A new future began to emerge for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Fort Worth, Texas, in June.
The retirement of long-time Coordinator Dan Vestal was front and center throughout the meeting. Add to this the return to the classroom of Rob Nash and the departure of still others throughout the summer. CBF is undergoing an unprecedented change in leadership – unprecedented.

The CBF General Assembly also approved the 2012 Task Force Report altering future organizational structure.

So the first shoe dropped in Fort Worth with the retirement of Vestal and the approval of the 2012 Task Force Report. Another shoe will soon drop.

With our individual-centered polity, Baptists are heavily influenced by cultural shifts.

In the early 20th century, Baptists adopted the organizational model of the day and created the Cooperative Program and a strong Executive Committee.

This new industrial model gave birth to the creation of a strong national organization (SBC), strong state organizations (state conventions) and significant associational organizations.

State and associational organizations (as well as the SBC) existed prior to the early 20th century. Yet they were transformed based on the industrial model.

By the late 1950s, the industrial model was fully absorbed into the way Baptists went about their work.

With the emergence of the Information Age, the industrial management systems of the SBC began to unravel.

The decentralization of the computer age didn’t connect with the well-oiled machine of denominational life. Individuals and coalitions wanted more influence. Attendance at annual SBC meetings swelled. The “takeover” and “conservative resurgence” were on!

In the formation of CBF (another expression of decentralization), organizers opted for a very different kind of national organization: a weak central office to lead the movement, with weak connections to partner state and CBF organizations.

I use the term “weak” with no malice. The term suggests the system itself was not dependent on employees in a central office but found energy and leadership in a larger constituent base.

Later this was changed with influence shifting toward the professional staff.

CBF started with a weak central office, then shifted to a stronger central office structure where employees “resourced churches.”

It’s now moving back to a weak central office structure.

With a weak national office in the early years, most state CBF organizations created weak-to-very-weak state CBF chapters. CBF of Florida was the early exception.

CBF of Florida moved quickly to become a unifying force in the state among CBF churches.

Instead of creating a weak state office, CBF of Florida opted for a strong central office formatting itself on the old state convention model of the SBC. Until the last eight years, CBF of Florida was an anomaly.

CBF’s organizational life was forever altered by the development of CBF of North Carolina.

Initially, CBF of North Carolina developed a weak organizational structure. However, that changed when moderates in North Carolina gave up on the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina and withdrew.

As they withdrew, they changed CBF of North Carolina into a mini-state convention. While there is a sense in which CBF of North Carolina followed the lead of their counterpart in Florida, what was created in CBF of North Carolina was truly unprecedented in CBF history.

When the 2012 Task Force began its work considering ways to reshape CBF’s organizational structure, an “elephant in the room” was CBF of North Carolina.

With a strong central office in CBF of Florida and an unprecedentedly strong mini-state convention in CBF of North Carolina, the 2012 Task Force had little choice but to offer recommendations that, in effect, transformed the national CBF office back to a weak organizational model.

(I am confident other issues as well were involved in the deliberations of the Task Force.)

The 2012 Task Force Report will change the nature of CBF.

CBF will become an organization with a weak national office (with a fairly strong mission-sending arm) and strong state/regional organizations.

When state/regional organizations begin conversations with the national office about money, these organizations will argue for more money to stay in their respective areas.

Implementing the 2012 Task Force Report will transform CBF into a centralized mission-sending arm and a decentralized network of state/regional organizations. The national office will coordinate work among a decentralized network, working alongside, not above, state/regional organizations.

When people gathered for the “consultation” in Atlanta in the summer of 1990 (which gave birth to CBF), virtually no one imagined CBF would become a “state-centered” movement.

I very much enjoyed the Tallowood Players in Fort Worth, a drama troupe from Tallowood Baptist Church.

In a skit, one player wondered about CBF’s future. Another player introduced the idea of churches resourcing each other instead of depending on a national organization.

Whoops. The cat is clearly out of the bag.

Another shoe will drop when people begin to wonder why churches depend on state organizations – when churches can resource each other without having to go through a state entity. Apparently, the Tallowood Players see this future.

Churches will do well to claim their birthright as the center of Baptist life in the Information Age.

We are slow to glimpse the coming reality (the second shoe). Increasingly, we need to focus our interest and attention on the local church and ask, “What does the local church need CBF to do?”

Denominational structures exist to do for churches what they cannot do for themselves. And that list is getting shorter!

Over the next five years, there may be a good bit of excitement in state CBF organizations.

Why not? They will retain a larger share of money given by churches in their state. I am confident state organizations will do wonderful things with these “diverted dollars” (diverted from CBF national).

These funds will create vibrant state organizations. So, at the state level, we are in for a euphoric decade as we falsely imagine “the budget is growing” (when, in fact, dollars are simply shifting).

The unknown question is: Will this activity and excitement at the state level provide enough impetus for local CBF churches to increase the amount of money they send to missions? Can the amount given to all CBF causes actually grow with this new structure? Probably not.

As churches rediscover their financial autonomy, they will give greater focus to their “denominational” gifts (more designations), use more funds in their own missional activities in their communities, and provide fewer funds for denominational “overhead.”

So, where is all this transformation heading?

It is heading to the future-past.

Long before there were associational, state and national Baptist entities, the local church was standing by itself and loosely connecting itself to other local congregations. Churches connected with one another for camp meetings, good preaching and good eating.

In the midst of our transformations, may we have the wisdom to keep the best of our past: good preaching and good eating.

Ron Crawford is president of the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. This excerpted column first appeared on his blog.

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