The SBC Organization Manual states that NAMB “exists to work with churches, associations, and state conventions in mobilizing Southern Baptists as a missional force to impact North America with the Gospel of Jesus Christ through evangelism and church panting.” However, over the last ten years, NAMB’s shift from the historic convention partnership model to a societal top-down model has created significant relational challenges because of the way they work in new work states. Things came to a head in June of 2020 as NAMB made more unilateral changes to the cooperative agreements with new work conventions.
Ten years after the GCRTF report was approved, which called for those cooperative agreements to end in seven years, additional changes that would have to extend the agreements through September 2023 resulted in a letter being sent to NAMB and the Executive Committee by six new work area state convention executives. The letter basically asked the Executive Committee to mediate ongoing issues they were experiencing with NAMB. Other new work state executives had concerns, but they were working towards a more conciliatory letter. Here is a link to that letter: Letter to NAMB from New Work Area States
NAMB officers offered a response a few days later. Here is a link to that letter: NAMB Responds
On separate occasions, the SBC Executive Committee staff and officers met and discussed the various issues with both parties. In January 2021 the Executive Committee issued a white paper entitled “Cooperation is the Way Forward.”
Shortly thereafter, NAMB trustees approved a resolution in response to the white paper. RESOLUTION OF THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES ON COOPERATION AND MISSIONAL STRATEGY
A few of you will be interested enough in the topic that you will take time to read the information on the above links. For the rest of you let me simply say that the issues remain unresolved. NAMB and the new work conventions have struggled to figure out how to work together with or without cooperative agreements. I would ask you to pray that the core values and the seven principles mentioned in last week’s article will actually take root.
The issues we face with SBC home missions are not new and are very complex, and they will require humility, confession, and divine intervention before we can move forward in a true spirit of cooperation. I have observed a number of strategic principles being misapplied in the last ten years that have contributed to our current environment. Here are two of them—more will follow in subsequent articles:
NAMB’s third president arrived acting like there were no healthy associations or state conventions in the new work area, and that NAMB 3.0 would do it right. That is a bit ironic since NAMB’s two previous presidents resigned under pressure, and the GCRTF report’s recommendations primarily addressed NAMB’s ineffectiveness. Jesus gave us all some counsel about trying to remove the speck from someone else’s eye when we have a beam in our own (Matt 7:5)
Because of our polity, most of the ineffectiveness has to be treated with benign neglect. That is until the unhealthy are ready to address their problems, or there is a leadership transition. What we can do in the meantime is focus our time and energy on supporting and partnering with the healthy among us and celebrating what God is doing in their midst. If that celebration enlightens, encourages, or convicts the unhealthy among us, then to God be the glory.
In the business world, the financial crunch of inefficient and unaffordable structures are eliminated by bankruptcies, structural changes, or acquisitions. In the government world, politicians simply raise our taxes and ignore the structural problems. In the church world, it usually takes a major intervention or financial collapse before we are willing to make necessary changes. A great example of healthy organizational intervention is recorded for us in Exodus 18 where Jethro gave wise counsel to his son-in-law Moses.
One example of how we expanded structure is how we dealt with the overwhelming geographical challenges in some of our new work states. Over time the five states that formed the Northern Plains Convention were transformed into four separate state conventions: Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas (North and South together). The new conventions solved a huge geographic challenge, but they also created a financial burden as they staffed a traditional structure in each convention. In 2010, those conventions had a staffing structure that was not financially sustainable without continued NAMB support—and the GCRTF report’s approval meant those dollars were going to disappear.
God is still in the redemption business. To be able to join Him in His work, we must all be willing to seek “True Wisdom.” That is not only the wisdom from above that is found in scripture, but it is also the wisdom we can glean from past successes and failures. I will point to additional strategies I have learned from the school of hard knocks in the days ahead.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
Last week I began to shift our focus from SBC Home Missions History into the current events world. But before I set out a series of events that have been ten years in the making and that have now elevated the conflicts between NAMB and new work states onto the national stage, let me share principles and practices I have learned from reading and experiencing that history. Every organization will rise and fall on the basis of its leadership. When a church or any SBC entity is struggling, its current leadership has to change before it will experience effectiveness. That change usually comes in one of two ways: 1) Current leaders have a truly changed heart and mind—God is always in the redemption business, or 2) A new leader arrives who is able to cast vision, build relationships, and develop and implement effective strategies.
My choice has always been to pray and work for option number one, with the realization that changed hearts are the purview of God. I have suggested that the current tensions between new work conventions and NAMB are the result of missteps by current and former leaders. I also suggested that litigating those errors is not as beneficial as learning from them and changing our hearts and minds so we can move forward with God-honoring cooperative efforts. With that in mind, let me share some principles I’ve learned:
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
My last article brought our historical pilgrimage to June 2010, and the approval of The Great Commission Resurgence Task Force’s Report (GCRTF). What I didn’t point out is that the report was issued and approved while the North American Mission Board (NAMB) was in the process of seeking its third President—the two previous presidents’ tenures had not ended well. Kevin Ezell began to serve as NAMB’s president in September 2010 with the specific task of implementing the GCRTF’s recommendations. Those circumstances were very similar to the situation Bob Reccord stepped into in 1997 when the convention adopted the Covenant for a New Century which combined the Home Mission Board, Brotherhood Commission, and the Radio and Television Commission and renamed it NAMB. In both cases, major changes were made. However, in spite of all the early changes made under Reccord’s leadership, after a few years, NAMB looked a lot like HMB did. Long-term change didn’t occur.
Most new work leaders “assumed” that what had happened under Reccord’s leadership would happen under Ezell’s: changes will occur, but over time, the home mission’s work will end up looking like it always had. But that didn’t happen! As I describe the significant changes that have taken place, I will attempt to be balanced. But again I will confess that my perspective is shaped by my experiences. I am a third-generation Wyomingite who was born before a single SBC church existed in the state. At the age of sixteen, I moved with my family to Oklahoma where I joined FBC Vinita. I became an active church member, deacon, lay pastor, and seminary student and lived for twenty years in two old-line states (Oklahoma and Texas). I have served as pastor, director of missions, and a church starter strategist in two new work states for the last thirty-plus years (Iowa and Nebraska). Through those years I have been blessed with countless learning opportunities, primarily funded by NAMB. They have sharpened my God-given abilities. I can state that the newly adopted title Associational Mission Strategist (AMS) aptly describes how God gifted me, and how I have been equipped to function in my role.
From a strategic perspective, what happened in our association is what I “assume” the GCRTF “assumed” would happen in most situations. My dual role as a DoM/Church Starter Strategist slowly shifted as NAMB “assumed” leadership over SBC church planting. Fully funded NAMB Church Planter Catalysts began to lead church planting, and my time was freed to do more in the leadership development and church health areas. However, the reality is that our association is one of the very few in the new work states that was actually able to pick up the slack as NAMB support was eliminated over time.
The net results of these changes are that I am now the only full-time AMS that is supported solely by his association in the following nine states: Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado. There are seven state conventions represented in this nine-state region, and each of them has also experienced a steep decline in the number of full-time staff. Ten years ago over thirty full-time, dual-role, and jointly funded men served associations in those states. Three associations that geographically bordered ours have disbanded in recent years (two in Iowa and one in Nebraska). The two remaining associations in Nebraska have pastors who serve as volunteer coordinators. Our association’s geographic region expanded to an area the size of South Carolina and larger than ten other states.
An analogy I have used to describe what happened is not flattering. In 2010 our SBC family had a lot of children and teenagers—(24) and a few adult offspring (17)—I am speaking of organizational not spiritual maturity. For years and years, the parents and adult offspring had provided nice credit cards for the children and teens with very few strings attached. One day they told all the children and teens that over the next seven years their credit limit was going to be gradually reduced to zero, and then they would be on their own. Some of the children were toddlers and seven years was not going to be long enough for them to be able to live on their own. Some of the children and teens didn’t believe it would happen, so they didn’t prepare. A very few heard and began to prepare for a new day when they would be on their own. Some of them were mature enough to make the transition with minimal impact.
What I just described in numerical changes and via an analogy directly impacted the lives of hundreds of individuals, their spouses, and their families. Although the changes created minimal impact in my life, I have many friends who still carry deep scars because of what happened to them and their families. I could expend a lot of energy placing blame, and there is plenty of that to go around, but we can’t go back and change history. So, how do we move forward?
I will suggest two big things that will help us. First is we must acknowledge that our home mission’s work has ALWAYS struggled! It can only be as strong as our desire to be cooperative and as our wisdom to do it well. Second, we must actually embrace the eight Core Values that were listed in the GCRTF report adopted at the 2010 SBC Convention. We can’t just “assume” they will be true. Those values are:
Next week I will identify current events that have moved the tensions between NAMB and new work conventions into the broader SBC world. I will also begin to identify specific leadership principles and strategies that we can use to mitigate our challenges in the days ahead.
15Pages 7-8 of the Draft Final Report of the GRCTF, April 26, 2010
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
In the last two articles we have been on a high-speed run through SBC history with a specific look at our home missions work. As we turned the last curve, we found ourselves in 1961 celebrating the fact that we had finally fulfilled the vision cast in 1845 of being a national convention of churches. I pointed out that Southern Baptists did not become a national convention based upon our great mission strategy but because of the migration of former southerners. The churches they planted were predominantly for white folks who had a Southern Baptist background. I have worked with a significant number of ethnic churches, and the early SBC churches in the new work states could best be described as “ethnic churches.” They were ethnically southern and many emphasized the point by naming their church First Southern Baptist Church—which is on the cornerstone of our current office building.
Because the vast majority of the churches in those new work states are main line churches (Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, etc.) and members of the SBC churches went door-to-door like the Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses, we were viewed as cults. Our worship services were also VERY different—even different from other established evangelical churches in the area: public invitations at the end of each service, informal and highly relational worship style (a lot of hugging and chatting before and after services), and unusual terminology and speech patterns (ministers were called “Brother” and not “Pastor,” they used southern idioms, and had a southern drawl). If that wasn’t enough, ecclesiological issues surfaced because SBC churches had a strong emphasis on congregational polity, individual church autonomy, Sunday School for adults as well as children, and we used lay pastors. AND, we had worship services on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night and did revival services. For a more in depth description of the challenges we faced, follow the link describing SBC expansion in the Upper Midwest.
However, by the 1980s some of the new work areas began to see the number of SBC churches and church membership numbers plateau, and in a few cases, even decline. The strategy of congregationalizing former southerners who had migrated north and west had run its course. Most Southern Baptists still live where there are a lot of SBC churches and a lot of other Baptists and evangelical churches. But in the new work areas ALL Baptists combined number far less than five percent of the total population and in most areas ALL evangelicals combined are around ten percent. So, the Great Commission was not going to be fulfilled by just starting churches of, by, and for people with a Baptist or evangelical background. We needed to figure out how to become missionaries and be willing to move out of our southern AND our Baptist comfort zone.
It was time for new mission strategies to be developed! Some new work conventions recognized the need for change and began to make adjustments in their strategies. However, the reality is that because of our theology, polity, and multi-level cooperative partnerships making necessary changes is hard. Even when everyone agrees changes need to be made, there will be differences of opinion on what those changes should be, how and when they should be made, and who has the ultimate authority to make those decisions. For good measure we can also throw in the reality that in church life unless the changes are implemented with great skill and tact they will ALWAYS cause push back and pain!
Conversations that should have begun decades before were suddenly forced upon churches, associations, and conventions in the new work areas when the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force (GCRTF) issued its initial report in February 2010. That report called into question the effectiveness of the historic partnership model: “The North American Mission Board and the state conventions have operated for several decades by what is called cooperative agreements and cooperative budgets. Through the years they have become complex and at times cumbersome, resulting in a lack of accountability.”12 In light of no or slow growth in many new work areas, the report also questioned who should be in charge of strategy development. “NAMB must become the leader in our strategy to reach North America.”13 The reality is that Southern Baptists had worked in a cooperative/partnership relationship since 1845 with the local churches through their associations and state conventions taking the lead role in strategy development.
What Southern Baptists in the traditional southern states did not understand at the time was that our International Board and NAMB have always functioned very differently. A career missionary who serves through our International Mission Board is fully supported by the Board. Those missionaries function unilaterally in areas where there is little or no Christian work. In other words, they work like missionaries appointed by societies rather than conventions, because there are no local churches, associations, or conventions with whom they can partner.
By contrast, only a very small percentage of those who were “NAMB appointed field missionaries” in 2010 were fully supported by the Board. If you were a church planter you had financial support from a sponsoring church, the local association, the state convention, co-sponsoring churches, and NAMB. If you were serving in the dual role of a Director of Missions/Church Starter Strategist, your position was funded by the association, state convention, and NAMB. There were even specific state convention positions that were jointly funded by NAMB and the state convention. The level of NAMB support for a given role depended upon the strength of the church, association, and the state convention. Historically SBC’s home mission work was partnership based.
The Task Force did not recommend that historic relationship agreements be renegotiated, but that they should be eliminated. “Therefore, at the end of four years [final language was seven], the North American Mission Board will be completely free from these present agreements.”14 Their recommendation, when it was approved at the SBC Annual Meeting in June 2010, created a nationalized model for doing home missions (more of a societal model) and caused a 1800 shift in who had the authority to set strategy.
With these realities in mind, what changes would you have envisioned taking place? What impact could they have on churches, associations, and state conventions in the new work areas?
12Page 20 of the Progress Report of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force of the Southern Baptist Convention, February 22, 2010
14Pages 21-22 of the Progress Report of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force of the Southern Baptist Convention, February 22, 2010
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, DoM
Retiring in April 2022, Mark R. Elliott served as a Director of Missions (Associational Mission Strategist) in Western Iowa and Eastern Nebraska for almost three decades. He is a strong advocate for obedience and Biblically based disciple making. As such, he knows that making healthy disciples requires Christian leaders to be constantly pursuing spiritual maturity—be lifelong learners. Because of the time constraints of ministry, most pastors focus their reading list on resources that assist them in teaching and preaching the Word of God. As such, books focusing on church health, leadership development, and church growth tend to find their way to the bottom of the stack. With that reality in mind, Mark has written discussion summaries on several books that have helped him to personally grow in Christ and that tend to find themselves on the bottom of most pastor’s stack. Many pastors have found them helpful as they are able to more quickly process great insights from other pastors and authors.
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