Somewhere way back in Baptist life, someone saw fit to organize regional gatherings of churches. Maybe they did that so everyone had someone to play with. Or in order that no one would have to feel left out.
So it was that the Baptist “association” was born. Here’s the idea behind an association. Let’s say one starts with a central point. Like the old country store Bubba-Doo’s. From that central point in a roughly 20-minute radius, let’s say there are 40 Baptist churches.
Now let’s pause to acknowledge that the notion of so many similar and close congregations sounds absurd. But in a moderately populated area, that could be true. In a denser metropolitan area, there often used to be even more.
So, if there were a state convention of churches and a national or global body made up of thousands of churches, everybody couldn’t possibly know or relate with everyone else. Makes sense. The solution more than a hundred years ago was to draw up regional areas or associations. Then, a more local collection of churches could get to know each other.
Ideally, they would worship together a time or two a year. They would cooperate on mission causes and do good things. They would share resources and fellowship. In a simpler time, associations also kept ministers from feeling quite so lonely. They could know other ministers because if nowhere else, they might meet them at associational gatherings.
Flash forward to recent times. Like the human body’s appendix, the evolution of communication and transportation has rendered the Baptist association less relevant. OK, that’s being kind.
Divisions within denominational life also factor in. If your denomination is like mine, not everyone is on board like they were a century ago. So, when these regional associations have essentially become local outposts that do the bidding of the larger denomination, those congregations that no longer claim that national affiliation also find themselves a little on the outs locally. A lot of associations have folded by now for lack of funds or interest.
Still, in many areas there are associations hanging on. In some rare cases, they may even still be high functioning. In the greater Bubba-Doo’s area, though, not so much. Just to be clear, there is in fact still a Baptist association here. “High functioning” simply is not the way you would describe it.
My church is caught in a strange warp. In the name of being neighborly, our people never have disaffiliated with the locals. They did vote to leave the national denomination 25 years ago.
“Here we are still mingling with all our fellow Baptist churches in the area, when in reality we only have something in common with two or three at best.”
So here we are still mingling with all our fellow Baptist churches in the area, when in reality we only have something in common with two or three at best. For the tiny handful of church members who actually care whether we are represented at the “so-sayshuional” meetings, it’s just easier to go.
I may be required to go, but I don’t have to like associational events. Most of the time if I were a dog and these meetings were a trap, I would chew my leg off in order to get out of them. For every good or inspiring thing that might happen at one of these gatherings, there are dozens of instances where the only things inspired are snoozes and eyerolls.
My brother was a pastor for a while. He still tells of dozing off at an associational meeting once. I believe he was sitting in the front row. That’s a little awkward and a lot funny. However, it’s what happened here after one such gathering that got interesting.
There was a called meeting of an executive committee in our area. I had been hooked into serving, so we met. The decision that needed action was voted upon. I overheard a group of pastors chatting about adjourning to Bubba-Doo’s for lunch.
“I had absolutely no interest in the fellowship.”
I had absolutely no interest in the fellowship. I wasn’t bored enough to think this would be fun. However, because God has a great sense of humor, it turns out I did have a simultaneous lunch appointment. At Bubba-Doo’s.
Maybe you’ll think less of me for this. But a great Baptist leader I knew taught me that one could actually split one’s hearing. That is, the human mind, if so disciplined, can in fact monitor two conversations at once. I soon found he was right.
I pride myself on being present for someone I’m talking with. But I did discover that when the situation calls for it, split hearing is a handy skill.
Since the restaurant part of Bubba-Doo’s isn’t huge, everybody’s business is sort of everybody’s business. If you need privacy, this isn’t your place.
The whole area within the store might have 20 little tables. They are booths, really. Turns out this gathering of good ol’, grain-fed Baptist pastors weren’t but about two booths away from mine. There must have been a dozen of them who had chosen to stop by for lunch together.
Thankfully, my appointment was as social as it was purposeful. I chatted with a church member. We looked at a document, agreed on a phrase that needed to be changed and then were free to enjoy the visit. Which worked really well since this klatch of local conservative ministers was so close by.
There was this moment when I made peace with the fact that I was about to turn on my sense of split hearing. I was going to be present and invested in my conversation primarily. But I was also going to monitor what was happening over with the big group.
“They did some light fanboying over the current elected denominational leader.”
They did some light fanboying over the current elected denominational leader. Someone at the table had actually met him once. The whole dozen leaned in and every last one of them almost turned over their drinks.
Turns out this one of them had actually walked by the current denominational rock star at an annual gathering. He didn’t really meet him. But he’d seen him up close. Everyone leaned back out.
Someone else speculated on how the vote would go on some ultra-conservative issue this year that would further marginalize female ministers and completely alienate younger folks across the culture. The kind of thing that makes Baptists look silly and irrelevant to about 80% of America.
They were all in favor of that vote, turns out. Everyone felt convicted about their stance. No one could see the short-sightedness of it all. Nor the hermeneutic miscalculation it took to arrive at that particular conclusion.
They talked about upcoming vacations, they talked about their spouses and kids. Things you might expect. Then, nature took its course, and the Big Sister began to hold court.
Nowadays, body-shaming isn’t a thing we do. Besides, I’m no salad-eating Adonis myself. But the ring leader of this Baptist gathering has been nicknamed “The Big Sister.” There’s a reason, and it’s not only his physical size.
This aging minister is right at retirement age. He leads a congregation in a sparse little community that would make the immediate Bubba-Doo’s area look like a thriving metropolis.
However, his church is what one buddy of mine describes as “an overgrown country church.” That is, no demographic reality can make sense of how large his church grew to be. Drive through there and you won’t be able to see but a few houses scattered out in the open country. Farm country. Where not many people could possibly live. Yet clearly they come from somewhere.
So, this modest-sized and quite developed church exists basically out in the middle of nowhere. He’s got a staff associate or two. They’ve built themselves a little gym and a playground. Oh, and dating back to some story about the church’s founding family in the 1800s, the church is named Three Sisters Baptist Church.
Now you get the fuller picture. He’s the lead pastor. His personality is as large as his stature. In an ironic sense of humor, rival pastors out his way long ago began calling him, “The Big Sister.” He is the tenured minister in the entire association.
“He has slicked-back hair, Jaymar Sansabelt slacks and a pinky ring that sits just down his hand from a large gold watch.”
He has slicked-back hair, Jaymar Sansabelt slacks and a pinky ring that sits just down his hand from a large gold watch. His occasional smile lifts the corners of a graying pencil-thin mustache. There is a strength and an intimidation that emanates from him. If you told me he was a 1980s mob boss rather than a pastor, just based on the visuals I’d be a buyer.
Meanwhile, over at my table we were moving right along. My friend had no agenda. Just two buddies catching up on all the latest. I heard about his kids and the demands of running the family taxi service. Which is what he called the effort to move the children around to school and all their extra-curricular activities.
I let my tablemate in on the latest trip we had taken. He wanted to hear all about how the great Northeast had been. Especially a hike we had done recently in the Maine woods with a pack of German Shepherds.
I kept my focus on my table companion. I participated actively. But the light nature of our conversation, combined with my friend’s rather chatty mood, afforded me the chance to keep lightly monitoring the nearby gathering of local ministers.
Some talked of the challenges of navigating the inevitable waters of church politics. Others reveled one another with successes here and there. There was more than a little talk about denominational politics. That was the predominant subject I was glad I didn’t have to endure. I would be coming at things from an opposite stance, if I were part of the group.
Then, someone decided to pay homage to the Reverend Shirley. The Big Sister. “How’s it going over your way?” one of the younger guys asked him. Hey, it’s always wise to kiss the ring if you’re trying to rise in the system, I suppose.
The response was immediate. “Boys, the Lord has blessed me.” That’s how he began.
Here is where we might suppose he was about to speak of groups and ministry initiatives doing good things. Here is where some talk of meeting needs in his neighborhood would be expected. Feeding people, supporting addicted patients and generous acts of benevolence would have been perfect.
“I grew up with nothin’ and now I drive two Cadillac automobiles,” was instead what I overheard him say. I’ll admit, I wasn’t able to track every word and sentence. Again, I truly was trying to be attentive to my own conversation. But I know I caught that much.
“We have a big, beautiful house. My church runs 300 in Sunday school and I’m on a committee of the Executive Board with the state.”
Soon I caught this sentence, too. He added, “They know who I am up there in the city. I would’ve never thought of that when I was just a little farm boy.”
As I drove home, I thought about his words. I replayed the phrases I caught in my mind.
Now, here is where I need to be a little bit fair. Because in private, any of us may confide to a spouse or a dear friend that life has indeed surprised us. We might divulge amazement that perhaps in some ways our path has exceeded our childhood imaginations.
This might be especially true for those of us who did not exactly grow up with grandiose dreams. Those of us who grew up more used to thinking in terms of scarcity than in expectation of more. We should be grateful, and to be surprised is actually healthy and humble.
“What I heard was a man in the twilight of his ministerial career appearing to evaluate his lifetime of work with the trappings peripheral to it.”
Instead, what I heard was a man in the twilight of his ministerial career appearing to evaluate his lifetime of work with the trappings peripheral to it. With a group of ministers, most of whom probably weren’t really friends. This group was made up of acquaintances, buddies and even rivals. Perhaps a friend or two at most?
I snickered. Then, I realized that my sanctimony was a tich disingenuous.
I understand Big Sister more than I’d like to. I, too, am surprised at what I’ve been allowed to do and be a part of to this point. I’ve seen more of the world than I ever would have imagined. Yes, I have to be honest and admit that compared with most of the world we have so far lived quite comfortably.
But when I drill down more deeply, the grace of it all is that I’ve been included as a pastoral presence in some of the most tender moments of peoples’ lives. I’ve held the hands of dying church members. I’ve held trembling, sobbing loved ones who grieved freshly and so palpably. Yes, we have celebrated life’s victories with those who have achieved or received their own versions of grace.
I have buried several centenarians and I have said inadequate words over the grave of an infant. Whether or not I felt up to the task, I have walked into the burning buildings of career losses, tragedies and suicides to accompany those in shock. Dear friends have entrusted me with the memorial services of their family members and with the support of their marriage terminations.
Perhaps more amazingly, I have been loved and I have been forgiven. I have been chosen as a spouse, as family and I have been hired as a trusted employee by congregations. My mentors have invested in me to an extent I can never pay back, but I still try to pay forward.
Let me state the obvious. I know technically what went on over at the other table was none of my business. But overhearing it all caused me to reflect. If that is a healthy exercise, then maybe a little sophisticated eavesdropping in a booth at Bubba-Doo’s benefitted at least my own soul.
If I got in touch with some truly meaningful elements God and life can offer, then I am ahead of where I was before yesterday. Perhaps the Lord will forgive my wanton curiosity as a cost for a gladdened heart.
Charles Qualls serves as pastor of Franklin Baptist Church in Franklin, Va. He is the author of eight books.
Articles in the Bubba-Doo’s series: