After a year’s hiatus from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly, I was able to attend the recent meeting in Greensboro, North Carolina. Over the next several days, I will post some observations about the meeting. Of course, these are personal responses and reflect only my own opinions. Today, I will comment on the people present.
I continue to be pleased with the rich diversity of those attending the General Assembly. There are still some gray hairs like myself, but I was impressed by the youth of the group—both single and married young adults. Someone commented that one of the biggest challenges was finding stroller parking spaces! There were many present with young children and babies, a sure way to grow the Fellowship.
The diversity also extended to the racial and ethnic mix. There were a number of African-American and Hispanic members of the Fellowship present and many are in leadership roles. The number of Asian-Americans did not seem great, but perhaps I am more sensitive to this because I work with Central Baptist Theological Seminary which has a number of students with an Asian background—especially Koreans and Burmese.
Some familiar faces are gone—Cecil Sherman and James Dunn, for example, as well as many faithful Tennesseans who took the lead in creating the state organization I led for ten years. They are missed.
Let me be a bit more specific about some people who were present that made a special impression on me this year
First, Ka’thy Gore Chappell, leadership development coordinator for CBF of North Carolina was honored with the Frankie Huff Granger Distinguished Mentor Award by Baptist Women in Ministry. During her ministry in North Carolina and Virginia, Ka’thy has encouraged both women and men to discover and use their God-given talents. She exemplifies the best of those who have been faithful to their call even when times have been tough. I have only known Ka’thy for a few years but her enthusiasm and commitment are contagious. The honor was well-deserved.
Second, my friend and colleague Molly Marshall, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, also received the recognition that she deserves as one who has “been through the fire” and remained faithful to her calling. Molly was recognized by the Baptist Center for Ethics/EthicsDaily.com as the “Baptist of the Year” for 2015. She has been described in this way by Robert Parham, executive director of the organization:
“She is a Baptist trailblazer in interfaith and intercultural engagement at a time when the cultural and religious tectonic plates are shifting. She leads with word, institutional investment and a global presence.”
I could not agree more.
Third, Robert Parham himself is an inspiration to me. He has served as the executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics/EthicsDaily.com for its entire life of twenty-five years. Robert is a true entrepreneur who has led the organization to adopt new ways to address the major issues of our time—incarceration, immigration, economic justice, and interfaith cooperation, for example—with creativity and insight. Robert is also a gifted leader who works increasingly in the background while the young staff he has enlisted lead the way.
Fourth, one of my heroes of the faith, Brent Walker, Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, was recognized for his leadership at a banquet attended by 700 of his closest friends on Friday. Brent will retire at the end of the year, after serving the longest of any staff member in the 80-year history of an organization which champions religious liberty for all people. As the successor of James Dunn, he had big shoes to fill, but he carved out a distinctive way forward for BJC and expanded its services and advocacy into new areas. Brent is not only a great leader but a humble, nice guy. He will be missed.
You may notice that none of these people is part of the national CBF organization, although Ka’thy Gore Chappell is a staff member of a state CBF organization. I think one thing they have in common is their commitment to innovation and willingness to face a challenge without fear. They also are open to working with others who have similar commitments.
In the CBF world, partner organizations like the ones that these individuals lead and serve play a pivotal role in the way forward for “free and faithful Baptists.” Their cooperation with other boards, agencies, and the CBF national organization is built on relationships forged in grief, hope, and some fear but most of all in learning to work together.
The CBF world is made up of people who have chosen to voluntarily work with each other as these leaders do. Churches do not elect “messengers” to the General Assembly. Ministers, partner organization staff people, and laity come because they want to be there and be part of something bigger than themselves. They want to be part of the work of the Kingdom. That’s why I like being with them.