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Trouble in Paradise

As in the case of the Northern Baptist Convention, the creation of American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. brought mixed responses: unrealistic expectations and fears. Old concerns continued. New ones appeared. Finally, a negative feasibility study for a denomination-wide financial campaign triggered action by the General Board.

As in the case of the Northern Baptist Convention, the creation of American Baptist Churches in the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />U.S.A. brought mixed responses: unrealistic expectations and fears. Old concerns continued. New ones appeared. Finally, a negative feasibility study for a denomination-wide financial campaign triggered action by the General Board. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
The Review Commission on Denominational Structure and Process was created by the General Board in 1997 and charged to “study, assess and make recommendations with respect to the present and future structure and process of the denomination.” The commission consisted of 17 members, carefully chosen for representation across the denomination. While denominational staff were consulted, they were not members of the commission.
 
The commission engaged an independent organization to conduct a denomination-wide survey. From that survey the commission summarized several issues that informed their thinking. “Cooperation, when it occurs, is elective.” “Resources, budgets, programs, etc., are segregated.” “The present structure is counter-intuitive.”
 
They considered four options: (1.) maintain the status quo, (2.) return to the societal model, (3.) modify the present structure, and (4.) design a unified mission organization. The commission pursued the fourth option–merging the existing national corporations into one corporation.
 
The proposal failed, primarily because of the concerns of staff and the historical mission societies over the loss of independence and identity. Incidentally, the same reasons that a similar proposal failed in 1908, the year after the Northern Baptist Convention was formed.
 
However, the issues that led to the Review Commission in the first place persisted and were complicated by the looming demise of the Board of Educational Ministries. A second study group was formed in 2001, consisting of 25 members, as the Structure and Process Study Group.
 
While this group was also carefully representative, it consisted mostly of General Board members and denominational staff (both national and regional). The same dynamics that doomed the work of the Review Commission were present in the Study Group.
 
The Study Group reported that many of our structural issues seem to revolve around uncertain and troubled relationships–the relationship between congregations and denomination, the relationship between national and regional components, the relationship between the General and the Program Boards, and the relationship between the General Secretary and the Executive Directors.
 
After a lot of work, including professional consultants and facilitators, the Study Group presented a modest proposal to the General Board in 2002. In other words, the Study Group took approach No. 3 that had been considered and rejected by the Review Commission.
 
The key ideas that the proposal sought to incorporate included:
 
–A General Board that retained its size and representative character, but had a more certain role in setting vision, determining priorities, assigning functions, and allocating resources.
 
–A General Secretary that had leadership authority to achieve denominational goals and assure accountability.
 
–A Staff Leadership Council that brought together key national and regional staff leaders for planning and coordinating within an atmosphere of collegiality.
 
–Program units that continued the identity and tradition of Educational Ministries, International Ministries, and National Ministries.
 
–An Administrative Services unit that could consolidate a variety of duplicated functions such as human resources, graphic arts, basic legal services, printing, etc.
 
Some on the General Board expressed concern that the proposal did not go far enough. Others opposed even the minimal level of organizational integration that the proposal envisioned. In the final analysis, some of the proposals were implemented administratively, the legal relationship of Administratively Related Organizations (many would call them “auxiliaries”) to the denomination was clarified, but most the substantive proposals that would require bylaw changes were allowed to fade.
 
In the meantime, the Board of Educational Ministries failed, discord within the denomination grew, there was a second negative feasibility study for a denomination-wide financial campaign, and the financial pressures, especially on General Board operations, became critical.
 
Dwight Stinnett is executive minister of American Baptist Churches of the Great Rivers Region.
 
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