Monday, June 25, 2012

Bienvenidos la Familia

“Welcome to the Family” was an appropriate phrase to describe the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly that drew 1,625 Fellowship Baptists to Fort Worth, Texas, last week.  There was no controversy, little anxiety, and a lot of family-type fellowship.

The two landmark events were the retirement of Daniel Vestal, who has served as executive coordinator of CBF for 15 years, and the adoption of the recommendations of the 2012 Task Force.  Together these communicate a time of transition in Cooperative Baptist life but there seemed little concern or fear about the future.  Certainly, there may be some anxiety among Fellowship staff members during this time of change, but the average Fellowship Baptist is not overly concerned but rather seems expectant and excited about the future of the Fellowship.

During the closing session, Vestal was characterized in a letter from Richard Hamm of Christian Churches Together as the person who led Cooperative Baptists from “we are not them” to “this is who we are.”  He delivered an earnest message based on Ephesians 3:20-21 that challenged Fellowship Baptists to do “infinitely more” with God and through the power of God.  Vestal has been a stabilizing force as CBF has moved from a reactive to a proactive stance.

The Task Force report was adopted easily and with only one minor change recommended in the break-out discussion.  The goal of the Task Force was to provide a way for CBF to do “seamless cooperative ministry” and to find   “new expressions of ministry.”  The greatest gift of the Task Force process may have been the way that it brought together several generations of leadership so that they could listen, learn, and formulate a plan.

Fellowship Baptists seem to be at their best when they can come together in diverse groups of ten to 15 participants where people can get to know each other and practice respectful discernment.  This is a significant improvement over the way that denominational politics is usually practiced.   I think we will see the “respectful discernment” process at work in the Search Committee for the next executive coordinator.

I came away from the meeting with the impression that Fellowship Baptists are ready to respond to effective leadership. Moderator Colleen Burroughs received a spontaneous and extended standing ovation after her report.  Incoming moderator Keith Herron was warmly welcomed as well.  David Hull and the other members of the Task Force were affirmed for their long and tedious work.  When Fellowship Baptists see those of their number leading with integrity and confidence, they will respond with enthusiasm.

Vestal's powerful sermon marks the end of an era for Fellowship Baptists while pointing to a new day.  We do not know the way forward but it will be different.  The Fellowship has three different generations of leaders.  The “old guard” is made up of people like Vestal and myself.  We thrived in the old denominational context but we saw that taken away and have sought to find a new home.  The struggle saddled us with a sense of loss and we have worked to feel comfortable in a new place.  A second generation was caught on the cusp of the change.  They came of age in ministry about the time that the Southern Baptist Convention was no longer a welcoming home.  They followed the “old guard” in forming a new identity and became the real foot soldiers of the movement.  The third generation of leaders is made up of those who do not remember the “Holy War.”  CBF is the only home many of these young Baptists have known.  They do not carry the fears of the past but they have their own challenges—facing limiting circumstances, addressing issues of church health and vitality, overcoming the past while embracing what is good about it, and dealing with relevant ethical issues with integrity.

Although the next executive coordinator of CBF will probably come from the “second wave” of Fellowship leaders, he or she must know how to listen and respond to the needs of the “third wave.”  I believe that Fellowship Baptists finally realize that our way is forward and not back.  There is nothing in Egypt for us, so we press on to the Promised Land.

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