The Future of the Local Association Part 2: Church Networking

As I have made very clear in the last few posts, I believe in the local association. In fact, I think it is the most valuable component of the Southern Baptist Convention other than the mission boards and the cooperative program that funds them. The local association accomplishes something that no other denominational entity can do; they are on the ground with the local churches. This close connection with the local churches gives the associations a leg up for the future.

The multisite movement has taken the church world by storm, and we are better off because of it. Yes there are weaknesses with the movement, but overall I think it is going to benefit the church in the long run. The local associations should take notes on the multisite movement and borrow some principles from it. I’m not saying that associations should become multisite churches or that there should be a bishop-like director of missions that has ultimate authority of the churches in his region, but I am saying the fellowship of churches should be closer than it is now. I am going to call this connection church networking.

There are two major factors that will contribute to the success or failure of such a movement. The first is associational leadership and the second is church cooperation.

Associational Leadership 

The position of director of missions or associational missionary must be given high priority! I believe that this position, while it is currently not emphasized, is going to play a major role in the future of the church. We must fill these positions with great men of God with strong vision and leadership. It does not matter how good the idea is if the man who pulls the trigger is not able to make it happen. In order for the association to have any future the leadership positions must be filled with capable individuals who are ready to take the organization to the next level. Without this factor there is no future for associations in church networking.

Church Cooperation 

The second factor is church cooperation, and this is easier said than done. For Baptist churches, autonomy is a sacred right and to even think about questioning it is a hangable offense. I do agree that autonomy is healthy and necessary, but we cannot make it an idol. In the system that I am suggesting, unlike in the multisite system, each church would remain autonomous, but the bond between them would be much tighter than it is now. Churches are who say they are going to be autonomous or die, are going to do just that. For the future we are going to have to forfeit some personal privileges for the sake of the Kingdom. 30 churches in one association who are all completely separate in every way from one another but are doing the same exact things is just not going to work anymore. They must work together, and rather than creating a new system, we should rework the one we already have. The local association could be a great commission networking center promoting the health and future of local churches to the glory of God.

The Future of the Local Association Part 1: Pastoral Training

In order for any organization to survive it must adapt. Walmart for example adapts all the time. They do not leave even the simplest things the same if increased productivity is possible.  If the local associations are going to survive, they are going to have to adapt. I choose the word adapt intentionally. Change is dangerous because it can be done with out purpose or only to accommodate the latest fad. Adapting however is intentional and meets a specific need. The local associations don’t need to go changing what they do, only adapting what they do in order to meet the current needs in the churches they serve. Below is the first way I believe the local association can adapt to not only survive but to lead our churches into the future.

Pastoral Training 

One of the strongest aspects of the local association as they now stand is the fellowship of pastors, as I wrote previously. Some say to become better you should focus on your weaknesses to make them stronger, and there is some truth to that. However, it seems even more productive if you improve something you are already doing well. If associations can take that time of pastoral fellowship and adapt it or build upon it to form some kind of pastoral training, great things would happen in our associations and our churches.

Many associations serve churches were very few pastors have formal theological training. This is the case not because the pastors don’t want training, but because they don’t have access to it. These men crave the knowledge and experiences some of their colleagues received in seminary. I am extremely confident that the local association can secure its place in the future of Christian life if they would become training outposts for pastors all over the nation.

My experience here in the Cross Church School of Ministry has taught me that training, even formal training, is possible in any setting, and seminaries are ready and willing to work with churches to provide it. The only issue is finding funding and qualified teachers, but I’m willing to bet both of those things exist in almost every association. Not every church has the resources to start a pastoral training program, and not every church has enough men desiring training to warrant such a program anyway, but the association as a whole does.

If the association partnered with a seminary such as Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary they could take advantage of the EQUIP program and other programs like it. In this program a student can earn as many as 30 hours toward his Mdiv without ever entering a classroom. The best part is that these classes can be taught by anyone with post masters level work. The seminary provides the curriculum and does all the accreditation, but the teaching is done by men who have faithfully served in the trenches of ministry. On top of that, the teachers actually receive a stipend from the school instead of paying in to the school. The future of theological education is found in programs like these.

Imagine if there was a localized organization that serves as a hub for an area of local churches where such a program could be hosted. Oh wait, such a place already exists… the local association.

 

Pastoral Fellowship Leads To Church Health

Every Tuesday morning the pastors of the North Canadian Baptist Association (NCBA) gather for a time of fellowship, encouragement, and prayer. These men actively pray for each other and share about what is happening in their local churches, but the most beneficial aspect of these meetings is simply hanging out with other pastors. One of the greatest benefits provided by any local association is the fellowship of pastors. Most churches do not have large staffs, so the work can become quite lonely. Providing some sort of fellowship for the pastors can help alleviated some of that stress and consequently improve the health of the pastor and his church. These fellowships will help…

Prevent Pastoral Burnout 

My pawpaw once told me the story about the pastor who used to watch the train roll through town every day. When asked about the unusual habit, he would simply reply, “I watch the train because it is the only thing in this town that I’m not pushing or pulling.” Sadly, the load carried by many pastors is heavier than anyone in his congregation realizes, and in most churches the pastor is carrying that load by himself. He has no one to talk to about his problems, and if something goes wrong, he is the one to call. Overtime, this can lead to pastoral burnout. However, the local association and the pastors who participate provide an excellent remedy for burnout. Simply being around other pastors and hearing that they are dealing with many of the very same issues can really help reduce burnout.

The Tuesday morning pastors’ fellowship at the NCBA is usually followed by lunch and, if the weather permits, golf. Some of the greatest learning experiences I have had in the ministry have happened around the lunch table. These lunches are about much more than just good food, it is an opportunity for the pastors to build one another up. Never underestimate the power of a lunch or a round of golf to lift the spirit of the pastor. Regularly participating in these simple things is like staying up to date on vaccinations to prevent pastoral burnout.

Increase Pastoral Tenure

I know this information is only anecdotal, but I do believe there is something to it. The pastors in the NCBA seem to stay at their churches longer than the national averages. The average is around 4 years, but in that particular association many of the pastors have been there since I was in high school, and some even longer than that. I think one of the major contributing factors to the extended tenure is the quality of the fellowship provided by the Director of Missions and the pastors of the association.

It is much easier to stay somewhere when hard times come if you have such a solid support system. When I had a hard week, I always knew that there would be a circle of great men waiting to encourage me and push me forward at the associational office on Tuesday morning. That group of men made my first years in the pastorate, mistakes and all, a truly wonderful  experience. If that was true for me, I am sure the others feel the same way, and I am quite confident that this reality helps them stay in their churches much longer than the statistics suggest.

Promote Church Health 

Healthy pastors lead healthy churches. The association has a direct impact on church health every time they schedule a pastors’ breakfast or a mere round of golf. If pastoral fellowship has such a strong effect on the health of the pastor, and I believe it does, than every step taken to help him is helping the church as a whole. If pastors are staying in churches longer and they are not dealing with the issues associated with burnout, than  our churches will be the better for it. The good news is that any local association can provide opportunity for pastors to fellowship. Which means that every association can take great steps toward promoting healthy churches with even the smallest of means. Let the North Canadian Baptist Association serve as a positive example of how this can actually work out.