It would be impossible to calculate how much of my life has been spent in Baptist churches — and in how many different ones of all shapes, sizes and locations. Some of those experiences have been as a member of a faith community.
Other countless hours were spent as a hit-and-run substitute preacher — or as a fill-in for several Sundays. Then there were the longer-term interim pastorates that ranged from about five to 15 months of service.
At times, I’ve gotten into (or closely observed) the sausage making of institutional church life — either serving as a lay person or as a consultant in my role as interim pastor.
So, there have been ample opportunities to observe some of the patterns — particularly in churches that would deem themselves “moderate Baptists” and therefore invite a suspect like me into their spaces.
One of the really big issues, I’ve observed — particularly during a time of transition — relates to congregational identity.
The concern is less that these congregations lack a rather clear identity — one formed by intent or evolution — but more that they show such hesitation in fully embracing, articulating and advocating for that worthy identity.
In these churches, the tail tends to wag the dog.
Fundamentalist churches and institutions (to which I’m not invited but on whom I keep a watchful eye from a relatively safe distance) take their exclusionary practices very seriously.
If they can rally (and they’re good at rallying) 50% of the vote — plus one — they will cheerfully kick to the curb anyone not in full agreement. (Then, of course, turn in suspicion on those within their ever-narrowing circle.)
There are absolutely no concerns for minority opinions — even if only the slimmest majority is gained. Everyone is either all in or all out.
The possibility of another perspective being right, and theirs being wrong, is unconsidered.
Conversely, more moderate churches think in completely different terms. They want to be liked at all costs.
So, they often stay hung up on some idealized vision of pleasing everyone.
That includes even a handful or fewer (often disgruntled) members who do not share the church’s overwhelming beliefs, priorities and values.
While there are dozens of like-minded churches all around them, these few but loud members will often stay in more moderate congregations where they have outsized power to be disruptive.
And, in turn, these churches continually allow — and even empower — such high-maintenance tails to keep wagging the dog.
When engaging with churches where there is a distinguishing (though often downplayed) affinity, I encourage them to clarify and confirm their solidly based identity.
Then, since this identity often differs from neighboring congregations, it is important for the church to communicate their unique identity — clearly and publicly — to those who might be seeking such a welcoming community of faith.
These church leaders will listen appreciatively and even concur. But, most often, they will waffle on taking the needed steps and continue to hide who they really are.
Their familiar excuses are: “We don’t want to lose anybody else.” “Let’s not disrupt the fellowship.” “We will get criticized.”
Or they will say, “Now’s not the time,” when, in fact, a transition in pastoral leadership is precisely the best time to clarify and communicate the church’s identity and mission.
As a result, in moderate Baptist congregations the tail just keeps wagging the dog.
This expresses itself in the ways churches keep trying in vain to pacify the perennial unhappy few (sometimes merely one) who will never be pacified unless they always get their way but won’t go elsewhere.
And, by doing so, the church keeps missing out on its attraction to those who might be looking for exactly what is being concealed.
Likewise, these churches continue funding — to some degree — the very denominational organizations that reject them and don’t share their values.
It is not rude or insensitive for a congregation to reach a clear consensus on who they are as a community of faith and to affiliate and collaborate with like-minded organizations — or at least ones that respect their autonomy and don’t belittle them or demand uniformity.
A healthy position for such churches is to be clear that while all are welcome to participate, no one is welcome to exert outsized power over the many. The tail doesn’t get to wag the dog.
That is not the only dog tale (or tail) that fits this dynamic of congregational identity and action. There is another to be considered in light of recent denominational overreach.
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. is credited with saying, “Even a dog knows the difference in being kicked and being stumbled over.”
Churches that respect women — but are still even minimally connected to and therefore identified with the Southern Baptist Convention — were not stumbled over accidentally by Southern Baptist leaders.
These churches have been kicked. And the best response is get up and move on.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.