Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Reorganization Concluding Comments, August 2007

This has already gotten much longer than I imagined when I began. Still, there are important issues that have not yet surfaced as part of the discussion above. These issues have not been gleaned from the GEC report to the General Board. They are entirely my personal observations and experiences from having ridden this horse a very long time.

What about funding?

Funding questions lie just beneath the surface of these discussions. But it is not just a question of funding for mission and ministry, it is a question of funding for the structure that was intended “to give general oversight and direction to the life and mission of the Denomination” and “set policy in the areas of program functions, planning, coordination, and evaluation….” In other words, the funding question focuses on the governance process—the work and staff of the General Board.

An elaborate proportionately representative process with a grand vision (i.e. the General Board) has proven to be unsustainable financially. The response to this reality in the plan under discussion is to radically reduce the size (and operating costs) of governing boards. But the price we pay for this is reduced representation and less engagement. At the same time, we must compensate for this reduced representation with a more modest vision for the denomination. Those who expect that we can reduce the size and costs of representation, then go on to continue business as usual will be disappointed.

Do we really want an oversight and direction structure? What do we expect from it? What are we willing to pay for it?

There are many “what ifs” that complicate projecting operating costs. But we all understand that we must come to some clarity about this very soon. Creating a structure that we cannot support will do no good for anyone. Merely shifting costs to other ABC entities will not be acceptable either. There must be a real reduction in the costs of operating the denomination. Most of all, the organization must prove itself worthy of the financial support of churches because declining finances is merely a symptom.

What about covenant?

There seems to be a general assumption that “covenant” will continue to be the mechanism for holding the denomination together in the new organization. Questions about the Covenant of Relationships started this ball rolling in the GEC. Eventually, we must get back to those questions. That conversation will prove more difficult than the work on reorganization, because covenant gets to the root issue of who we are together. The so-called “Tucson Covenant” that GEC members made with one another was not only absolutely essential for reorganization work to continue, it will reappear when we begin talking about covenant.

Do we want to be in covenant or not? What does that mean? What do partners voluntarily surrender in order to enter in to and maintain covenant? What do partners gain by being in covenant? How do covenant partners submit to one another in covenant? Where is the meeting of “covenant partners?” How will they govern themselves, attending to and caring for covenant?

In all this, I am troubled that the organizational plan so far has been driven by denominational staff. It is not that I don’t think we are competent or qualified. I wonder about energy. The creation of the Northern Baptist Convention 100 years ago was almost entirely the result grassroots insistence. SCOR/SCODS was carefully representative of the denomination. But more recent attempts at reorganization that tried to tap into grass roots and/or representational energies failed. Now this present effort is being sustained almost entirely by denominational staff. What does that mean? Why is the engagement so low? Whence the passivity?

In conclusion (finally!), you may have the impression that I am resolutely against this plan-in-the-making and throwing every rock I can. That is not true. I have recognized the need for reorganization for 10 years. I am generally supportive of the plan as the outline is emerging. This is serious business. I take it seriously. I feel compelled to keep the churches of the Region I serve informed.

Please read this seeing that my colleagues and I are asking hard questions of one another and remembering that it is a point in time. Some of those questions don’t seem to have answers. Other answers cannot co-exist. Many “answers” come from compromise. Not political compromise between conflicting personalities, but compromises between irreconcilable expectations, values, finances and reality.

In any case, relationships need to be healed and rebuilt before any formal reorganization plan has a chance. It may pass—but that does not mean it will work.

I confess that I have not yet been given a vision by God. (But the denominational vision I had 10 years ago is gone.) If anyone else has such a vision, they are not sharing it with the rest of us. We need your prayers if there is to be any hope of creating a structure that captures the hearts and minds of American Baptists.

Seventh: Biennial

The annual gathering of American Baptists as a convention was scrapped by the SCOR/SCODS reorganization in favor of a Biennial. But more than timing changed, most of the governance work of the denomination was transferred to the General Board, which was being created as an intentional, proportionately representative body. This was a good move. It was the right thing. This is what SCODS said in their final report: “The unrepresentative nature of the annual meeting raises the question of ability and right of such meetings to take legislative action and to handle the business of the A.B.C.” Not only is the participation in national gatherings incredibly small (compared to the whole body), it is at the same time not representative (it is self-selected by those with the time and money to attend), and it is at the same time heavily impacted by geography (driving distance to the meeting). The top three functions for the revised Biennial are: celebration, inspiration, information (reporting on what the General Board had done).

At this point, the plan under discussion does not envision any significant changes in the role of the Biennial. We haven’t talked much about it. True, there are some who want the Biennial to become a stage for conflict and combat like the old Convention meetings—but I don’t think there are many. On the other hand, there are those who are troubled by the costs of the Biennial, and wonder if even less frequent meetings might be in order—but I don’t think there are many of those either.

In my opinion, every critique that SCOR/SCODS raised regarding the old Convention meetings is still true, and even more so. While it is necessary that certain governance functions (especially Bylaw changes) reside in a body larger than the General Board (or its successor) I think the time has come to think in a different way. If the governance functions of the Biennial remain very few (and I think they should), then there is no reason we cannot do a denomination-wide referendum at low cost in a reasonable length of time.

This would make the denomination truly a participative democracy. Yes, it would take a little work, but I don’t believe it would be that difficult. Churches could be assigned “votes” equivalent to a delegate calculation formula. Information would be prepared a distributed. Discussion sessions could be scheduled. Regions would be responsible for collecting and reporting the votes.

It would also take a little more time. But the Biennial deals with no issues that require immediate decision. So what if it takes four months of discussion across the denomination before a decision is registered? Spreading out the discussion, slowing down the decision, deliberately including everyone might actually keep us from saying and doing regrettable things. In particular, all public witness statements need to be done this way.

Keep the Biennial as a celebrative, inspirational, informational meeting. Elect officers. But keep everything else out of it.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Sixth: Missional Table

This is a radically new concept and raises lots of questions (or it should).

First, what it is not. The Missional Table is not a rehabilitated General Board. It has much more in common with the Seek It gathering from several years ago in terms of purpose and authority.

I am uneasy with the name “Missional Table” because I don’t know what we mean. “Missional” is a hot word in church circles. Strictly speaking, “missional” is an ecclesiology rooted in the work of Lesslie Newbigen (a former missionary to India) and Elton Trueblood (founder of Yokefellow). It has four main components: (1) “Mission” is fundamentally God’s work (missio dei), and we are invited to participate in it; (2) The inescapable nature of the church is to be sent by God into the world; (3) The church is called to be counter-cultural; and (4) Western society is now a mission field demanding the missiological insights of over 100 years of “foreign missions” experience.

However, “missional” has come to mean everything from evangelism to how we make coffee in church basements. A Google search turns up nearly 800,000 disparate entries. It has become the fashionable phrase as old mainline denominations rethink and restructure (!) who they are. Alan Roxburgh said that the phrase has moved “from obscurity to banality in eight short years and people still don’t know what it means.”

I embrace the four-point understanding of “missional church” given above (but not everyone does). But, is this really what we mean by the “Missional Table?” Is the denomination implicitly endorsing an ecclesiology? Will it impose that ecclesiology on its churches? Will its services and programs exclude those churches that have chosen another ecclesiological focus? More than that, in what sense can a Baptist denomination, which is created by churches and accountable to churches and intended to serve churches, be truly “missional” without usurping the authority of those churches?

Honestly, I do not believe any of this is the case. “Missional” is being used because it is a fashionable word today, and it speaks to the Baptist heart for missions (which is not the same as missional). That is not a good enough reason. We need to be more accurate and descriptive in the title of this group.

The Missional Table (whatever we end up calling it), is a good idea, just as Seek It was a good idea. However, I still have questions. I worry about its composition, authority, costs, and participation.

I see no need for an elaborate nomination and election process that concludes with a “filtering” of candidates at the Biennial—especially since the Missional Table has no governance authority. Seek It was the most carefully, intentionally representative group of American Baptists that I have seen. Let’s simply use a formula for proportional representation and trust the partners choose their representatives.

I am uncertain about the authority of this group. Overall, it seems to be intended to function as a “think tank” for the denomination, producing recommended goals, etc., that the partners then pursue. It also apparently will review and evaluate what those partners actually do. Based on past experience, it does not seem likely to me that any program or region board is going to be compelled to pursue goals set by the Missional Table, and is going to be less than enthusiastic about any subsequent review. While I embrace the idea of such a group expressing the voice of the denomination when it comes to programming, I do not believe it is structured adequately to resolve our misalignment problem (and I am not sure that is possible). In the absence of clarity about what they can and cannot do, I believe there is strong possibility for frustration among those who commit their time and energy to the Mission Table.

If the work of the Missional Table is primarily advisory, I wonder about the necessity and costs of a rigid meeting schedule and a standing group. It seems to me that a carefully chosen, representative group could gather to do this work every three years or so.

Lastly, if the point I raised above about frustration is true, I wonder how long it will take members to decide that the Missional Table is not worthy of their time, effort, and money.

Having said all that, I need to be clear that I am not opposed to the concept of a missional table. I think it is a creative way for us to bring together denominational leaders, pastors, and lay leaders to discuss the role of the denomination. I am more concerned that there be a clear understanding of limits and that there really is appropriate authority for the task.

Fifth: National Staff Leadership Council

The composition of the proposed National Staff Leadership Council (NSLC) is essentially the present General Executive Council (GEC). We really haven’t worked much on this and it raises no particular concerns. The key question has to do with purpose (tasks) and whether the group actually has authority commensurate with its purpose. The GEC has a difficult time initiating or enforcing anything. Will that pattern continue? While I have always supported the principle that participating members should fund their own participation, I also know that this creates its own challenges. It opens the door for classism and elitism. Moreover, members must value participation, it cannot be presumed.

Fourth: National Leader Development Pool

Abandoning proportionate representation creates a practical problem: How will people be added to the boards since the total numbers on each board do not allow for even one representative from each ABC partner? Our civic experience as Americans has seeded deeply within us the idea of constituents functioning as an electorate—choosing from among themselves who will best represent them on the community body. I know this model is difficult to find in New Testament descriptions of the church, but I also know that it is part of the Baptist psyche.

The National Leader Development Pool emerged as an attempt to deal with the problem. It is not perfect. I do not particularly like it. But I don’t have a better idea. Consequently, I believe we will struggle to find ways to at least avoid dis-proportionate representation.

Ways to do this might include requiring that boards rotate the origin of their board members so that, over time, all partners get represented. Partners might be invited to group themselves as common interest groups to make nominations to the pool, and requiring that those common interest groups be represented on every board. We may also specify that no board may have two members from the same partner. An additional compensation is to radically limit the authority of those boards—even more so than now. The prospect of boards saying and doing things contrary or offensive to partners who feel disenfranchised by the process is fraught with danger for the body. The irony here is that boards which have been seeking greater independence and freedom may actually find themselves ending up with less freedom to speak and act than they have now!

However, regardless of the means we use or the language we wrap around it, we cannot escape the fact that someone else is choosing who will “represent” me. That might work in a high trust environment, but we do not have that luxury. We cannot underestimate the reaction against this. It will be a major “sell job” for those who have experienced oppression, exclusion, dismissal or alienation by the system (which seems to include almost everyone in American Baptist life today).

Monday, August 06, 2007

Third: Transformation of General Board

The plan under discussion also envisions a radical transformation of the General Board. Remember that the General Board was created by the work of SCOR/SCODS forty years ago to be a proportionately representative body functioning as the Board of Directors for ABCUSA and, at the same time, constituting the membership of the historic mission societies by means of interlocking boards. The dual constituency is legally defined as the congregations and the regions.

On the strength of being proportionately representative of the constituency of ABCUSA, the General Board is given twelve functions in the Bylaws. The first two are: “(i) give general oversight and direction to the life and mission of the Denomination and serve as the legislative body of the ABC/USA; and (ii) set policy in the areas of program functions, planning, coordination and evaluation and, with the National and Regional Boards, adopt common goals and objective for the Denomination.”

However, the accompanying Standing Rules and Covenant of Relationships (not to mention tradition) create organizational conflict (even paralysis) by limiting (or confusing) the General Board’s authority to accomplish these tasks at the same time it directs other responsibilities. This conflict has existed since the earliest days that the organization envisioned by SCOR/SCODS was implemented.

I think there are two things driving this plan to reduce and redefine the General Board as a much smaller, non-representative Board of General Ministries (BGM). First, there is a desire to move beyond organizational conflict and paralysis. Certainly, I agree with this goal. Clarification of BGM responsibilities, especially in relationship to other ABC partners, is absolutely essential. But does this plan do that; and is it the best way to accomplish it?

There is a cultivated notion that it is the preoccupation with “legislative” matters that has stalled the denomination. I do not accept that argument. That is not hard to document from the agendas of the General Board for the last 10 years. Besides, the first and foremost legal responsibility of any board of directors is governance (which is not the same as “legislation”). While governance is not as much fun as program design and micromanagement, it is irresponsible for any board to neglect its governance functions.

If the present multiple board arrangement is unable to implement goals, how is the proposed arrangement, with independent boards, going to be more effective? Since we are (apparently) committed to uncoupling and greater independence, then the potential authority of BGM to implement anything is greatly compromised. Consequently, the responsibilities of BGM must be radically modest when compared to the functions of our present General Board. While the plan is moving in that direction, I am not certain it has gone far enough. In particular, it must uncover and confront the implicit or assumed functions of the Board. I think people will be surprised at how much is being given up.

The second driver to reduce and redefine the Board is finances. It has become clear that common funding is no longer adequate to support a large, representative body. But is this merely a financial issue, or is it a symptom of something deeper? Are American Baptists unwilling to commit the financial resources necessary for such a body? Or are they saying that the body, as it presently exists, does not adequately represent them? Are American Baptists willing to vest anyone with the kind of authority that is necessary to effectively achieve goals???

I agree that a radical reduction in the size of the Board is inescapable. However, there are consequences that cannot be ignored. While it may be legal, a very small, non-representative Board has no moral basis on which to claim that it speaks for constituents. That would be arrogant presumption. To couch such pronouncements, goals, public witness, or whatever, in language that “this is merely the Board’s opinion,” is a fine point that will escape most people and a betrayal of those it purports to represent.

As the size of the General Board has been reduced over the years, it has dropped below the number necessary for even nominal representation. The danger of elitism and classism is real. As the Board shrinks even further the prospects for disconnect with constituents is a certainty. This situation is problematic for me, because I believe a Baptist denomination exists to serve churches (not vice versa). I also believe that it is important for Baptists to speak together as a public witness on a variety of issues. One colleague has said that “The existing policies, resolutions, etc., must carry forward because they define who American Baptists are.” I agree. So, if we are to set goals and speak, but a board is not adequately representative of the constituents to do so with integrity, then we must find another way to give voice to our constituent churches.

Second: Uncoupling the Boards

This plan moves us apart. Most clearly (but not exclusively) this is evident in the legal uncoupling of the historic mission societies and the General Board. This is the most dramatic feature of the plan under discussion. It is safe to say that the historic mission societies and their executive staff have never been satisfied with the organizational arrangements of the children of the Triennial Convention in the 20th Century. (But they are not the only ones.) In my opinion, the legal uncoupling of these boards is symbolic of what is happening across the denomination. I think there are three things driving this move.

(1) The historic mission societies (and their advocates) have never been happy with the level of organizational integration and its implications from as far back as the formation of the Northern Baptist Convention. The “thawing” of our organizational life in the last few years has given them opportunity to once again make the case for greater independence.

(2) Funding also has an influence on this move and consists of three components. Many (not all) of the various ABC partners believe they can do better raising money on their own, unfettered by rules and associations with other ABC partners. Also, it is a widely-acknowledged trend in American philanthropy that the culture is moving away from common funding strategies like United Way. Persons (and churches) like to pick and choose where their financial support goes, matching their passion with their pocketbook. Finally, churches are picking who will receive (and who will not receive) their financial support for ideological reasons. Funding is a major driver for reorganization. A key question will be whether this plan will answer that question, which leads us to the third driver.

(3) Many components of American Baptist life feel compelled to find a new place for comfort with one another. Those on both the Left and the Right are fearful or frustrated by even the modest level of integration in our present organization (yes, it is both). There are many places for mutual irritation. Some fear “popery,” others fear loss of autonomy, others fear the erosion of local congregational mission responsibility, others are frustrated that we cannot establish and implement denominational goals, others are troubled by the arrogant presumption that the denomination can speak for them, and others are angered by the lack of consistency (integrity) between what is said and what is done. The alienation and disaffection is real. It is easy to document. It is not so easy to formulate specific, organizational solutions.

I confess that the move to uncouple the boards (and what it symbolizes) is very painful for me. I believe that a unified mission board is the most effective way for us to claim identity and accomplish mission; and that it can be done consistent with a “federation” understanding of ourselves. However, I know that stream has dried up, and I have abandoned it.

There seems to be appropriate concern for maintaining at least some semblance of connection between the various components of American Baptist life. In the case of the historic mission societies, the discussion centers around the use of “Class B Directors” (a legal designation) to circumvent the possibility that any of the boards could unilaterally choose to abandon ABCUSA. This can work. However, it cannot preclude any board from choosing its own goals and direction, with or without the consent of the other partners.

Like I said, this plan moves us apart. The $64,000 question is: Does it move us far enough from one another to create a level of comfort, and at the same time hold us close enough together to claim a common identity? At what price??? Does it really solve the alignment problem we have between denominational goals and program board implementation? Is the very notion of “denominational goals” a reflection of a bygone era?

First: ABCUSA as "Federation"

I endorse this completely. Some of us have argued for a long time that it would be helpful for all of us to understand the ABC “denomination” as a “federation.” Such a federation could be manifest in a number of organizational structures. I believe even our present structure could be viewed as a federation, and we all would benefit from such an understanding. The plan under discussion is not the only possibility of organization from a federation perspective.

The main question for me is not whether or not we will be a “federation” (I don’t believe Baptist associational life can be anything else). The questions we need to be asking are related to the consequences and implications of this. Much of our disease is due to our inconsistency in wanting an organization to do things that we are not willing to give it the ability to do.

“Federation” seriously limits our ability to speak as a group. “Federation” limits what we are able to accomplish together. “Federation” has implications for group identity.

If we don’t understand those limits—those boundaries—we will once again find ourselves frustrated. Those limits impact the full range of who we are, all the way from the Far Left to the Far Right.

Key Points in the Reorganization Discussion


The latest attempt to reorganize ABCUSA originated in denominational staff meetings in 2005. The General Board agreed. In an ambitious meeting schedule, the GEC intended to present a proposal to the General Board in November 2006 so that it could come to the Biennial in 2007. While essential things did get done, the GEC did not meet the deadline. Hence the earliest that a proposal could be considered is the Biennial in 2009.

What has been done? The GEC has surveyed the denomination, identified critical areas of concern, presented eight criteria for evaluating any proposal, and periodically reported to the General Board and received its input. A small writing team has been working within the GEC. The previous post is the written progress report that GEC gave to the General Board in June 2007.

It is important to remember that there is no formal proposal at this point, but certain features seem to be taking shape as the GEC continues to work on reorganization. Obviously, there are many details to be filled in before the General Board considers a proposal in 2008, which could go to the Biennial in 2009. First I will identify what I consider to be seven key points in the report, and then I will offer my personal comments on each.

Key points:

1. We have accepted “federation” as a better way to understand a national denomination, and are intentionally seeking to organize ourselves accordingly.

2. The interlocking boards created by SCOR/SCODS 40 years ago would be undone. BIM, BNM and MMBB would once again become self-sustaining boards. They would certainly be much smaller. We would probably use “Class B Directors” elected to each of the program boards by the Board of General Ministries whose authority would be limited to corporation affairs, such as bylaw changes, as a way to assure ABCUSA connections.

3. The General Board would become the Board of General Ministries (BGM). It also would be much smaller (probably less than 30)—it would no longer be proportionately representative. Board members might be elected during the Biennial, with others elected by the Board itself. It would still function as the legal board for ABCUSA.

4. These four legally independent boards (BIM, BNM, MMBB, and BGM) would draw their members from a National Leader Development Pool. Every ABC entity would have the privilege to submit names to this pool. The data would be refreshed/renewed every five years. The maintenance of this data base is under the oversight of the National Staff Leadership Council.

5. The National Staff Leadership Council would consist of regional executive ministers and the executive directors of the boards (about 50 people). It is essentially the present General Executive Council. Its key task would be to facilitate implementation of ideas that come from the Missional Table.

6. The Missional Table is a new concept. This large gathering might consist of local church and caucus representatives, regional executive ministers, executive directors from the boards, executive directors of covenanting Affiliated Ministry Organization and executive directors of covenanting colleges and seminaries. It might meet only every two or three years for the purpose of identifying national goals and priorities. These become recommendations or challenges to the covenanting partners. The Missional Table would have no authority to implement, legislate, or create policy. It would be the main connection between the national denomination and local congregations.

7. The Biennial would continue to be a “family” gathering, primarily for worship, education, and celebration. Certain governance tasks would continue to reside with the Biennial, such as the election of officers, and changes to the bylaws.