Keeping the Tent Big

In one of my recent posts I talked about “Life in the Big Tent,” and mentioned that in the tent we call Richmond’s First Baptist Church there has been some pushing and shoving over the subject of where we send our mission dollars. 

Pushing and shoving?  Really?!

Well, no, of course not.  That would never happen at First Baptist Church.  I was using those words metaphorically.  But at our last deacons’ meeting the Deacon Advisory Council* proposed changes to our shared giving plan that led to some spirited discussion.  Let me be specific:

The current plan—“the First Baptist Partnership Plan”—divides mission dollars between the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, but the division is hardly equal: the SBC receives more than three times as much as the CBF.  The proposed plan—“the Shared Partnership Plan”—divides mission dollars equally between the CBF and the SBC, and it eliminates giving to the North American Mission Board of the SBC altogether. 

Those are big changes, and you can see how our members who are supportive of the Southern Baptist Convention might wonder if they are being pushed out of the tent, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening at all: I think what’s happening is that we are gaining a better understanding of who we are.   

I wasn’t here at the time but several years ago some of our members formed an “Identity Passion Team” to address that very issue: Who are we?  What is our purpose?  Who are our people?  What are our shared values and beliefs?  What has been our journey?  What other Baptist groups do we relate to?  The members of that team drafted an identity statement that was adoped by an overwhelming majority of the church.  What we learned is that out tent has always been big, that while we might have all considered ourselves Southern Baptists at one time, there were a lot of different views among us.  In fact, if you had put us all on one pew you would have seen the full spectrum of theological diversity, from extremely conservative on one end to not very conservative at all on the other.  It didn’t matter so much when we gathered to worship the Lord (whom we all loved), or when we talked about missions (which we all supported).  It only began to matter when the pushing and shoving broke out in our denominational tent and people began to ask us which “side” we were on.

As I mentioned in my last post, we refused to be divided.  We created giving options that allowed us to support the mission causes we felt the most affinity for without giving up the worship and fellowship that made us family.  We’ve maintained that tradition for years.  But this latest revision of our giving plans is an acknowledgment of something that has probably been true all along but “discovered” only recently: we are diverse, and if we are going to honor that diversity we cannot show favoritism.  The proposed “shared” plan divides our mission dollars equally between the SBC and the CBF. 

The proposal to eliminate our giving to the North American Mission Board of the SBC is also a matter of identity.  For many, many years we have recognized the gifts and calling of women–and not only men–in ministry.   Women have been ordained as deacons at First Baptist for decades.  We have an ordained woman on our ministry staff.  We know what a blessing these women have been and we maintain our historic Baptist freedom to ordain whomever we perceive as gifted—male or female—for ministry.  The North American Mission Board, however, is not a local church.  It does not share that same freedom.  And because it hopes to reflect the views of the Baptist majority it does not employ women who have been ordained (unless they are willing to rescind their ordination). 

While individuals in our church are free to check the SBC box on their commitment cards or giving envelopes and direct some of their mission dollars to the North American Mission Board, the majority of our deacons perceive a philosophical difference with NAMB.  They hesitate to include in our shared giving plan an organization that will not hire an ordained woman.  Of course it isn’t up to the Deacons, ultimately; it’s up to the church (just last night we hosted an open discussion at which some members requested that we not exclude NAMB altogether, since it is part of the same organization through which we “support missionaries,” and that we distribute our missionary support proportionally, with the SBC getting a larger share simply because it has more personnel on the field. Each of those requests seemed reasonable and the spirit of the discussion was cordial throughout).   

Copies of the proposed giving plan have been available for perusal for the past few weeks, with a vote scheduled for the quarterly business meeting on January 13, 2010.  If things go as they usually do there won’t be any pushing and shoving at that meeting, either.  There will be a presentation, some discussion, and then every member present will vote his or her conscience.  At the end of the meeting we will all understand a little better…

…who we are. 

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*The Deacon Advisory Council is comprised of the five most recent deacon chairs and vice-chairs at First Baptist Church.