By Bob Allen
The Governing Board of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship heard an initial report from an ad hoc group appointed in recent months to collaborate with a newly up-and-running Missions Council on how to retool the organization’s global missions enterprise to meet challenges far different than when the 1,800-church Fellowship was born in the early 1990s.
Steven Porter, CBF Global Missions coordinator, said that includes narrowing the focus of a global missions department that began in earnest with an offer extended by the then-fledgling Fellowship to pick up the salaries of any Southern Baptist missionary who could no longer in good conscience stay affiliated with what today is called the International Mission Board.
“Twenty-five years ago we launched CBF, and a major part of that was being a life raft for missionaries who were kind of floating adrift, you might say,” Porter said in a report at the Jan. 22-23 leadership meeting at First Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga.
“From that we have grown to a missions organization that has 125 field personnel in over 30 countries, and a very complex organization,” Porter said. “But the structures that we inherited and shaped along the way were designed primarily in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to serve a world that in many respects doesn’t exist any longer.”
Porter, named to the global missions coordinator post last year, said the rationale for the planning process “is to upgrade our structures so they serve faithfully the 21st-century world in the way that our old structures served the 20th-century world.”
“Our past processes, being mostly internal affairs, didn’t force us to make some hard decisions,” Porter said. “It didn’t make us prune and narrow things.”
To expedite the process, CBF Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter and Moderator Kasey Jones named a seven-person panel from the Governing Council to work with the Missions Council in the strategic planning process. Paul Baxley, chair of the ad hoc Committee on Global Missions Structures and Staffing, said it’s the first such collaboration since a new CBF governance structure was approved in 2012.
The new CBF structure assigns responsibility for global missions strategy to a newly formed Missions Council. Personnel policy and funding recommendations are assigned to a Governing Council smaller and more narrowly focused than the Coordinating Council that oversaw all CBF operations during the movement’s first 20 years. A third Ministries Council is focused on identifying and sharing resources among churches and CBF ministry partners.
Porter said the planning will include input from a wide range of constituencies, such as state and regional organizations, major donors, congregations and field personnel. Last month Porter sent out a 10-page Christmas letter explaining the process to field personnel and telling them how they can engage in the process.
“I think this is one of the very significant things about this,” Porter said. “This is not like previous strategic planning processes for our global missions division, which have always been an internal affair.”
“There is plenty of anxiety on the part of some, and a lot of excitement on the part of some of our other folks, that real change can actually happen because we have the gift of a Missions Council,” he said. “We’ve never had an external board before, and that’s truly a gift.”
At the same meeting of the Governing Council, a separate task force presented an internal working document outlining strategy for a sustainable funding strategy over the next five years.
Doug Dortch, chair of the committee composed of members of the Governing Council’s finance, advancement and networking committees, said with a current trend of declining church support and individual gifts on the rise, a major question for the Fellowship’s future is “where is the money coming from?”
“I am concerned that we look for ways to maintain the level of congregational support that we have received and not assume that it will always be at that level,” said Dortch, senior minister at Mountain Brook Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.
“I turn 60 this year,” Dortch said. “I see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I am excited about that.”
“Who takes my place?” he wondered. “It is no guarantee that whoever takes my place will be as passionate about CBF as I. It’s no guarantee, and I’m not alone.”
“My guess is if you were to look at the top 50 contributing churches in CBF life, most of the pastors of those congregations are at the same life stage as I, and there will be no guarantee in those situations that whoever follows the pastors who are in those congregations will be equally as passionate and supportive about the future of CBF,” Dortch said.
He suggested reaching out to such pastors nearing the end of their careers asking “what can we do as CBF to help you personally” guide churches toward that transition.
Baxley, senior pastor of First Baptist Church, Athens, Ga., said he doesn’t take for granted that congregational giving will remain flat or in decline, but if it does “we don’t want it to be because we did not ask.”
“The generational shift you talked about compels us to come up with a new way of asking congregations,” Baxley responded to Dortch. “They didn’t come of age in the old Cooperative Program world, and so we’re going to have to articulate [that] with new clarity.”
“We did such a good job telling people to do the mission of God in their own neighborhood,” Baxley said. “Now we’re going to have to do an excellent job of explaining to congregations why they need to cooperate with the rest of us to make a bigger difference in the world.”
Porter said the funding strategy discussion dovetails with that of the global missions task force.
“This work of narrowing focus in the area of global missions is very important, because it is exceptionally hard to tell our story right now,” Porter said. “Once you get beyond the number of field personnel, the number of countries and some slogans that are truly beautiful, it’s really hard to say here’s what we do, because we do so many good things.”
“I think as we do that, what we are going to find is it becomes much easier to develop common metrics, talk about impact and then tell a story in a way that makes a compelling pitch for engagement and support.”
The Governing Council met for over an hour in executive session. Though the discussion was not reported, a CBF bylaw requires that most meetings be open to any member of the Fellowship, with exceptions for discussions of legal matters, contracts or personnel.