By David Roach
Contributed to B&R
McDONOUGH, Ga. — The small-town pastor seemed largely unresponsive as he sat across from his local associational mission strategist (AMS). “What a waste of time,” the AMS thought as he drove away from their consulting session. But he was wrong.
A year later, the pastor contacted the AMS with a report: He had done everything the associational leader suggested, and the church had outgrown its facility.
The congregation had fresh energy, it purchased land for a relocation and a capital campaign was underway. “What’s next?” the pastor asked.
That is among the stories of associations’ ongoing impact conveyed in The Baptist Association: Assisting Churches. Advancing the Gospel.
Released in June by the Southern Baptist Conference of Associational Leaders (SBCAL), the book explains the role of associations in 21st-century Southern Baptist life and offers counsel on how to lead them.
“We need pastors and Southern Baptist leaders at all levels to value our way of doing cooperative missions — starting with associational missions,” writes Ray Gentry, the book’s editor and SBCAL president. “Churches should appreciate associations for assisting them in advancing the gospel in current, tangible, and historic ways.”
The Baptist Association is the first major work on Southern Baptist associations since 1984, when the Baptist Sunday School Board published J.C. Bradley’s A Baptist Association.
The new volume is based on recommendations and research presented in 2018 by an SBCAL study team.
The team explored the role of associational leaders and recommended changing their title to AMS. Some of the book’s 25 contributors served on that study team.
Production of the volume was a collaborative effort. The North American Mission Board (NAMB) paid for the first printing, and will send one to each of the 1,100 Baptist associations in the Southern Baptist family. SBCAL will be sending copies to Baptist state convention executive directors and Southern Baptist Convention entity leaders. The book was printed by Rainer Publishing, which is owned by the sons of retired LifeWay Christian Resources President Thom Rainer.
Contributors to The Baptist Association describe how a local fellowship of churches can remain relevant in the era of global connectivity and online ministry resources.
Mike Pennington, AMS for Bledsoe Baptist Association, based in Hendersonville, contributed to the book as did two others with Tennessee ties — Terry Sharp, IMB staff member who lives in Hendersonville, and Jason Rumbough, pastor of Hope Church, Nashville.
The book focuses on three proficiencies for the association mission strategist or director of missions: foundational, relational and strategic, said Pennington, who wrote the chapter on the foundational proficiency of “trustworthy.” The trustworthy AMS values, develops and strengthens relationships, he said.
“God approved the Apostle Paul to be entrusted with the gospel, according to I Thessalonians 2:4. “I want to be approved by God to be entrusted with pastors and churches,” Pennington said.
Pennington addressed the question he hears often, “What is the importance of the association?”
“When COVID-19 struck, it was like hitting a wall,” Pennington reflected. “So much changed, but so much remained the same. The association with good relationships thrived as we leaned upon each other and encouraged one another.
“The association with good communication and high trust proved again that we are better together. Together, we tackled these uncertain times with grace, hope and courage.”
The Bledsoe AMS observed that the association is important “because it is the Baptist organization closest to the churches, therefore it is uniquely qualified to meet needs and provide individual and group encouragement in these days of crisis and fear.”
The book begins with a survey of associations in Scripture and Baptist history. In the New Testament, churches associated with one another to promote church planting, church health and doctrinal purity, writes Glenn Davis, AMS for the Heart of Kansas Baptist Association in Wichita, Kan. North Greenville University Provost Nathan Finn explains that “associationalism has always been at the heart of the Baptist vision for cooperation.”
The remainder of part one addresses, among other topics, the role of an AMS, first-year priorities for new associational leaders and how associations can advance the gospel internationally and across North America. The latter two topics are addressed in chapters by International Mission Board President Paul Chitwood and NAMB President Kevin Ezell.
Part two includes chapters on 17 proficiencies of effective associational leaders.
— This article includes reporting by Lonnie Wilkey.