By Robert Dilday
The Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee will consider a proposal to fold the District of Columbia Baptist Convention into a larger region, reducing the number of Baptists in the nation’s capital represented on the governing boards of SBC agencies and institutions.
A bylaw change scheduled for an initial read-through by the Executive Committee at its Feb. 18-19 meeting, would pool churches in the D.C. convention with others in an expanded region, probably including those in the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, said Roger Oldham, the SBC’s top communications officer.
Oldham said the proposed move is largely administrative. He said only about 66 of the D.C. convention’s 150 churches contribute through the SBC’s unified giving plan, the Cooperative Program — a key metric of congregational affiliation for the SBC.
“There has been a concentration of trustees coming out of a handful of churches in the District of Columbia Baptist Convention,” said Oldham — a disproportionate amount compared to other states and regions around the country, he added. The proposal is a way to achieve “a more equitable distribution of trustees,” he said.
The Executive Committee will give fuller consideration of the bylaw change in June and, if adopted, recommend it for action at the SBC’s annual meeting, June 11-12 in Houston.
But DCBC leaders — where memories of a significant reduction in funding by the SBC’s North American Mission Board 10 years ago over alleged “theological drift” in the District’s churches are still fresh — said the move could have profound consequences.
While the bylaw change would not end ties between the two entities, “I do think such a proposal sends a huge message to our convention churches …,” said Ricky Creech, DCBC executive director/minister. “The proposal will not have a direct impact on the convention as an entity. But as the ‘Church gathered’ it will. It will take away the historical opportunity we have had to have representation on the national SBC level.”
D.C. convention president Kendrick Curry said it was “disappointing, unchristian and unloving for the SBC not to communicate with us about their thoughts and intents.”
“Unless the SBC and DCBC can talk, the DCBC will have to plan to thrive in a future without our historic connection to the SBC,” said Curry, senior pastor of Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church in Washington. “If our historic connection is severed, it will be a sad day in Baptist life.”
The 136-year-old D.C. convention is an anomaly among state and regional Baptist conventions, which typically identify with only one national denominational body. The DCBC, in contrast, is affiliated with the SBC, American Baptist Churches USA and the Progressive National Baptist Convention.
It also maintains “strategic partnerships” with, among others, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the Mid-Atlantic CBF, the Alliance of Baptists, the National Baptist Convention USA and the National Baptist Convention of America, as well as the Baptist General Association of Virginia and the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
“Because of our diverse affiliations, the [D.C.] convention honors the various denominational polities and theological positions,” said Creech.
That broad approach prompted the North American Mission Board, which coordinates SBC ministries in the United States and Canada, to request in 2002 additional oversight of employees funded jointly by NAMB and the DCBC. At the time, NAMB officials said the D.C. convention had “grown increasingly distant from the Southern Baptist Convention, its positions and priorities.”
D.C. officials declined the request, which they believed restricted their autonomy. In response NAMB ended its $475,000 annual contribution, about a third of the convention’s budget at the time.
“The SBC witness was diminished greatly in this community after the 2002 NAMB defunding,” Creech said. “… The majority of our funding from NAMB went to support our church planting efforts and need-meeting ministries to the least, lost, lonely and left-out.”
Curry said the proposed bylaw change was reminiscent of the action taken a decade ago and that the DCBC “should have a seat at the table and not be pushed to the margin.”
“Who is the DCBC to the SBC?” he asked. “Are we an unwanted child? … Is the SBC moving forward or backward? For us, this is definitely a step backward, and it reveals that the SBC is up to its same old tactics in a new millennium. May God’s love prevail and transform all of us into the image of Christ.”
Relationships between the SBC and those state conventions which identify with it are complex and often misunderstood. While the state bodies — which sometimes include more than one state — are autonomous, an intricate web of relationships historically has bound them close to the national denomination, especially in money matters. By long-established agreement, state conventions serve as financial agents of the SBC, collecting contributions from churches and forwarding a percentage to the national body.
The state conventions don’t elect their own representatives on SBC’s mission boards, seminaries and other agencies, however. They are nominated in a committee process that begins with appointments by the SBC president, meaning that persons selected to represent a geographical area may be more representative of SBC leaders than the churches they are elected to represent.
If the D.C. convention’s churches are pooled in a region that includes the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, they will be paired with a group of congregations which are generally seen as more conservative — and more in sync with the SBC’s prevailing theological views. Some D.C. leaders said they feared future trustee nominations from the new region would be weighted in those churches’ favor.
Similar patterns have emerged by default in Virginia and Texas, where churches can select among two conventions — an older, moderate body and a newer, conservative one. Leaders in the more moderate Baptist General Association of Virginia and Baptist General Convention of Texas have long maintained that the newer — and more conservative — Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia and Southern Baptists of Texas are disproportionately represented on SBC governing boards.
While the proposed bylaw change is disappointing, Creech said the D.C. convention’s ministries will remain strong.
“At the end of the day, it is the witness and presence of the SBC in the nation’s capital that will be negatively affected and diminished, not the DCBC,” he said.