The churches of the Pike Association of Southern Baptists will gather tonight for our association’s Fall Semi-Annual Meeting. The last time we were together in person was during our Spring Semi-Annual Meeting six months ago. During that gathering, I briefly mentioned how churches should consider implementing a few safety precautions for their church. At that point, COVID-19 appeared to be a minor inconvenience that churches would need to keep in mind for a few weeks. 

That was on a Monday. By Friday, everything had changed. COVID-19 was no longer a minor inconvenience; it was a major disruption. Therefore, for the second time in the same week, I found myself sitting in a room with a large group of associational pastors. By the conclusion of that meeting, many churches had made the difficult decision to move their worship services online. Sadly, none of them returned to in-person services for several months.

So much has changed in the association since then. All of our regularly scheduled events were canceled. No free dental clinic. No VBS clinic. No mission trips. No free basketball camp. No Executive Board meetings. With all of the cancellations, one might think that there was nothing for the association to do. 

However, that would be a false assumption. The truth of the matter is that I was busier during the first few months of the pandemic than ever before. As I have had conversations with fellow associational leaders, I have discovered that my experience was far from unique. Many associations were flooded with requests for assistance from their member churches. Some heard from churches that rarely (if ever) contacted the association. Many associations hosted some of their largest pastor gatherings in recent memory.

In other words, I believe the pandemic has highlighted a recent resurgence in the relevance and value of local Baptist associations within the Southern Baptist Convention. As an associational leader, I’m pleased by this development, especially given the fact that the local association’s reputation has not always been positive.

Hard Times for Associations

In the eyes of many Southern Baptists, associations had fallen on hard times in recent years. Although the earliest Baptist association in America was formed over 300 years ago in 1707 (and 138 years prior to the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention), many Southern Baptists questioned if local associations had served their purpose and were no longer relevant or needed by churches in the 21st century.

In a 2017 study on the perceived value of Baptist associations, the results were not encouraging:

  • When asked to describe the most exciting aspect of their association, the most popular answer among Southern Baptist church leaders was “Nothing.”
  • When asked to describe the most frustrating aspect of their local Baptist association, two of the three most popular answers among church leaders were “The association is irrelevant” and “Lack of association strategy, vision, or purpose.”
  • Only 65.6% of church leaders indicated that their local Baptist association was a strategic partner in helping their church to fulfill the Great Commission, meaning that a third of church leaders did not think so.
  • Only 58.5% of church leaders indicated that their church would be negatively affected if their local Baptist association ceased to exist.

As an associational leader, these findings were discouraging. But that was reality only a few short years ago.

Perception Has Been Improving

However, I believe the perception of associations has been slowly but steadily improving in recent years, primarily through the efforts of the Southern Baptist Conference of Associational Leaders (SBCAL) and their President & CEO, Ray Gentry. In 2017, the SBCAL commissioned a Study Team to evaluate the role of the associational leader and offer recommendations at the 2018 Annual Conference in Dallas. (Full disclosure: I had the honor of serving as a member of that team.)

After a year of quantitative and qualitative research, the Study Team offered a list of 17 proficiencies that were “most helpful for an associational leader to be successful, regardless of context” (Gentry, 38). In addition to these 17 proficiencies, the Study Team offered a new descriptor for associational leaders, the Associational Mission Strategist (AMS). After adapting the Study Team Report, the SBCAL formed another Vision Team to implement some of these recommendations. One of the products of the Vision Team’s work was a new book titled The Baptist Association: Assisting Churches. Advancing the Gospel.

Through these and many other efforts, I have started to notice a renewed emphasis and interest in associational work. A small resurgence of the Baptist association has begun. As counterintuitive as it may seem, I believe the COVID-19 pandemic has served to highlight and accelerate this resurgence for many associations.

Pandemic Response

During the early days of the pandemic, the value of local associations increased significantly in the eyes of Southern Baptist church leaders. According to a recent survey of 271 Southern Baptists, associations stepped up to assist their churches in a number of ways:

  • SBC churches received more help from their local association than any other SBC entity. (#1: local association, #2: state convention, #3: other churches)
  • SBC churches received a greater variety of assistance from their local association than any other SBC entity. (#1: local association, #2: state convention, #3: other associations)
  • SBC Senior Pastors indicated that their perception improved more for their local association than any other SBC entity. (#1 {tie}: local association & other parachurch organizations, #3: state convention)

These results are very encouraging. Many local associations have experienced a resurgence in recent days, and Southern Baptists are better for it!

Reasons For The Resurgence

As I’ve already mentioned, the efforts of the SBCAL and the circumstances surrounding the pandemic have created an environment conducive to an associational resurgence. But given the fact that most associations completely revised their ministry programming during the past six months, why have churches suddenly become more receptive to their association?

If you had asked me this question a few months ago, my answer would have been quite different. I would have responded that effective associations provide value to their churches using a 5-pronged strategy (local evangelism, missions mobilization, church planting, leadership development, and communication). While those strategic components are still helpful and necessary for the long-term success of an association, those are not the reasons behind the current associational resurgence.

I see at least 5 reasons:

  1. Associations are nimble. In other words, associations should be able to adapt to changing circumstances quickly. When the pandemic began, I was able to organize a pastors’ meeting within two hours to discuss the rapidly changing circumstances. More than half of the pastors in the association showed up. A few weeks later, we were able to conduct online Holy Week services, featuring different associational churches with only a few days to plan. Larger organizations simply could not pull off meetings and events like this so quickly. The larger the organization, the longer it takes to plan and get organized.
  2. Associations are local. Every community has its own unique context. Associations can provide immense value to churches because they are a part of the same community and they understand the territory. There is great value in knowing that other churches in the area are facing similar circumstances. As churches began to make plans to regather, there were some unique considerations that the churches in my association needed to think through. Our association was able to provide several online webinars to help church leaders consider those contextual matters.
  3. Associations are built on relationships. Because of the proximity to the churches in my association, I’m able to know many of their members by name. Pastors are able to get to know other pastors as well. Their wives get to know one another. Over the years, we’ve been able to develop a significant level of mutual trust. When a crisis hits, you often turn first to those you know and trust. This is one of the biggest reasons that the first call that many church leaders made was to their local association office and other churches within the local association.
  4. Associations can share resources easily. In the early days of the pandemic, churches responded in some creative ways. One of the most creative was to conduct drive-in services. As more and more churches began to explore this option, it became difficult to purchase short-range radio transmitters to broadcast worship services. Several churches in my association began to offer to share their transmitter with other churches who had not yet been able to purchase one. Again, this is much easier to do in a local association. 
  5. Associations can help in a variety of ways. As I mentioned earlier, associations provided assistance to their churches in a greater variety of ways than any other SBC entity. Just during the pandemic, our association has provided help networking with other churches, encouragement and personal soul care for pastors, general health guidelines and recommendations, CARES Act implications for churches, church regathering resources and training, online streaming resources, online giving resources, small group resources, provided online sermons for churches without pastors, conducted online Holy Week services, and provided other resources as requested. 

Southern Baptists are firm believers that we can accomplish more for the kingdom of God when we work together. The local association is one of the oldest examples of this belief in action. While not all associations have been a valuable partner to their member churches during the past few months, I believe that many have been. So much so that there has been a surprising resurgence for local Baptist associations. Associations have been around for more than 300 years in North America, and I’m so thankful that they are still here for such a time as this!

4 thoughts

  1. Good food for thought. I believe a regional approach is still better than a national approach. And I certainly agree with the premises stated here!

    1. These are encouraging reports. One consideration remains in that the association in the past had been seen as a seperate entity from the churches that compose it which has never been the case. Some of the survey questions such as what is most valuable about your association may have skewed results depending on whether the person answering sees the association as a seperate entity or as a lasting partnership between churches. Is it a body unto itself or is it a phrase describing an inent to continue in ongoing partnership? I believe it has always been the latter and this view honors God with kingdom connections between Biblical Churches that endure the test if time ( both the chu churches and the connections). It is wonderful to see people working together to advance the kingdom and the association is a body of churches and ministries with an open declaration to stand together for this purpose. Personally, I praise God for this method and for the good news of its continuance.

      P. Daniel Stevenson New Heights Fellowship Baptist Church Toledo, South Side Life Station Toledo, Fog and Moon Books

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