On Saturday I met with the Coordinating Council of the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship for the last time. Here are the challenges I presented.

In I Chronicles 12: 32, we read about the people of Issachar who “understood the times” and “what Israel should do” (NASB). I don’t claim to have such a gift, but let me share several challenges that we should understand and leave it up to you to determine what we should do.

1. Pastoral change. In the next year, three of our top 10 giving churches will undergo pastoral change. One is seeking a pastor, one pastor will take early retirement in December and the other has announced that he will retire next year. Of course, there may be others!

Although we believe in congregational polity, the pastor is a person of great influence in the Baptist church. I make it a practice to work with pastors and avoid “end runs” around pastors. Where the church is already supportive, pastoral change in the wrong direction may hurt us financially and strategically. The question is not only “Is the pastor supportive of the CBF movement?” but “Is the pastor a person of cooperative spirit?”

2. Local congregational stress. I rarely go through a week without talking to a pastor, church staff member or lay person who is dealing with conflict in the church. Some of it is understandable and some makes no sense at all! It may be frustration over lack of growth, generational, or interpersonal.

Basically, this is a challenging time to lead or belong to a church, especially a well-established traditional church.

3. Decline in giving to us by local churches. Why is this happening?–A decline in church health in terms of commitment, stewardship, etc.; sometimes due to the church moving in new directions and stretching their resources; the economy; and cash flow problems.

We experience the “downhill effect” of this. The model we follow makes us very dependent on healthy, functioning, cooperative churches. What does that say about the focus of our ministries?

4. New approaches to ministry. I have talked with at least a half-dozen people in the past year who have started their own ministries. Some of these replace services formerly provided by a denomination. Others are launching out in new directions with new paradigms. These para-church structures may provide the framework for a new denominationalism.

5. An aging constituency. The “founders” are moving off the scene. We can no longer depend on the leaders who got us started. We can no longer depend on the financial support of those who learned stewardship and learned it well. In fact, individual giving to TCBF dropped from 17 percent to 14 percent of budget gifts this past year. How can we say “thank you” to those who have giving in their DNA while nurturing a younger generation of supports?

You don’t fight trends. You discern them, try to understand them, and learn to live with them. This is the dawning of a new reality. What resources can we bring to bear on such trends?

1. Agility–We are still young enough as an organization to be flexible and adapt to the needs of our constituents. However, this may mean adapting a new paradigm for a middle judicatory like ours.

2. Relationships–We are relational. “Fellowship” is our last name. This is one of our basic values. We have the good will of many people in the churches. We continue to develop new relationships with churches, ministries, and other partners. Our future growth will not be based on bringing established churches “over to CBF” but in strengthening ties with the churches who already identify with us and establishing new churches.

3. Grace–I believe that in all we do, we have attempted to incarnate the grace of God. We reach out to people that others reject, we open our doors to those who have not found a home elsewhere, and we extend a hand of fellowship to those seeking community.

Building on these resources, I believe that 10 years from now Tennessee CBF will look very different from what it is today. That’s not bad–that’s good.

The times are difficult, but the resources are available. Understanding the times and acting accordingly is part of the work of the Kingdom of God. This is God’s work. I pray that God will bless you as you do it.

Ircel Harrison is coordinator of the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. This column is adapted from his blog.

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