Friday, April 30, 2010

Denomination by Association

My first response to the night of theological reflection, and to Frank’s paper is rightly determined to be too theoretical. In retrospect it is my effort to put some parameters around the nature of theological reflection, and to underline that our capacity to determine what God is doing in the present is enhanced by our knowledge of what God has done in the past and of the hope which calls us into God’s future. The question, “What are the implications?” is an important one, but must always be answered with the realisation that all actions and structures express values and embody particular futures. In this light I turn my attention to the Baptist tradition of Association.
From the earliest days Baptists were drawn into association with one another. We need to consider what the nature and purpose of association meant at that time, and how association became denomination…
It is something of a catch cry that the reason for denomination is that there are things that we can do together that we can’t do separately. While acknowledging the truth in such a statement, it does need clarification. Over time it has amounted to a deferral to the denomination rather than the cooperative spirit which undergirds the notion of association. In association, churches found support as they grappled with the implications of the theological convictions which drove them to establish Baptist churches in the first place. In the same way that Paul’s mission to the Gentile world raised questions related to practices such as circumcision, so the embrace of liberty of conscience and commitment to corporate discernment of God’s call pressed the new church to consider the implications. We have studied these movements around theological conviction: General vs Particular Baptist distinctives are but one example, but the ways in which they developed the practices at a local level are as formative as the theological statements produced. Association was about shared conviction, commitment to exploration of this call and its implications, and about supporting one another in this journey, so that individual churches did not feel isolated and alone in the struggle. I do not get the sense of an “Association office” being established to support the work. Rather the Association itself was engaged in the struggle and questions emerging at the local level. They were local church practitioners together. And one would assume, not in large churches by modern standards.
The purpose of Association was directed towards empowering and supporting the local church. This was enhanced by the development of theological frameworks for understanding their mission, although the coming together as Association was arguably founded on this.
One of the arguable outcomes of the shift towards “doing things together” is an increasing disconnect with that which is done corporately from the local experience, to the effect that it looks more like outsourcing than cooperative ministry. By way of example, our Baptist social service and missional ventures are now quite distinct from the local church and disconnected from a significant proportion of those who make up our churches. The major connection, if it exists at all, is through funding rather than an identified partnership in mission and ministry together.
The problem of distance is one which plagues all denominational offices. Ministry at the local church level engages at a different perspective than a denominational office. Not only are they shaped by different concerns, the engagement interface is different. In hindsight, this is one of the troubling thoughts which plagued me on the night and since – the theological reflection undertaken appeared to be largely from the inside-out. That is, we seemed to be reflecting on what is and how to make it better/more effective, rather than taking up the call to reflect on what God is doing in the world and asking how we might align with it. Here I would respectfully disagree with Jeff Pugh’s contention that this is limited to “in those places and with those people who are preaching his message and where the message of the Cross and resurrection is bearing fruit.” Such a limited view of God’s work in the world implies that God is only at work in the church, or in terms which the church readily understands and identifies. If we are to learn anything from the history of the early church and the mission of Jesus it is that God often appears at the margins – even of religious life, inviting us to see His work in new ways and new perspectives. If we limit our theological reflection to what God is doing in the church we risk becoming increasingly insular and inward-focussed. Theological reflection has always been on what God is doing in the world, and where God is leading creation, and those who would follow the call of God.
It is beyond contention that the ministry interface at the local level has changed considerably over the last forty years, perhaps with increasing pace over the last decade. The metaphors and narratives which inform people’s lives are increasingly disconnected from the ones which have nurtured the church’s history and, until recently, Western culture. The risks of and frameworks for ministry have changed considerably. How do we negotiate these in the context of the world and not merely in terms of the risk exposure of the denomination? How do we engage with these in ways which open us up to the new possibilities which God is already creating? How do we prepare ourselves for different ways of being and doing that reflect God’s call in the present and towards the future which God has called us to?
The shift from association to denomination has created a structure where a disconnect between the view from a denominational framework and that from the local pastoral office is not only possible but extremely likely. One potential outcome is the drifting apart of the member churches as they engage more intentionally with their local settings, formulating responses which might be informed by any combination of scripture, Baptist tradition (from the local to the global), openness to God in the present, and understanding of what the future of God looks like. As each develops their own matrix of these (and other) backgrounds into their local church culture, the overarching denominational distinctive gets lost.
Some might argue that the capacity of a denominational body to engage in meaningful ways across the whole state is limited (echoing something of the argument in Federation about the redundancy of the states). As we look back to our associational heritage, we must ask ourselves whether its culture and approach is worth recovering and in what way. Let me offer some food for thought.

An Association view of our Union of Churches could see:
A move to having say 8-10 Part-time area ministers each with 20-25 churches in their locality to care for the pastors. This would enable regional pastors to engage with ministry at the local level, possibly into smaller churches, thereby putting leadership skills to work where most needed. It could also establish a sense of equality and partnership between pastors and their area minister, knowing that the interface of ministry is fresh for all, that many of the challenges being felt by the area minister are direct and not vicarious, creating a sense of mutuality of support and care in ministry. Area ministers would be based at the local level, and therefore have local understanding of issues and context.
In this scenario, the role of the Director of Ministries would have a significant responsibility for leading/mentoring/pastorally caring for the area ministers, modelling the type of care and support which is hopefully reflected in the local settings. This could enhance the environment whereby the process of theological reflection begins to inform wider aspects of denominational life, and the local level engagement with the wider denominational level is enhanced. Rethinking of denominational funding arrangements might also release funds and other resources to the different areas where decision-making around its use is also enabled. Resources shifted back from supporting denominational initiatives towards initiatives at the local level, with particular emphasis on those conducted in association.
As the listening ear to all that is happening across the various regions within the state, the potential for prophetic leadership role by the denomination, both to the churches and the wider community, speaking to missional and into cultural issues such that the church’s engagement through public theology is enabled and enhanced. Whilst recognising that there will be evident tensions as a consequence of doing so, providing a framework in which engagement with the wider culture and community can be modelled enables the public aspect of theological reflection and engagement to develop.
It might be worth reflecting on how the particular associational groupings are established at a local level, and whether a uniform size for each association is appropriate. One might also want to examine whether the area minister was employed by the denomination, or resourced by the denomination through the local church, or even the local association. In any case, such an approach may well place support into the local context where it is needed, with a degree of mutuality amongst pastoral leaders in the area.
And then there are issues around the operation and culture of the denominational office which I haven’t yet begun to articulate...
Another time, perhaps.

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