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American Baptists Struggle with Reorganization

“There they go again!” American Baptists have just celebrated the centennial of the old Northern Baptist Convention. At the same time we are deeply engaged in yet another denominational reorganization. We seem to have a persistent dissatisfaction with ourselves that erupts in periodic episodes of reorganization fever. What is going on and why?

“There they go again!” American Baptists have just celebrated the centennial of the old Northern Baptist Convention. At the same time we are deeply engaged in yet another denominational reorganization. We seem to have a persistent dissatisfaction with ourselves that erupts in periodic episodes of reorganization fever. What is going on and why?

This essay is in three parts. The first two try to give some historical perspective on our present situation, which is the focus of the third part.

Contrary to popular mythology, the Triennial Convention (formed in 1814) did not instantly transform into the Northern Baptist Convention when Baptists in the South left the mission society over the refusal to appoint slaveholding missionaries in 1845 (no, that was not the only issue). Eventually, those churches formed the Southern Baptist Convention. But the Triennial Convention continued to be a foreign mission society composed of individuals who made financial contributions (not churches or their representatives). However, it did change its name to the American Baptist Missionary Union. The American Baptist Publication Society (1824) and American Baptist Home Mission Society (1832) already existed as similar independent societies.

In the latter half of the 19th century, Baptist societies and special-interest groups multiplied. The growth of independent societies with no unified or coordinated purpose competing for finances and attention became increasingly problematic. By the close of the 19th century, the Publication Society was in serious financial difficulty. In good American Baptist fashion, a joint commission was formed of the major societies to address the issue, but it was ineffectual. Finally, a petition by less than 200 Baptist leaders in 1906 demanded a unified meeting in Washington for the express purpose of creating a national body.

The power politics and uncivil meetings do not need to be rehearsed. Suffice it to say that the societies reluctantly acquiesced. The 1907 meeting in Washington, D.C., agreed. A constitution was adopted in Oklahoma City the following year, and the Northern Baptist Convention was incorporated in 1910. The name was changed to the American Baptist Convention in 1950.

In 1910 there were five cooperating societies held together contractually with the convention. The state conventions became affiliating organizations. All retained their status as independent corporations with their own governing boards. The existing Executive Committee was transformed into a General Council of less than 50, and was vested with all the authority of the convention between sessions. The annual convention meeting was the only representative body.

The stated reasons for the creation of the Northern Baptist Convention were: (1.) unity and cooperation in worldwide evangelistic efforts, (2.) theologically-informed public witness on issues of social and denominational concern and (3.) promoting a distinct national identity. But the move was not universally applauded. Some feared the specter of “popery.” Others thought it usurped the mission task of congregations. Still others simply preferred the societal approach.

The NBC was only marginally effective. The creation of the convention raised expectations that, to a large extent, it was not structured to deliver. Societies continued to operate independently. Social and theological rifts in America took their toll on the convention. Financial difficulties continued. Frustrations mounted. In an article published in 1952 (not even 50 years after the creation of the convention), William Lipphard declared the NBC a “failure.”

Dissatisfaction persisted, and there were sporadic attempts at organizational changes–some modest, others dramatic. Finally, a Study Commission on Denominational Structure was appointed in Boston in 1968. The commission documented many of the concerns across the denomination.

The final proposal was presented and accepted at the Convention in Denver (1972). Because this resulted in a radically different organization, there was a planned follow-up study. This group, the Study Commission on Relationships was appointed in 1972 and reported in 1976. At the meeting in San Diego (1977) a new set of bylaws was adopted. This is essentially the organization we live with today.

Our name was changed to American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.

The annual meeting was abandoned for a biennial meeting that retained very little of the legislative/policy power of the convention.

The two constituencies of ABC/USA were identified: local congregations and covenanting regional organizations (state conventions).

Written covenants between the various corporations became the basis for our life together (the “Covenant of Relationships”).

The General Board was created as a proportionally representative body which functions as the board of directors for ABC/USA. The societies became the Board of Educational Ministries (BEM), the Board of International Ministries (BIM), and the Board of National Ministries (BNM). The Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board MMBB) had already been created as a denominational board in 1911. While the historic societies remain distinct legal entities, these boards are ostensibly under the control of the General Board by interlocking membership and executive directors who are hired (but not fired) by the General Board.

Despite the mistakes and questionable decisions, two moves in the work of the Study Commission qualify as inspired. The first was to define the membership of the historic mission societies as members of the General Board, who are the elected representatives of the churches. This drew a clear line of accountability to the churches that comprise ABC/USA. Most people forget that before this the societies were composed of individuals, with no direct accountability to churches, and that the boards were self-sustaining.

The second inspired move was to use “covenant” as the glue to hold 35-plus autonomous and semi-independent groups together. This was a biblically based framework which resonated with most American Baptists, and allowed us to be together in a profound way without discounting congregational independence.

The number one success story of this era was United Mission. This shared funding program, as much as anything, created the ABC/USA identity that matured through the 1970s and 1980s. At the same time, the success of United Mission set the stage for the financial crisis we are in right now.

United Mission capitalized on our passion for international missions. But other components of American Baptist life came to depend on United Mission. Most regions neglected teaching, reporting and creating passion for their own mission and ministry, because they “rode the coattails” of international missions. At the same time, many did not recognize that regions were acting as “mini-mission societies” supporting the work of international missions.

While it cannot be directly linked to organizational strategy, another American Baptist success of this era was the unparalleled explosion of ethnic diversity in the denomination. As we entered the 21st century, we found ourselves to be the only denomination in the United States without an ethnic majority.

Dwight Stinnett is executive minister of American Baptist Churches of the Great Rivers Region.