Significant studies conducted in the past two years have implications for local cooperation in churches that have identified with the Southern Baptist Convention. The latest is by the study group which was presented at the June meeting of the Southern Baptist Conference of Associational Leaders: (http://www.sbcassociations.org/uploads/6/2/2/2/62227119/sbcal_study_team_report.pdf) Among the things mentioned in the report was a possible change of position title to Missional Strategist. The report made clear that the title was the opinion of the study group, not the position of those it had surveyed. In fact, missional strategist, the suggested title, ranked fifth among respondents.
That said, the name change was (for me) the least of the considerations in the report. What is most graphic is this part of the first conclusion: “a Professional Development Process to include elements in both formal and informal credentialing for future Associational Mission Strategists is urgently needed”. The complexity of this task cannot be overstated!
Let me address the complexity. Last year’s SBCAL Compensation study highlighted some realities that need to be part of the conversation. First, even with the thoroughgoing questioning about the validity of the local association all across the convention, the relative importance of the local association is illustrated by the fact that 83% of associations still have a full-time leader.
What kind of leader do associations want? In this year’s Associations in Megacities survey of pastors and leaders into the role of DOM, 83% felt it was very important for this role to have pastoral experience and another 9.7% felt it was somewhat important. This is magnified by last year’s compensation study that found current practice is to have well-experienced leaders in terms of ministry: almost 90% have been in ministry for more than 10 years. To have leaders with these experiences, the pool becomes older by nature. 88% of associational leaders are 50 years of age or more. Of those in the role, 80% possess Masters or Doctoral degrees. The majority of associational leaders serve in Town and County and Rural areas with somewhere between 20-69 churches. Once in position, associational leaders tend to stay in position. Fully one third of associational leaders have been in place for more than 10 years.
So now to the question of credentialing. Here’s the reality: associational leadership is going to come from middle aged, experienced pastors with an advanced degrees. Most will come, thinking that they understand the role since it is rare to have a leader selected who has not been supportive of associational work, whether promoted from within the association or because of a wider search. The problem? Those who serve in associational work understand is this: you don’t really get it until you’re in the role. Observing from outside is one thing: experiencing the reality is another.
So, who is going to provide this type of credentialing? The seminaries, for example, might want to join the cause and begin to offer specific training in the work of an associational leader. Here is the problem: you do not really need the training until you move into the role. Pragmatically, how many leaders with advanced degrees and years of ministry experience will enroll in one more degree? Denominational partners (NAMB, state conventions) may also feel that this work warrants their attention. For me, this has some less than desirable outcomes since many who are in these places of responsibility either have never served in an associational leadership role or served in the previous Southern Baptist reality.
If credentialing is going to have real value, credentialing needs to have the validity of practitioners who are both the instructors and governors of the credentialing curriculum and process. One of the two fellowship organizations, SBCAL or NOBA, would be the place I would think needs to control the process. Of the two, SBCAL has been more proactive in terms of addressing the challenges of modern associational ministry. It is, after all, the conclusion of the SBCAL study that leads us into the discussion of credentialing. Governance is important. If associational leadership controls governance of the credentialing process, then use of NAMB/state resources could produce positive results. If practitioners of associational ministry are the instructors/mentors/coaches within the credentialing process, then the results become practical and active, rather than esoteric and idealistic.