“So how was the CBF meeting?”
That’s the question folks at my church asked on Sunday morning after I returned from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) General Assembly in Dallas.
While not unusual, this year the question has been asked with more than passing interest. And more than usual was riding on the answer.
“It was good,” I answered. “It was really good. And an important reminder of why CBF is important to churches like ours. And to me.”
“And the breakfast for LGBTQ persons and their allies?”
“Amazing. Truly amazing. And a sign of hope.”
For most members of the congregation I serve, our partnership with CBF is generally not a pressing concern. But several months ago when news broke of the Illumination Project’s outcome, many were shocked and outraged. After learning the Project’s “Implementation Plan” meant those openly identifying as LGBTQ Christians were excluded from serving in “certain ministry/missions leadership positions,” the majority were ready to break ranks and bolt.
I understand that visceral response and, to some extent, I share it. I hoped the Illumination Project would create a new, Christ-centered personnel policy, which it did, while leaving implementation of that policy to CBF’s staff and elected leadership, which it did not. Now it’s only a matter of time until we have to engage this issue again because the swelling tide of history is clear: LGBTQ Christians must be welcome at any table that belongs to the Lord and liberated and empowered to serve in his name.
Thankfully, first thing Thursday morning at the CBF gathering, I found hope. I was blessed to break bread and rub shoulders with my LGBTQ brothers and sisters, and their allies, at the “Affirming Network Breakfast.” From the young woman who led us in singing the prayer chorus, “I Love You, Lord,” to the speaker who reminded us that once before, “The stone that the builders rejected became the cornerstone” (Mt. 22:42), I was deeply moved. Thank God for these conscientious, courageous LGBTQ believers who have not given up on CBF, because CBF will be never be a full-bodied expression of Christian community and mission without them.
As to the larger CBF meeting – worship, workshops, hall talk and other happenings – I was enlightened, challenged and inspired. The six impressive women ministers who told their stories at the annual Friends of Baptist News Global dinner were both winsome and prophetic, a tough act for any preacher to pull off. Similarly, the women who spoke at the CBF Leadership banquet, including Executive Coordinator Suzi Paynter, the Fellowship’s visionary and able leader, stirred me with their stories of creative, courageous ministry in the face of stiff resistance. The evening worship sessions were spirited and substantive, and kept calling me home to the heartbeat of CBF life: innovative, incarnational ministry to “the least of these” offered in eager partnership with people of faith from far beyond CBF’s ranks.
Yes, I understand the anger and disillusionment many feel over the outcome of the Illumination Project. And I respect and admire some of my mostly younger colleagues who feel they cannot in good conscience be part of CBF any longer. It saddens me that a trend Carlyle Marney long ago lamented haunts us yet: Baptists’ greatest contribution to the great Church of Jesus Christ may be all the Baptist refugees we have expelled to serve elsewhere.
And yet I still have confidence in CBF. Because while CBF, like me, is very much a creature in process, I see her groping toward a fuller embrace of the Christ Light. That fuller embrace was evident at this year’s assembly in the female, African-American, Native-American, Asian-American, Hispanic and other diverse faces prominent in leadership. There is always room for improvement, but the general assembly platform is no longer dominated by white male ministers as it was 20 years ago.
While I bemoan the Illumination Project’s implementation plan – and will do everything in my power to change it – I still need CBF. My church, as gifted and resourceful as it is, still needs CBF. We need to be part of a national and global Baptist family that stretches and grows us beyond our comfort zone. We need missional leadership that helps identify, vet and resource the best partners for our church to invest in and work with. We need a network to identify and empower the next generation of congregational leaders.
So, “How was the CBF meeting?”
It was just what I needed. Sharing conversations, handshakes and hugs with my CBF family was a powerful reminder that these brothers and sisters in the way of Jesus are genuinely striving to follow his Light (John 8:12). And that is one “Illumination Project” that, pray God, will go on, long after the other one is forgotten.