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FIRST-PERSON: Cooperating on more than money

Gateway Seminary

ONTARIO, Calif. (BP) – The Cooperative Program is usually defined in financial terms as the means by which Southern Baptist churches fund their cooperative work. Nothing wrong with that. The Cooperative Program is about sending money through a shared system which funds state and national convention enterprises. The money is both a symbol and result of cooperation.

But cooperation also expresses itself in other ways when Baptist bodies and entities voluntarily work together. One example is how Gateway Seminary and the western state conventions cooperate to develop joint strategies to mutually accomplish our shared mission. In a few months, we will celebrate the 30th anniversary of this cooperative effort.

In January 1994, Gateway Seminary convened a meeting of its executive team and the executive directors of the western state conventions. Over those initial two days, these leaders discussed their mission strategies, leadership needs and other mutual concerns. We will celebrate our 30th time of meeting together, following a very similar format to those early meetings, in January 2023.

Personally, I have participated in 27 of the first 29 meetings – either as the state executive from the Northwest Baptist Convention or the president of Gateway Seminary. I missed the first meeting since it happened the year before my election as a state executive and I missed another meeting because weather wrecked my travel plans. For almost three decades, I have participated in this regular dialogue about how Baptists in the West – cooperating through their state conventions and in support of their seminary – work together to accomplish our shared mission.

On the seminary side, this meeting has profoundly shaped how we do our work. We have amended and adjusted our curriculum and degree programs in response to the needs surfaced in this meeting. We have used this group to evaluate ideas and possibilities – ranging from educational delivery methods to marketing strategies to business models. As a result, we have avoided mistakes and made decisions that were better received by our constituents. These regular dialogues have also helped us to stay connected to the genuine needs of pastors and other church leaders – and less focused on building academic ivory towers schools seem to inevitably occupy.

One of the most important outcomes from this meeting was the insistence by state leaders we find ways to use technology to extend our educational delivery capabilities across the West. As a result, in 2005 we launched our initial online learning efforts and by 2013 were approved by our accreditors to offer the Master of Divinity fully online. Now, of course, most seminaries do this and much more. Gateway has thrived in the distance learning milieu because we got such an early start on these changes – motivated and encouraged by state leaders who wanted our ministry to span the vast geographical distances in the West.

Cooperation is about money, but also so much more. Cooperation is about working together to accomplish a shared mission – recognizing we really can do more together than we can by working independently. In the West, leaders cooperate both to maximize our effectiveness and model cooperation for churches and their leaders. For us the Cooperative Program is about more than money and actually makes sharing the money more meaningful as we invest in each other for the overall good of advancing God’s kingdom.