ANAHEIM (BP) – More than 250 associational missional strategists (AMS), wives and guests had the opportunity to live out their annual meeting theme of “Pursuing Love and Good Works” (Hebrews 10:24), when they gathered to pray for Ray Gentry, the president and CEO of the Southern Baptist Conference of Associational Leaders (SBCAL), during their June 12-13 meeting at the Sheraton Park Hotel in Anaheim.
As the oldest and largest network of associational leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the SBCAL represents the interests of the 1,100-plus associations in the SBC.
In his president’s address, held the first day of the two-day conference meeting prior to the SBC annual meeting, Gentry shared that his daughter, April Gentry Witkowski (witkowskiblog.com), had just entered hospice care in her battle with Stage 4 breast cancer.
It was April’s 39th birthday.
After Gentry’s tearful update, leaders gathered around and prayed for him and his family. Many in the close-knit group have been praying for April since her diagnosis in 2019.
Knowing her death was imminent, Gentry said he struggled about attending the SBCAL meeting but he knew key decisions were being made, so he and his other daughter, Alison Gentry, who serves as SBCAL’s director of communications and event planner, made the difficult decision to come and spearhead the meeting.
Members approve expanded compensation, budget
Gentry, who also serves as associational missional strategist (AMS) of the Southside Baptist Network in McDonough, Ga., has served as president and CEO of SBCAL for seven years. But during the business portion of the meeting, SBCAL Chairman Kevin Carrothers, who serves in Illinois, proposed the SBCAL call the two Gentrys into full-time roles, beginning in July 2023.
“This is needed not only to sustain current ministries, but to expand and meet the increasing requests for assistance coming from AMSs, potential AMSs, and AMS Search Committees around the nation,” he said, explaining the salaries will be funded primarily through associational partners.
“If we had this [full-time role] five years ago, our associations would not have died out,” said Steve Schenewerk, volunteer AMS from the Northwest Baptist Network in Winston, Ore. “That lack has hurt us.”
The whole group agreed, easily approving the proposal, which outlines an incremental funding approach, culminating with a $250,000 budget in the 2024-2025 budget year.
Members also approved the July 2022-June 2023 budget, which increased from $95,000 to $160,000 to accommodate the effort to better compensate the staff.
Basic behaviors of strong Christians
Several keynote presenters also emphasized this year’s theme, including Ben Mandrell, president of Lifeway Christian Resources, who shared three basic behaviors of strong Christians, based on the theme verse, Hebrews 10:22-24.
They “draw near to Christ in prayer” (v. 22,) he said, noting Christians have direct access to God ever since the Temple curtains, which housed the Holy of Holies, has been torn. He shared Bill Elliff’s illustration of prayer, which seems in recent times to be relegated “to the side room of our house” rather than the “foundation of the house.”
You cannot operate without a foundation, Mandrell said, lamenting how prayer has become “peripheral” instead of “powerful.”
“It could be said today we are doing too much tweeting and not enough praying,” he said.
Strong Christians also “hold onto hope in Christ” (v. 23), Mandrell said, acknowledging there are many church pastors who are struggling to hold on to ministry after the pandemic.
Recent Lifeway research has revealed that two out of three pastors confessed they were struggling to trust God. Some have stepped away and others have kept going, he said. He shared two important encouragements he’s heard from Pastor Greg Matte of First Baptist Church of Houston: “Today’s newspapers line tomorrow’s bird cages” and “The clouds are always moving.” “With time, it is going to get better,” just like those in Hebrews who were facing persecution, drift and lack of fellowship.
Finally, Mandrell said strong Christians “provoke one another in love” (v. 24) or as he put it, “positively irritate each other.”
“Social media has done a massive disservice, provoking negatively – demonizing and dehumanizing each other,” he decried. “Lord, help us when we reduce people to 280 characters, rather than build up the character of others.”
‘Pursue love and unity’
In his address, Jeff Iorg, president of Gateway Seminary in Ontario, California, summarized how to pursue love and unity from Colossians 3:11-17: “In Jesus Christ, all divisions have been overcome. We are now God’s chosen people. We represent God to each other because we are holy and loved, representing the character and nature of God in who we are.”
He urged leaders to make a choice every day to act as the Scriptures prescribe.
“Put on these character qualities – compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience – and then get the banner of love and fly it over your life all your days,” he said, noting challenges will come.
“You bear with them, you forgive them, and when tension moments mount, you let peace make the call. And in the rare instances when peace must be broken, do it intentionally, definitively, quickly, and move on from it because the fact that you had to break the peace demonstrates how important it is to get back to peace as soon as possible.”
‘Consider your mindset’
Rick Curtis, assistant to the president of the North American Mission Board (NAMB), encouraged the associational leaders to consider their mindsets as they approach ministry.
The primary mindset should be the mind of Christ, he said, advising the leaders to pursue secondary mindsets that “propel” them toward and not “diminish” their primary mindset. He said he was troubled by the mindsets of false assumptions, fear, victimization and skepticism that is prevalent today.
“If you have any negative mindsets, get rid of them and replace them with something else,” he said, pointing to Colossians 3:17, which admonishes individuals to “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.”
‘Set things right’
Banquet speaker, Hance Dilbert, president of GuideStone Financial Resources, which offers insurance, retirement benefits and financial planning for ministry workers, spoke of the peace individuals feel when their needs are being supplied.
Pointing to Titus 1:5-6, he urged the leaders to not be “dismayed by the disorder of our churches.” Defining “dismayed” as “discouraged because you are surprised,” he explained, “If our churches are a mess, … we should not be surprised or disappointed. This is why we are here.”
Even the apostle Paul sought to take care of what was “left undone” in the early churches, he said, urging his listeners to use their influence to set things right. “Don’t underestimate the power of your influence,” he said.
Noting authority is not the same as influence, which is based on relationships and trust, Dilbert pointed to Paul’s admonition to “establish and support qualified church leaders,” which is how leaders can set things in order.
“Get the right people in leadership,” he said. “Use your influence to help the local church leader get the right people in leadership.”
Four signposts on the way to joy
Trevin Wax, vice president of NAMB resources and research, shared four signposts on the way to joy, as shown in Philippians 4.
The first signpost is the pursuit of unity (v. 2-3), Wax said, pointing to the apostle’s personal discussion about Euodia and Syntyche. Acknowledging problems are often under the surface, and no one is talking about them, he stressed, “On the road to joy, you do the hard work of pursuing unity,” he stressed, noting Paul doesn’t take sides. He urges the women to agree.
Foundational issues aside, the bigger issue in this situation, Wax said, was the level of hostility between the women. Whatever dispute they have should not harm their relationships.
The second signpost is that “you show grace because you have hope” (v. 4-5).
“The only way it makes sense for Paul to say twice to ‘rejoice’ is that God is a joyful God. God’s grace is the fountain of our joy … Joyful Christians are not nitpickers; they are not looking for things at which to be offended,” he said, stressing, “If you look for an offense, you will find offense, but you will not find joy.”
The third signpost, he said, is that “you pray because you are thankful” (v.6). When we don’t worry, it says a lot about how you feel about God, he said, challenging his leaders to replace the worry with prayers.
“You won’t stay on the road to joy if you keep getting off the road and going in circles,” he said.
The fourth signpost is that “you focus because you have peace” (v. 7-9). “You have to set your mind on the hope of Jesus. You can’t go on autopilot or cruise control. Stay alert. Focus your thoughts so that we can have the same heart and mind of Jesus.”
‘Love the fire out of your community’
Steve Viars, pastor of Faith Church, Lafayette, Ind., and author of “Loving Your Community,” shared the miraculous story of how his church scrapped an $8 million building project to instead invest the money into the greatest needs of the community.
This culminated into the building of several community centers, complete with community meeting rooms for birthday parties and association meetings, gyms, walking paths, counseling spaces; residential treatment centers for women and men; a community skate park; and so much more.
Reading from Matthew 5:13-16 and Philippians 2:15-16 and drawing on more than 30 years in the ministry, Viars shared principles to help individuals and churches take the Gospel to their cities.
First, he said to find ways to “let your light shine in your ministry before men.” He shared of his church’s challenge: “Is the church going to do what the Scripture is commanding and the community is requesting?”
He asked, how do you determine where the light is needed the most in your community?
“You may have to go on a listening/learning tour,” he said, suggesting leaders talk to government officials and those who serve in social services for the community.
Too often, the church has positioned itself as a political enemy, he said. There is no platform of credibility. Where is the “good works”?
“It’s better to light a candle than to shout at the darkness,” he said, noting the importance of the community seeing the church’s “good works.”
His church’s efforts have paved the way for multiple connections with community members, including those who know nothing about church, but have needs. Many have become Christians, and community leaders and foundations have taken notice.
“Love the fire out of your neighbors, and it’s amazing how they open up,” Viars said.
Equally amazing is how the mindset of saying yes has opened the door for great impact in his entire city, from the suburbs to the inner city.
“We want our neighbors to constantly ask why did you do that for us?” Viars said. “It’s because we love you!”
That always leads to the next best question: “Why would you love a person like me?” If we can get our neighbors logically to that point, then they are on their way to the Gospel!”
In other business, members elected Bob Lowman, N.C., as chair; Todd Robertson, Ky., as vice chair; and James Risner, Ohio, as recording secretary for 2022-2023.
Members of the group took up more than $1,700 to support their AMS Encouragement Fund, which in the past has assisted other associational leaders affected by a hurricane, house fire and health issues.
Worship was led by Ben Seamans, Minnesota-Wisconsin Baptist Convention Disaster Relief Coordinator in Reedsburg, Wis.
The Week of Prayer for Local Baptist Associations is Oct. 23-29, 2022. Resources are available at ameresources.org.