What Can We Do Better Together than Apart?

What Can We Do Better Together than Apart?

June 7, 2007

I just returned from lengthy annual meetings of the General Council of the North American Baptist Conference at Judson College in Elgin, IL. They were lengthy because my office as president of the seminary also places me on the executive committee that meets before the regular meetings. So starting on Wednesday evening and going all day Thursday, the executive met. This was followed up by the start of General Council on Thursday evening and meetings that went through Saturday noon (8:30 AM to 9:00 PM on Friday). Whew! A lot of sitting. And, of course, we drove the nine hours over there (again, a lot of sitting) and back again (a lot of you know what).

As I sat there fighting with the overhead lights in the meeting rooms (they drive my eyes crazy), I thought about what I might say in my Blog about the meetings. Here are some thoughts.

A conference or denomination or adjudicatory body possesses biblical precedence (see Acts 11 or 15). We discussed at some length in break out sessions this question about the role of the NAB Conference and its priorities for ministry. In my group, after a lot of "talk," it seemed to me we still had not answered the key question: what can we do better together than apart?

I think we can take the Gospel beyond the local setting better when we pool our efforts. It takes a lot of work to analyze areas of missional need and to organize visas, living arrangements, language training, ministry priorities, etc., work that can be done from a central location much more efficiently than through each individual or individual church. It would seem to me this might include both home and overseas ministries. Our overall objectives should be the same whether church planting overseas or in North America or in whatever cross-cultural ministry.

I also think we can decide correct doctrine better together so that we have an agreed upon consensus aided by the Holy Spirit. For example, one of the regions had a representative who brought up a question about baptism and church membership. It was agreed that many regions are facing the same question, but the issue was not addressed. It might be good for us to return to it to give direction to each other.

The basic question is not whether immersion as believers is the proper mode, but whether people in the body of Christ who have identified themselves with a local assembly of believers (an NAB church) can have fellowship and even leadership in that body if they have not been immersed. We might conclude that they are indeed disciples of Jesus, but they are "wrong" about their baptism (assuming they experienced pedobaptism or perhaps sprinkling or pouring as adult believers). So do they need to conform to be active in this local body? Is there some other approach that might work? Where does the Kingdom and higher priorities enter into the discussion? Should someone who is a dynamic disciple of Jesus, but who has not been immersed, take a lesser role in the church than an immersed person who does not demonstrate any Christ-like characteristics?

I also believe we can equip our ministers better in joint efforts. Discipleship is a local responsibility and priority. When deeper preparation is needed, colleges and seminaries enter the picture so that like-minded faculty may prepare those who will lead and minister to us in the future.

This last priority is not simply because I am president of a seminary (a North American Baptist seminary). I do not think it is possible that every local church hire a theologian or Biblicist or pastoral counselor or all the above and more. But we can do it together. Our responsibility, in turn, is to keep attuned to the needs of the church and prepare people who will minister well in years to come. The churches then partner with us by funding our ministry and by identifying and sending people as God directs.

Other business matters took place at the meetings. We heard reports from the various departments and ministries. Budgets, current and future, were reviewed. Missions is lagging behind for the first time in years. We discussed the search for a new executive director. It is going slow, but when a candidate surfaces the General Council agreed to reconvene with three weeks notice. In the meanwhile, Dr. Gordon Harris, our professor emeritus, offered to continue serving in a three-fourths time role as interim. Gordon has done a good job; he does need to play more golf with the summer here.

A policy governance task force brought a report reviewing some possible changes if we organize under this model. The Council voted to expand the task force and to ask them to bring back more specifics on what would be entailed. Interestingly, most candidates for the executive director position have asked for changes in this area. We have too many layers of governance now. Something has to change.

Next year's General Council meetings will take place in Winnipeg in preparation for the Triennial 2009.

Once again I was impressed how important these meetings are for a relatively small conference. Especially important is the personal conversations and relationships that grow and develop during the meetings. Even in the midst of "business," personal relationships take priority. We must be doing some things right.