Monday, February 20, 2017

Transitions: The Beginnings

Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.  I had the opportunity to serve as the coordinator of TCBF for slightly over 10 years.  So far, that is a record but one that I hope the current coordinator, Rick Bennett, will surpass.

Both the state and national incarnations of CBF continue to evolve.  When CBF was born, Dr. Bill Leonard made a comment, “This is a difficult time in American life to be part of a denomination or to start a new one.”  CBF has skirted around the use of the “D” word in recent years.  Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter has used the term "denomi-network" to describe CBF.  The terms “network,” “partnership,” and “fellowship” continue to be the preferred descriptors.  Most participants in CBF life seem to prefer a bit of ambiguity in describing the group and their relationship to it.  This allows for churches to continue to have multiple affiliations while still participating in CBF life.
In this blog, I want to talk about the beginnings of CBF life in Tennessee.  In a subsequent post, I will speculate on the future.
Left to right:  Ircel Harrison, Bill Junker, Lila Boyd,
and Lloyd Householder
As TCBF coordinator, I found the challenges of formalizing and normalizing a state organization both stimulating and frustrating.  Churches still did not know exactly how to deal with “the new kid on the block,” so I spent a lot of effort on leveraging old relationships and creating new ones.   I will always be grateful for the support of friends like Lloyd and Anne Marie Householder, Lila and Bob Boyd, Bill and Patsy Junker, Don and Vicky Dixon, Judy and Jeff Fryer, Mike and Grace Smith as well as many others.
Several of the challenges we faced dealt with our identity—who we were and what would we do.  
Here are three of those challenges:
First, we had to find a way to work with constituents from the three “grand divisions” of the state.  Supporters in each part of the state had their own agendas. Many TCBF adherents in the middle part of the state, especially in the Nashville area, were former employees of the Baptist Sunday School Board (now Lifeway) or the Executive Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.  They were angry and upset because the investment of their lives was slipping away.  Those in the eastern part of the state were not happy with what was happening in the SBC and the Tennessee Baptist Convention but, with typical Appalachian detachment, they tended to take a “wait and see” attitude.  When I met with the pastor of one large congregation and openly lobbied for support for Tennessee CBF, he very honestly responded, “We will wait and see what you do.”  Those in Memphis were a minority in the state and in their own community, struggling to be a progressive voice in a bastion of conservativism. 
The advantage I had as coordinator was that I had lived in east Tennessee, had my current residence in middle Tennessee, and traveled enough in west Tennessee to know the culture and its people.  Although Tennessee is my adopted state, I loved the people and appreciated the differences in the churches across the state.
The second challenge was whether TCBF would become politically active in the denominational wars, especially at the state level.  The conversations around this subject could fill a book, but one decision confirmed our direction.  I was asked to supply the TCBF mailing list to a moderate group that planned to be a dissenting voice at an upcoming meeting of the Tennessee Baptist Convention. Their goal was preserving not only “historic Baptist ideals” but the Baptist institutions as well.  I was not comfortable sharing this information.  After a discussion with our moderator, an east Tennessee pastor, I took the request to our Coordinating Council for a decision.  They rejected the request and adopted a policy to cover the use of information from our donors and handle it in a confidential manner.  We would not become a political action group.
Third, TCBF had to achieve some credibility as a ministry.  Today, I would use the term a “missional organization.”  We did this by finding partners both on the national and state level.  Of course, we supported the mission initiative of the CBF.  We partnered with University Baptist Church in Bloomington, Indiana, around International ministry; Samaritan Ministry at Central Baptist Church, Bearden, in Knoxville, on ministry with victims of HIV and AIDS; Neverfail Community Church on the Cumberland Plateau with a ministry in one of the poorest counties in our state; CBF missionaries in Jordan and, eventually, the Baptist Union of Croatia as a global outreach; and several others.  Some of these initiatives were more successful than others, but in each case, the partners we choose defined who we were and what we valued.  They honored us by their partnership with us.
Churches, clergy, and laity came to believe in the ministry of TCBF and provided the resources and support to grow and extend the outreach of our churches and partners.  I am grateful for those who came alongside as staff members and contract workers during those days:  Judy Fryer, Tammy Abee Blom, Mike Young, Lara Cotey, Amy Anderson Taylor, Tambi Swiney, LuAnne Prevost, and Emily Roberts.  There is not room enough to name all the others—both in Tennessee and in the National CBF office—who contributed their time and talents during those days.
During those days, my wife said, "You are much happier than I have seen you in years."  She was right.  I am grateful to have been part of the CBF movement during a challenging and fruitful decade.

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