Friday, August 25, 2017

Baptist associations and the struggle with irrelevance

Did you read the Baptist Press story on the survey of local Baptist associations?  Survey Weighs Value of Baptist Associations.

Perhaps the most salient quote coming out of this recent study might be this one,

“When asked to describe the most exciting aspect of their local Baptist association, the most popular answer among church leaders was ‘nothing,'” said Jason Lowe, a Kentucky director of missions who led the study that looked into attitudes about the work of local Baptist associations.


How’s that for a succinct evaluation of the work of our most historic cooperative organization?

The specific comments are rather painful,

“My association is mediocre, and thus my church is only minimally invested…they’re 20 years behind on everything. Barely have a website and thinks a fax machine is the latest communication…Nothing, it’s a waste of time and money…Not much. Our association does very, very little…Nothing excites me about it…Nothing really. It’s been a good ole boys association…Really honestly, nothing. It’s living and functioning in the past…Our current local association does very little to serve our Churches.”

My experience is that it’s never hard to get pastors complaining about their local association. Sometimes this is justified. Sometimes not.

What church leaders found frustrating according to comments on the survey:

“Pointless annual meetings…Unnecessary expenses in paid staff and buildings…Total lack of function…Little participation and does nothing but take church dollars. Really a gigantic waste of time…Ineffective…We’re not doing the things that need to be done. We’re functioning as we have, but aren’t relevant to the churches…The complete lack of any gospel work…Associations are so outdated. They cater to large churches and are almost exclusively led by small churches. It is not a network of like-minded churches as much as it is a place for bored people to complain about successful people.”

The Directors of Missions who responded to the survey were, unsurprisingly, most concerned about lack of commitment and participation by churches.

One of the most telling results of the survey was the response to the statement, “Church Would Be Negatively Affected If Local Baptist Association Did Not Exist.” Over four of ten church leaders answered negatively, that is, they did not feel the church would be negatively affected if the local association went kaput. Predictably, DOMs almost all agreed with the statement.

One thing that all senior pastors have is an opinion on their local association and the DOM. I’ve always liked the DOMs but only one was what I would call effective in the role and personally helpful to me and my church.

The Baptist association has been very important in our history in some respects. It has been described as “the oldest cooperative unit in Baptist life tracing its existence back over 300 years.” It should be best in helping churches to cooperate in ministry and fellowship although it looks to me like much of the cooperation has been handed off to state and national entities. Associations should be the place where doctrinal standards are most vigorous and scrutinized. I can identify with the comments by survey respondents that the association lacks relevance while slogging along, apparently impelled by institutional and programmatic inertia.

Some erudite Baptist historian can educate me on why the local association was left out of the Cooperative Program distribution nine decades ago. Was it assumed that the local association could easily prove its  value to geographically proximate churches and have little difficult in raising any necessary funding? Were there very few paid associational staff, DOMs or Associational Missionaries and no central offices? I’d speculate that when it became fashionable or there arose perceived value in having a paid associational staff with attendant office and administrative expenses that the focus was subtly shifted from serving churches to maintaining the associational staff and budget. I was regularly told that churches should support their association with 3% of their undesignated giving. It wasn’t explained why although budgets showed the DOM, secretary, and building consumed around 80% of all contributions. One DOM brazenly asked for 4%.

Some larger associations have several staff, operate numerous ministries, plant churches and do work that I would value as a pastor. I cannot think of much the smaller associations have to offer now that just about any church administrative assistance is available online. Most associations near me offer some form of church revitalization services but I’m unaware of any such programs that show measurable positive results. DOMs have personally been helpful in specific services but I’m not sure that is worth a full-time staff position.

I’m curious how pastors view their association and, if present, their DOM or AM these days. There are 1,136 associations in the Southern Baptist Convention. The 116 DOMs that responded to this survey might represent 20% or so of these. That’s a pretty good proportion even though the survey was not randomized. Consider that 2 of 3 DOMs are over 60 years of age and 9 of 10 are over fifty. The route to the DOM job has been an experienced, respected pastor moving to the DOM position as their terminal job. Perhaps the psychology involved in that is not conducive to vision and change.

One thing seems sure about our associations. Either the function changes substantially or we drop a lot of staffing, move to part-time or volunteer staffing. I’d be interested in how my colleagues perceive these things.


I’m not all that confident in any survey where respondents are self-selected but there is a massive amount of data in this one. Probably the most reliable results are from the DOMs since their sample size was rather large. Even then, it’s difficult to judge what kinds of DOMs would have been motivated to respond. The survey’s summary tables may be viewed here.

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