The process of exploring the future shape of the Baptist Union has in many ways been a revisiting of the recent past. In many ways the changes that took place from the denominational consultation in the late 1990s (and which finally inaugurated in 2002), were half done. The 1990s reforms saw a commitment and desire to be a more intentionally missionary Union, there was a shift from 29 Associations to 13, and there was an increase in ministerial oversight in Associations (from one General Superintendent to teams of Regional Ministers). The last ten years have told the story of trying to finish the changes required - namely around the roles and tasks at a Union level and at Association level - this is both a matter of who does what and where do decisions get made. This second round of changes comes at a more financially difficult time - where levels of staff have been expanding in the last ten years, they will for the foreseeable future be contracting (which is deeply painful). The whole conversation around Baptist Futures in BUGB has been shaped by the thinking and work done during the 1990s. Unhelpfully perhaps, this futures process has been presented as being ex nihilo (out of nothing), when the decisions made in the late 1990s were always going to impinge on any decisions made now.
What emerged from the meeting of Baptist Union Council this week?
1. A desire to put relationships at the heart of our Union. We have in lots of different ways being relationally poor. The impact of the influential report Relating and Resourcing meant the last decade has over-focused on resourcing, but failed to equally focus on relating. Read this new report for a helpful account of a Baptist relational ecclesiology. Time will tell whether we can build the kind of networks that will help nurture our identity, our mutual care and our mission together. The focus will be in 1) encouraging more local networks to emerge amongst local churches and 2) for Associations to partner together more intentionally.
2. A commitment to finally creating some kind of 'national leadership team'. This was part of several reports from the 1990s, but has until now been resisted. It has been inevitable and in many ways already in existence (the differing groups of Trustees, the Senior Management Team and Regional Minister Team Leaders). It will though be named as such and be held to account by Council and Assembly (the details still to be worked out). The creation of this team will be to seek to flatten Baptist structures and overcome some of the tensions between the Union and Associations - an equalizing of power between those with national oversight and those with regional oversight.
3. A meaningful and intentional conversation between any possible merging of BUGB / BMS is currently dead in the water. I don't think this is any big surprise. The Union needs to work through its current futures process. Many will be disappointed at this news, but it was never on the cards in the timescale. Personally I still remained unconvinced at the need. Yes, let us partner more, depend on one another more, but the truth of one world, one mission is not any less truth if BUGB and BMS remain interdependent on one another.
What the next ten years should be about?
1. What kind of mission do we fund? A more open critical (not negative) conversation needs to explore where we invest our resources. There a number of potential faultlines, e.g. urban/rural, traditional/pioneering, which need exposing and healing. Any resourcing must at the same time be relational. I like the suggestions that new mission projects and/or new churches emerge out of local networks in relationship.
2. The reformation of Associations. Too often Association life seems energy-sapping rather than energy-giving. The 1990s was about the reformation of Associations, but failed to reform associating. Apart from the Regional Ministers, we must ask what are Associations good for? Too many of our churches and ministers fail to engage in any meaningful way with their Association. And what kind of Regional Ministers do we need?
3. Being able to assess more clearly the story and decisions of the Union between 1991-2012. Throughout the period we have (understandably) too often been looking at the trees without seeing the forest.
4. A Union unafraid to talk theology and to give more voice to its theologians. Too often we are listening to American megachurch pastors / preachers who tour and overlook the gifts we have been given.
What do we need?
We need to be those willing to stay the course and commit to a Baptist future, even when not ever decision goes their way - in the book Unlearning Protestantism Gerald Schlabach talks about 'loyal dissent' . Language of 'Baptist family' might actually be helpful here (see my Baptist Quarterly article Vol 44 (April 2012) for some suggestions why)
We need some trust. This was a key theme in 1990s (see On the Way of Trust by the then college principals), but is no less so today, perhaps even more so. There is a lack of trust amongst different constituents.
We need some imagination and some willingness to move beyond a 'us' and 'them'. In my view this most unhelpfully comes from some voices from among Associations, who both guard their patch and fling arrows at the centre which is deemed the source of all ills.
We need some mapping of the current BUGB picture - some large scale statistical data of Baptist Christians and Baptist churches. I'm not sure we know enough from a national perspective what is happening regionally and locally.