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Local associations key to Southern Baptist credentialing, cooperation

SBC President Bart Barber speaks at the SBC Executive Meeting on Sept. 19 in Nashville. (Baptist Press file photo/Brandon Porter)

NASHVILLE (BP) — Earlier this year, then-candidate Bart Barber received a question at a forum hosted by First Baptist Church in Keller, Texas, for those to be nominated as Southern Baptist Convention president. 

What should the Credentials Committee be doing? Are its actions currently outside the scope of what it was designed to do? What should they do if a church is accused of operating outside of the Baptist Faith and Message? How do you determine if that church is still considered in fellowship with the SBC?

So yes, it wasn’t a single question but a series of them. That pattern of trying to clarify the group’s responsibilities has remained since the Credentials Committee was repurposed by messengers in 2019

No longer would it function only during the annual meeting to ensure messengers were from churches in “friendly cooperation” according to Article III of the SBC Constitution. The group – now a standing committee – would be tasked with considering whether a church remained in friendly cooperation based on allegations related to sexual abuse, discriminatory behavior based on ethnicity and other matters related to faith and practice. 

But such a process on a national scale can be cumbersome. Cooperation was simpler 120 years ago, Barber said, because local associations were closely involved, and this involvement is still crucial.

“If you want it to work better today,” Barber said, pointing to the crowd, “you can do more about it than the president of the SBC can.”

Local associations “leaned in” to credential messengers and churches, Barber said, providing a boots-on-the-ground verification of their commitment to Southern Baptist distinctives. If that role is diminished or abdicated, consequences follow.

“When local associations are weak and refuse to assure that the doctrinal parameters that make us Southern Baptists are enforced in the local association , that just creates these problems of scale where you have a Credentials Committee at the national convention level with 47,000 churches trying to figure out what to do all across the fruited plain,” he said. “It’s unmanageable.”

More than 1,100 associations operate across the national convention, according to the Southern Baptist Conference of Associational Leaders (SBCAL). Focused on local churches, they also often serve as a connection point with state conventions and national entities. 

The ones leading those associations are pivotal in existing credentialing procedures, said Ray Gentry, SBCAL president/CEO and associational mission strategist for Southside Baptist Network in McDonough, Ga. 

“They know pastors and churches personally,” he said. “Depending on the size of the association’s credentials committee, they may or may not know details of a pastor’s theology, but they would know something about it.”

An advantageous position

That relationship, Gentry added, positions associations to “check in with a pastor and church leaders in a winsome but more thorough way than a state or national credentials committee could.”

Barber agreed in a recent interview with Baptist Press. 

“Local associations have advantages over the national SBC in a number of ways,” he said. Those advantages include closer relationships with lay leadership and an awareness of a congregation’s history.

“If questions have arisen about the congregation’s doctrinal fitness or behavioral compatibility with the SBC, local associational leaders are often able to discern whether any problems are enduring systemic problems of the church itself or whether they are a temporary aberration connected to a single pastor,” he said.

It happened with a Georgia church in 2018. After two years of collaborative intervention by the Georgia Baptist Mission Board and Mallary Baptist Association, Raleigh White Baptist Church in Albany was disfellowshipped on grounds of racism. 

Two months later, Southern Baptist Executive Committee members also voted to disfellowship the church at their gathering preceding that year’s annual meeting in Dallas. 

Collaboration, communication required

Leaders stress that even if associations are involved throughout the credentialing process, involvement at the national level remains important. 

“In order for the process to work with the state convention and the SBC, there has to be actual collaboration and communication between entities,” said James Risner, associational mission strategist for the Greater Dayton Association of Baptists in Dayton, Ohio. “Our stated aspirations to work together must translate into sincere listening that leads to mutually beneficial relationships.”

Todd Robertson, executive director of the Louisville (Ky.) Regional Baptist Association, said that even as they work together, the independence those groups have from each other can strengthen the process 

“The local Baptist association is an autonomous entity not beholden to – nor dictated to – by the state or national entities,” Robertson said. “Therefore, any process that puts us in a position to ‘carry the water’ for another entity is dangerous and, in my opinion, unhelpful. Now if the SBC Credentials Committee wants to consult with the local association for an opinion, I’m all for that.

“We have the relational knowledge that others do not. Churches join/affiliate at each level of SBC life. Those relationships should be carefully protected.”

Those relationships must also include a mutual respect. 

“In order for meaningful credentialing to happen, trust between associations and other entities must be restored,” Risner said. “When the relationships between the different entities are strained, the trust and respect necessary for meaningful credentialing is dramatically hindered.”

The nature of the SBC’s mechanics does not dictate that a national credentials committee automatically agree with the findings of one at the associational level. But the input of those closer to a situation nevertheless factor heavily.

“Local associations have every reason to give serious attention to the health of their local churches,” Barber said. “If bad health in an SBC church is going to spread, it is more likely to spread within its local association than elsewhere. Also, a local association is far more likely to achieve restoration rather than discontinuing cooperation.”