foreshadowing things to come.
CBF’s organizational life was forever altered by the development of North Carolina’s CBF state organization in the wake of the split of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. Initially CBF of North Carolina developed a weak organizational structure. However, that changed when moderates in North Carolina gave-up on the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina after many years of struggle and withdrew. As they withdrew they changed CBF of North Carolina into a mini-state convention. While there is a sense in which North Carolina CBF followed the lead of their counterparts in Florida what was created in North Carolina CBF was truly unprecedented in CBF history.
When the 2012 Task Force began its work considering ways to reshape CBF’s organizational structure an ‘elephant in the room’ was CBF of North Carolina. With a strong central office in CBF of Florida and an unprecedentedly strong mini-state convention in CBF of North Carolina the 2012 Task Force had little choice but to offer recommendations that, in effect, transformed the national CBF office back to a weak organizational model. I am confident other issues were involved in the deliberations of the Task Force; even so, there was no way getting around the triumph of strong state CBF organizations as exemplified by CBF of North Carolina.
The 2012 Task Force Report will change the nature of CBF. CBF will become an organization characterized by a weak national office (with a fairly strong mission sending arm) and strong state and regional organizations. When state and regional CBF organizations begin conversations with the national office about how much CBF money should stay in their respective states, the state organizations will argue for more money to stay in their respective states. Implementing the 2012 Task Force Report will transform CBF into a centralized mission sending arm and a decentralized network of state CBF organizations. The national office of CBF will coordinate work among a decentralized network working along-side, not above, state and regional CBF organizations.
CBF of Florida started the move, CBF of North Carolina has invigorated it and now other state CBF organizations will follow. To this point CBF has been a national movement with small affiliates in states and regions. CBF will become a network of state and regional organizations with a weak national presence.
When people gathered for the Consultation in Atlanta in the summer of 1990 (which gave birth to CBF), virtually no one imagined CBF would become a ‘state-centered’ movement. I am not suggesting this is a negative development. I am saying it is inevitable. This is the way CBF’s future is unfolding.
The Shoe to Come
I very much enjoyed the Tallowood Players in Fort Worth; they are a drama troupe from Tallowood Baptist Church. In a skit, one player wondered about CBF’s future. Another player introduced the idea of churches resourcing each other, instead of being dependent on a national organization. Woops…. The cat is clearly out of the bag; in fact, it is not a cat but a lion cub.
Another shoe will drop when people begin to wonder why churches are dependent on state organizations when churches can resource each other, without having to go through a ‘middle person’ (state CBF entities). Apparently, the Tallowood Players see this coming future.
Churches will do well to claim their birth-right as the center of Baptist life in the Information Age. We CBFers are slowing beginning to catch a glimpse of the coming reality (the second shoe). Increasingly, we need to focus our interest and attention on the local church and ask, “What does the local church need CBF to do?” Denominational structures exist, and only exist, to do for churches what they cannot do for themselves; and the list of what churches can’t do for themselves is getting shorter!
Over the next five years there may be a good bit of excitement in state CBF organizations. Why not, they will retain a larger share of money given by churches in their state. With expanding budgets, state organizations will revel in the excitement of deciding where to spend money; and I am confident state organizations will do wonderful things with these ‘diverted dollars’ (diverted from CBF national). These funds will create vibrant state organizations. So, at the state level we are in for a euphoric decade as we falsely imagine ‘the budget is growing;’ when in fact, dollars are simply shifting. The unknown question is: “Will this activity and excitement at the state level provide enough impetus for local CBF churches to increase the amount of money they send to ‘missions.’” Can the amount given to all CBF causes actually grow with this new structure? Probably not. As churches rediscover their financial autonomy they will give greater focus to their ‘denominational’ gifts (more designations), use more funds in their own missional activities in their communities and provide fewer funds for denominational ‘overhead.’
The Long-term Future
So, where is all this transformation heading? It is heading to the future-past. Long before there were associational, state and national Baptist associations and conventions, the local Baptist church was standing by itself and loosely connecting itself to other local congregations. Churches connected with one another for camp meetings, good preaching and good eating. In the midst of our transformations may we have the wisdom to keep the best of our past, good preaching and good eating.
Grace and some measure of Peace in these changing times,