Anxiety and abundance were two themes that emerged during a retreat of organizational leaders related to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, held at Callaway Gardens, Ga., at the end of April.
"I try to spend a lot more time thinking about opportunities than I do challenges," said Bill Underwood, president of Mercer University. (Photo: Clark Hill and Beth Fulton, CBF)
Both outlooks disclose how some goodwill Baptists see their current conditions and forecast the future.
In my presentation, I made the case that the greatest challenge facing the Baptist Center for Ethics/EthicsDaily.com was harnessing abundance, an abundance of opportunity. Our Web traffic and contributing columnists continue to grow. One documentary has won awards and been widely screened across the country, enriching interracial engagement and focusing on the need for racial justice. Another documentary has aired on more than 130 ABC-TV stations and gotten two shout-outs from movie star Denzel Washington. So, of course, I see the future as full of opportunity and promise.
During the closing session, Ron Crawford, president of the Baptist Theological Seminary-Richmond, gave a report from the discussion at the table named for Cecil Sherman that emphasized a promising future.
"Where do we go from here? We restructure the organization. How do we arrive at a shared vision? We claim our abundant possibilities. We are not desperate. We are pregnant," said Crawford, who spoke with a Shermanesque deliberation and would almost have resembled Sherman had he jutted out his chin.
Bill Underwood, president of Mercer University, said a day earlier, "I have found through the years that the more I think about challenges I face, the less I see opportunity, and the more I think about opportunities that I have, the more I find solutions to challenges that I have. So, I try to spend a lot more time thinking about opportunities than I do challenges."
On a different track from the message of opportunity was the message of how tough things are – women preachers can't find pulpits, churches are too hard on preachers, folk are too demanding, CBF's identity is too confusing, CBF needs to be reorganized, the movement has too few people of color, the Baptist brand is damaged.
Many participants saw the situation as dire resulting from the lack of financial resources.
"We don't have enough money, enough constituents, enough readers, enough students, enough volunteers. As we've said today several times already, enough money, enough money, enough money. Not surprisingly many groups within our movement face difficulties, if not for mere survival then to fulfill the founding vision or to live up to supporters' expectations or to pull the median age of the constituency below 73," said one presenter, who later spoke about desperation.
A theology school leader warned that unless CBF responded to demographic changes it would "be extinct in about 20 years." Another theology school representative used the term "sinking ship."
In a way, the room had the "woe is us" camp and the "thank the Lord oh my soul" camp.
Without a doubt, goodwill Baptists face a host of challenges. But how we face challenges is determinative.
Goodwill Baptists would do well to remember that every Baptist generation has faced challenges. One generation of Baptists in the South faced the collapse of a culture following a devastating war. Another generation faced the economic collapse of a country. And yet another generation faced churches and church members at odds with the biblical mandate of racial reconciliation and hostile to the civil rights movement's call for social justice.
Our current plight pales in comparison to what many of our Baptist forefathers and foremothers faced.
Maybe one of our fundamental problems is that some mistakenly think that they are extra special – having been born on third base they think they hit a triple, to appropriate an image of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards. We think we are too special to have hardships.
If attitude determines altitude, then goodwill Baptists ought to rejoice at the challenges and prioritize the opportunities to advance the best of the Baptist tradition for the common good.
Life is good, far better than what most of us deserve. Let's see the abundance that is before us and press on to the high calling to do justice and to live rightly for the glory of God and the good of our neighbor.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.