WILLITS, Calif. (BP)–When California’s Mendo Lake Baptist Association asked James Morton to serve as director of missions, everyone involved agreed it would be a temporary situation. What no one realized was that in calling Morton, the association became the first in the Southern Baptist Convention to place an “intentional interim” in its top leadership post.
Morton is a veteran pastor with nearly 40 years of California ministry experience and extensive denominational service. He retired as pastor of First Baptist Church in Grass Valley in 1998. Last summer, accompanied by his wife and ministry partner of 44 years, Ginger, Morton came to the Mendo Lake association as interim pastor of Memorial Baptist Church in Willits. Soon afterward, he was among the first group of Southern Baptist ministers to receive training in a new leadership process developed by the SBC’s North American Mission Board.
“It’s a new system to provide leadership to associations in between, or when they lose their DOM until they get a new full-time director,” explained Lon Chavez, director of the California Southern Baptist Convention missions division. Chavez recruited Morton for the process and recommended him to leaders in the Mendo Lake association.
Almost immediately after completing the training at NAMB’s headquarters in Georgia, Morton became not only California’s first intentional interim director of missions, but also the first in the SBC. Now, 14 interims have been trained to assist associations across the country seeking help.
“I began right out of the chute working in the association,” Morton recounted to the California Southern Baptist. “They were just disconnected in a lot of ways during the time they did not have a DOM. They have to have somebody to help resource them.”
The association’s previous director of missions had resigned for medical reasons more than a year earlier. At first, the association tried to keep things going without a DOM. The job was divided among several pastors in different areas of the association who volunteered for the extra duty.
In coastal Mendocino County, pastor Bill Boland added some of the DOM’s tasks to his regular duties at Gualala Baptist Church, one of 18 congregations in the association.
“The association had decided we’re not only small but we’re very poor,” Boland said. “The association tried to assign three pastors to do a little bit of the work. It worked all right for us on the coast but it wasn’t satisfactory for the whole association.
“For the most part, when we were doing the regional thing we were happy with it,” Boland continued. “But we were bothered that the association as a whole was not having the connection it needed and had had in the past.”
Farther inland, in neighboring Lake County, Larry Fanning serves as pastor of First Baptist Church in Clearlake and moderator for the Mendo Lake association. Fanning also helped take up the slack during the time the association had no director of missions. Looking back on that period, he concedes it was not the best solution.
“We were really in serious problems in terms of what I think a director of missions does,” Fanning said. He said the role of director of missions is “where you find your focus as an association.”
Morton agrees the association “really did need a person to bring them together.” Without a DOM, he said, “they were fragmented, lost.” People began noticing a difference, however, at the association’s annual fall meeting last October.
“The association meeting reflected a turn, a celebration that we’re back on target,” Morton said.
And then some.
Since he started as director, Morton has reinstituted a monthly pastors breakfast in each of the association’s three geographical regions. In the process, he discovered driving on rural mountain roads isn’t the same as motoring along California’s famed freeways.
“Travel is much different in Mendocino County,” Morton recounted. “When I see a sign that says 20 miles I think 20 minutes; not so! It’s 45 minutes. I’ve learned to judge time and travel differently.”
Morton also has personally interviewed dozens of pastors and lay leaders from every church in the association.
“It proved to be enormously helpful to meet and fellowship with people,” Morton said. “I got to meet some thoughtful and involved laypeople in this process. It helped me to get a feel for how these people view the association and what they see as priorities.”
Most of all, he learned, the churches want their association to survive. “There’s talk about post-associational life in Southern Baptist life. All these people say they want and need the association,” Morton said. “They want the fellowship.”
Morton is preparing a report on his findings to share with leaders considering the association’s future direction. Meanwhile, pastors in Mendo Lake credit him with revitalizing the association.
“He has just facilitated our association back into a level of wholeness again,” Fanning said. “His gifts of administration are tremendous. He usually comes to a meeting with a list of items that focus us on various things that really need to be done. We all know that need, but he focuses us.”
Boland agreed. “He’s kind of setting a bad example for the rest of us by being so efficient,” the Gualala pastor joked.
Morton also draws high praise from the California Southern Baptist Convention official who introduced him to the intentional interim process.
“I wish we could clone that guy,” said Lon Chavez, only half in jest. “He does a good job.”
Instead of replicating Morton, however, Chavez is using the intentional interim process to help other California associations fill key leadership posts. Currently, there is no fulltime missions director in seven of the Golden State’s 32 Southern Baptist associations. Including Morton, Chavez has helped place an intentional interim director in six of those associations. Typically, the positions are funded jointly by the state convention, NAMB and the association.
With characteristic modesty, Morton attributes the turnaround in the Mendo Lake association to simply having someone take responsibility for the work. It hasn’t been easy, though. For one thing, neither the association nor the church where Morton is interim pastor has any secretarial help.
“It’s a little awkward but we’re making it work,” Morton declared. “It makes it more than a fulltime job, working with both of them. It’s been a real eye-opener!”
Still, Morton acknowledged, “We’re making a comeback. It is being accomplished; it is happening simply because I am present and communicating with everybody and pulling us together.”
Although his top priority has been “reestablishing fellowship in the association,” Morton hopes to “be a vehicle through which I can help them regain a vision for the combined association.”
“They want the priority of the association to be the fellowship. I also know that in the long run we want to accomplish some cooperative effort that we can’t do individually, some mission work,” Morton said.
For now, Morton is enjoying the challenge of juggling dual interim ministries. He is comfortable knowing that he is working his way out of both jobs. A covenant he developed with the association assures he will not be considered as missions director on a permanent basis. In fact, among his other duties, Morton is helping devise a process the association will use to choose his successor. Until then, he said he will continue “interpreting state convention programs and personnel for the churches and putting them in contact with resources of the state convention.”
Those efforts are being well received.
“Whether it’s the quality of the process or the quality of the man remains to be seen,” Bill Boland said. “What we’re pleased with more than anything else is the quality of the man. It’s good that NAMB and the state convention have a dynamic program that they can offer to an association like ours and help us in this.”