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Texas Convention ‘Revisioning’ for Future

Having survived the Southern Baptist Convention’s moderate/fundamentalist wars as one of the few state conventions under moderate control, the Baptist General Convention of Texas is now fighting another battle: remaining relevant to 5,600 churches.

Meetings this week in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Dallas kicked off a “revisioning” process aimed at reversing a trend of decline. Top elected officers affirming reorganization in January described the BGCT with terms including “malaise.” <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
“The BGCT is not as strong financially as it was a few years ago,” Ken Hall, president of the state convention, said Wednesday in a phone interview. “We’re not growing at a rate to keep pace with the population. We’re not educating enough ministers to pastor the churches we have, let alone start new ones.”
 
“We’re still strong, and we can build on our strengths,” Hall said.
 
BGCT Executive Director Charles Wade last Friday announced formation of four “revisioning teams” to help shape the convention’s future. Two of the teams, consisting of 10-13 members each, are composed of pastors—one group of younger pastors and the other of ministers age 40 and older. Another team is comprised of laity, and the last is made up of BGCT staff. A consultant, Sherrill Spies, is working as facilitator for all four teams.
 
The teams will identify critical issues facing the convention and its churches, offer opinions about priorities and suggest “possible models for organization,” Chris Liebrum, BGCT director of human resources, said in a news release.
 
Wade told the BGCT Executive Board on Wednesday that he would bring a progress report on the revisioning process at a May 25 board meeting and present an organizational plan Sept. 28, according to a report of the meeting in the Baptist Standard.
 
Executive Board members contacted via e-mail by EthicsDaily.com affirmed the process.
 
“It’s long overdue,” said Bill Shiell, senior pastor of Southland Baptist Church in San Angelo. “The churches have long felt a sense of disconnect from the Dallas building.”
 
“I believe the study is essential to the long-term viability of the organization,” said Tommy Hiebert, a layman also from Southland Baptist Church in San Angelo.
 
Kyle Reese, pastor of First Baptist Church of San Angelo, agreed the reorganization is needed.
“If the BGCT can redefine itself into a leaner and more fluid organization, I believe we have a great future ahead of us,” he said. “If not, we are destined to mediocrity at best and, at worst, total irrelevance.”
 
Reese said one problem facing the BGCT is common to other state conventions that rejected a conservative takeover that occurred in the SBC. “The takeover in Texas was resisted, but now what do we do?” he said. Reese said large numbers of churches are not actively involved in the convention beyond financial support. “This, I believe, is where the restructuring comes into play. If we can become a leaner organization that will assist churches in their God-given mission and help them ‘to do together what they cannot do apart,’ I believe we will be more appealing to a significant number of these churches.”
 
Shiell cited “growing irrelevancy of the convention model to churches and mission leaders today.”
 
“The younger generation of pastors and ministers are generally uninformed and uninspired at this point about denominational life,” Shiell said. “The only way we’re going to salvage it is by giving them something that says ‘You need to be a part of this movement of traditional Baptists.'”
 
Rather than looking to a state convention to redistribute LifeWay products or promote missions in Atlanta or Richmond, Shiell said, churches today “feel like they can generally handle things on their own.”
 
“We just need the resources to be empowered to do it,” Shiell said. “We need to be able to send people directly into missions service without having to jump through denominational hoops or sign creeds; thus we need lean, flexible mission-sending agencies that have little overhead and many opportunities.”
 
One idea generating early controversy was a Baptist Standard story about a meeting in January that included a listing of several items that leaders hoped would be “priority concerns” in the reorganization process. One was to “quit processing financial contributions from churches to national conventions, such as the SBC and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.”
 
Leaders are divided over whether that specific proposal will, or should, be part of the final outcome. Wade told the Executive Board Wednesday that he is opposed to elimination of pass-through funds to national bodies.
 
Hiebert, on the other hand, said he agrees with a “respected friend and leader” who called it “sheer insanity” for the BGCT to continue to fund the SBC while the national denomination “works strenuously to destroy the BGCT.”
 
While accepting nearly $30 million in Cooperative Program and designated gifts from the BGCT in 2002-03, the SBC also recognizes an opposing state convention, the Southern Baptists of Texas, which claims 1,400 churches either singly or dually aligned. Most were formerly uniquely aligned with the BGCT.
 
Reese said he thinks eliminating the pass-through funds “is a natural progression for our convention. It will probably cost us some churches, but I believe it is best for our overall health in the long run. It will cause churches to make a decision that some have been avoiding since 1979.”
 
Hall–who in addition to serving as BGCT president is CEO of Buckner Baptist Benevolences, a convention agency–told EthicsDaily.com that such public debates are going to be inevitable, because he is committed to conducting the revisioning process in the open. “What I’ve committed is to keep all discussions out in the open,” Hall said. “We’re not going to operate behind closed doors. That means some people might get uncomfortable with who participates in a meeting.”
 
Hall said some, for example, questioned why David Currie, head of Texas Baptists Committed and not an elected BGCT leader, was invited to a planning meeting in January. “Well, it was not an official meeting,” Hall said. “[Currie] is a Texas Baptist and Texas Baptists Committed is important to Texas Baptists. His input is valuable. That doesn’t mean everyone is going to agree with his input.”
 
Some are also saying the convention staff has grown too large to sustain, even after a 10-percent staff reduction last year in a cost-cutting move. Liebrum told EthicsDaily.com that the convention employs 101 “regular program staff,” 98 “regular ministry-assistant staff,” 33 people “under employment agreements” and 52 persons serving full time in Baptist student ministry positions.
 
Hall said it is too early to speculate on what impact the revisioning might have on staffing. “I think it would be very premature,” he said.
 
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.