The 20th century began and ended with American Baptists struggling with how to implement a balance of independence and interdependence in a national organization that claims to be an expression of the Church of Jesus Christ. Perhaps it is a struggle that will be with us until the eschaton.

The current attempt at reorganization of American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. originated in denominational staff meetings in 2005. The Regional Executive Ministers Council and General Executive Council (consisting of REMC plus key national staff) both met in San Antonio.

The denominational conflict over homosexuality, which had been on slow simmer since the Commission on Denominational Unity report in 1997, had come to a full boil in the Fall of 2004 and threatened to explode in the Summer of 2005. Many of us had hopes that the REMC and GEC meetings in April 2005 would find a way for us to avoid a denominational meltdown.

While much has been made of the role of the homosexuality debate, many of us believe it is the presenting symptom of deeper issues in American Baptist life.

Both feasibility studies, which were referenced in previous columns, found growing alienation and mistrust with the national denomination. For a denomination that likes to claim “the local church is the fundamental unit of mission” this is problematic.

Most of this alienation had become focused (rightly or wrongly) on the General Board and the staff of the General Board. The General Board was structured to represent churches, but growing numbers of churches were coming to believe that the General Board was, in fact, unable or unwilling to represent them. Alienation was already being manifested as churches withheld (or directed) funds and/or withdrew from the denomination.

The conflict, and our inability to deal effectively with it, exposed very different (even incommensurate) interpretations of how our structure should work. It also exposed some of the ways in which our organizing documents were inconsistent with one another.

In one sense, these radically different understandings of identity and inconsistent documents reflect who American Baptists are–a loose amalgam at best. From the very beginning we have struggled with how to live together in a creative dynamic between the poles of independence (autonomy) and interdependence, neither overcoming the other.

In the final analysis, we must confess that our present structure is not equal to the promises it has made and cannot adequately address conflicting values among us.

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.

It is important to remember that there is no proposal at this point, but these are the main features of what seems to be taking shape:

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

The interlocking boards created 40 years ago would be undone. The Board of International Ministries, Board of National Ministries and Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board 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 ABC/USA connections.

The General Board would become the Board of General Ministries. 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 ABC/USA.

These four legally independent boards 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 General Executive Counci.

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.

Funding questions lie just beneath the surface of these discussions. We all understand that we must come to some clarity about this soon. Merely shifting costs to other entities will not be acceptable. There must be a real reduction in the costs of operating the denomination. More than that, the organization must prove itself worthy of the financial support of churches because declining finances is merely a symptom.

This plan moves us apart. 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?

There are other nagging questions that may not be answered. I wonder what it means that the energy to come together as NBC was grass-roots driven, but the energy to move apart is now staff-driven.

I am persuaded that we are seeking an organizational answer to a deeper question. It is a question we won’t even admit, much less talk about: Who do we want to be together?

The 20th century began and ended with American Baptists struggling with how to implement a balance of independence and interdependence in a national organization that claims to be an expression of the Church of Jesus Christ. Perhaps it is a struggle that will be with us until the eschaton.

Dwight Stinnett is executive minister of American Baptist Churches of the Great Rivers Region.

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