Your Church and the Others

There is a sense in which an “association of churches” does not exist. Even though I work for one in an office inside a building with the name “Baptist Association” on the outside, in a real sense there is no such thing as an association of churches. All it is, is just your church and the one down the street and those across towns. Just the churches.

The reason I make this rather obvious point is that in our denomination there are church leaders who see the association as something “other” than the churches. They see it as a useless layer of denominationalism and thus a barrier to doing the Lord’s work. One more hindrance to effective Christian brotherhood and meaningful discipleship.

Nothing could be further from the reality.

Even if you fired me and shut down our offices and canceled every associational meeting, you would still have an association. Because all it is, is your church and the one down the street and those across town. It’s just the churches.

In the same way the pastor is not the church, the director of missions is not the association, and most assuredly not the denomination. The DOM, as we call him, is the servant of the churches, the pastor of the pastors, and to the degree we will allow him, our leader. But he has no authority over anyone, with the possible exception of the employees in his office.

But not everyone gets that.

People who do not understand the nature of this relationship between churches and the relationship of the DOM with the churches and pastors frequently ask us questions that reveal this knowledge gap.

“Why don’t you do something about that pastor? He’s bullying his people and the church is in trouble.”

Sorry. As much as I might want to, and as much as the church needs someone to intervene, I would be intruding as much as if I came to your house to stop a squabble between your parents. The church members–specifically their lay leaders–have to stand up and deal with pastor problems.

Some denominations have bishops with authority over the pastors and churches, and I suppose they do intervene when those relationships get unhealthy. At those times, it might be good to have a bishop, which is the word for the biblical term “episcopos,” meaning “overseer.” (See Acts 20:28) Churches can sometimes be like wayward children that need to be taken to the woodshed, to use an outdated expression but one which I assume you understand.

I can think of three places in the Scriptures where churches were taken to the woodshed. In I Corinthians 5, Paul did it when the church at Corinth was condoning open immorality. In III John, the apostle did it when a church boss named Diotrephes was throwing his weight around and interfering with missionary work. Most importantly, Jesus Himself did it to five of the seven churches of Asia Minor in Revelation 2-3 when He threatened to “remove their lampstand,” which I take to mean “put you out of business.”

In our denomination, DOMs counsel church leaders who come to us wondering what to do about specific situations. That’s why DOMs are rarely young men, but grizzled veterans who have been there/done that and lived to tell about it. We are sometimes invited in to a church crisis to mediate or moderate. Those can be scary situations, but it’s when we do our most important work.

“What is your strategy for bringing back certain churches in the Katrina-flooded regions?”

We fielded this one a lot in the months following Hurricane Katrina. It assumes that the director of missions can arbitrarily decide that Peace Church will be left in its flooded state, that Grace Church will be turned into a distribution center, and that Faith Church will receive all our resources and volunteers for rebuilding. Anyone assuming that would be bad wrong. Not in this denomination.

One of the strengths of Southern Baptists–and one of our weaknesses–is the autonomy of our churches. Each is self-governing, owns its own property, calls its own leaders, and plots its own course. Jesus Christ is presumably the Head of it, as He is the Entire Church, but–in our denomination–no one else holds authority over that church.

That can be a real strength. It allows a church the freedom to change directions, to be bold in its initiatives and flexible in its adaptations, to step outside the box and respond to the Holy Spirit as they understand His leading. Autonomy keeps a church from being dominated by a bishop without faith or vision or compassion or integrity. Autonomy protects that church when the denomination begins to veer left into liberalism or too far right into legalism. The church may go its own way.

That’s a strength. But that’s also a weakness.

Some churches desperately need the strong hand of a loving earthly father to intervene and straighten out some matters. I can think of a dozen illustrations, but will mention one.

Mac saved that little church from giving up and going out of business. He was a seminary student and became the pastor of Churchill Chapel on a part-time basis. Soon the congregation was flourishing and running 75 or more in attendance. Mac was so excited he did something foolish. He dropped out of seminary to put all his energies into pastoring his little congregation. He was a good preacher, a fine man, and I was confident the church would continue doing well. My mistake.

Six months later, he told me the chief deacon in the church had fired him. “He said I wasn’t visiting in the homes enough.” I was stunned. This is the very pastor who rescued that church, and they should be honoring him, not terminating him.

Later I learned the rest of the story. That deacon boss was losing control of the little church where he had long ruled, and knew he had to do something quick. The decision to terminate Mac had been his alone, but the other lay leaders had long since turned over the reins of the church to the man; they were afraid to stand up to him. Meanwhile, the gentleman ruled that church like it was his personal property.

I’ve watched that church for many years, and it has never run as many as 100 in attendance. Pastors have come and gone, most going quickly. The reports that drifted my way all told the same story: that deacon did it.

That’s a church that needs the hand of the outside authority to come in and shake things up. But, in this denomination, you deal with the matter inside the membership or it doesn’t get dealt with.

The single authority we have is the right to decide whether Churchill Chapel will continue to be a member of this association of churches. For that, we usually have a committee–or we form one–to look into matters, then bring a recommendation back to the Executive Committee. This larger group is made up of every pastor and one elected layperson from each church. Usually, they make the ultimate decisions for the associations, although sometimes those decisions are referred to the annual meeting of the churches.

Our Executive Committee meets the first Wednesday of every month at 10 am in our associational center. The address is 2222 Lakeshore Drive, New Orleans.

In the case of the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans, our annual meeting is next Monday night, October 29, at Poydras Baptist Church in lower St. Bernard Parish. We meet in the sanctuary for 90 minutes to 2 hours, then adjourn to the fellowship hall for refreshments and informal visits. Pastor John Galey is our host and also the moderator. Mickey Caison of the North American Mission Board is the featured speaker of the evening, but we’ll do a dozen other important things before we adjourn.

You are invited. You do not have to be a Baptist, and if you are a Baptist, you do not have to be elected to represent your church. Those who are chosen to represent their churches, we call “messengers” and they are the ones who do the actual voting on budgets, motions, and the like. But everyone is welcome.

As with everything else we do, you can be a Baptist and not attend or participate. But you should. For one thing, you need to find out where the Lord’s money is going and some of the things going on that affect you and your church in this community. We will fellowship, laugh, praise the Lord, be blessed, and eat. Can’t beat that.

James L. Sullivan, veteran leader of this denomination in a past generation, used to say the Southern Baptist Convention is like a rope of sand. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

The degree to which it works depends on you.

1 thought on “Your Church and the Others

  1. Joe: A couple of comments. I have served churches in several associations. In each asssociation I was faithful to attend the meetings that required my attendance. Was chairman of different committes’s and also moderator at times. My first Associational meeting I can remember attending was in 1944 in my home church (Corinth where you preached). My dad served as a member of the Associational Board. During my years of Pastoring there was only one DOM who seemed to be interested in me and my church. Others rarely came by and or talked briefly with me before they rushed on to something else.

    Another comment. One year while attending the State Convention I was at a breakfast meeting with several seated at a circular table. We were talking about this very issue. A DOM seated at the table said, “If you were in my association I would come any time you called me”. My response,”If you wait until I call you, you will never come. You should come without my call”. He is still serving in our state and doing good work. My comment is this. If he wants to be Pastor to the Pastor, he should stop by for a visit, or call and make an appointment and take time to listen to the Pastor.

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