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Vestal emphasizes CBF not part of SBC, stresses ‘partnering’ as key distinctive

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Southern Baptist observers waiting each year to see if the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship will announce a separation from the denominational family may be wasting their time. As members of the 11-year old Fellowship prepared to meet in Fort Worth for the annual assembly, leader Daniel Vestal told Baptist Press the question should be taken off the table since CBF has never been a part of the SBC.

CBF officials acknowledge that the organization was born out of what they describe as a crisis. But those days are behind them, said Vestal, coordinator of the Atlanta-based Fellowship. To quote Vestal, CBF “unfolded because of the courage of well-known and unknown Baptist Christians who have acted out of conviction to build a new home for fellowship and shared ministry.”

And yet that’s a history that Vestal has grown weary of recounting. “We’re trying to define ourselves by our core commitments and by our mission, rather than by a resistance to and reaction to” the SBC. In a June 27 interview, he insisted, “The past is history. We all know that.”

Any references to CBF’s early roots as a movement protesting the secured conservative leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention were carefully veiled as the board charged with supervision assembled to do business. Phrases like “Baptist voices that are not familiar” and “the collapse of the Southern Baptist Convention” surfaced rarely.

To ask when CBF will separate from Southern Baptists is incongruous with the way the group functions, Vestal explained. “Officially, CBF — the organization — has never been a part of the SBC. We have our own bylaws, a constitution, a budget,” he said. “We do not function like convention churches because we are a fellowship of churches and individuals.”

That distinction affects how observers measure the success of the moderate-led organization. While messengers to this year’s Southern Baptist Convention heard reports of more than 1,800 people saved through pre-convention evangelistic outreach, the surge in overseas baptisms and the hundreds of thousands baptized in stateside churches, CBF does not offer year-to-year numerical comparisons.

No annual church profiles are collected by the CBF to gauge participation in various organizations or reveal trends in the number of baptisms. No overseas reports are available to account for the number of people making commitments to Christ as a result of CBF ministries. For that matter, it’s hard to determine the exact number of churches that consider themselves to be identified with CBF.

Promotional material refers to “approximately 1,800 churches that contribute to the Fellowship’s ministry budget.” But, less than 300 churches are clearly identified as affiliated with the CBF in the church link section of the CBF national website, www.cbfonline.org.

Moderator-elect Phillip Martin of Richardson, Texas, explained that the web link is not a good basis for establishing the number of partnering churches. “It’s a matter of a church having to initiate that link,” he said.

Vestal said the high-end figure he uses of between 1,800 and 2,000 partnering churches represents a varying level of involvement. “That’s all the way from one individual who designates money to us through a church to the church that puts us in their budget. It’s the whole gamut,” he said.

“Our bylaws say that if you give a dollar to CBF or if you’re a member of a church that gives a dollar to CBF, we call you a partner. We’re not trying to be devious about that — that’s just the way we define partnership,” he added.

CBF hasn’t done what Vestal calls “hard data research” on the extent of the involvement of the 1,800 churches that sent any amount of money to the Fellowship. “We’re not trying to hide anything, we just haven’t done a good job at reporting numbers,” he added. Data does exist on the number of churches with no relationship to the SBC, Vestal said. “We did that primarily to say to the Baptist World Alliance here are 150 churches that have no relationship to the SBC at all, but are related to the CBF,” increasing the case for membership.

While growth in the number of churches has slowed down in recent years, contributions increased five to six percent each year, he said. “You measure growth in several ways — usually nickels and noses is the way we do it. We’ve probably grown more with money than we have with the number of partnering churches.” The financial strength of state and regional CBF organizations has grown nearly tenfold in the past four years, Vestal said.

Between 1992 and 2002, CBF commissioned 137 career missionaries, 67 global service corps personnel and 31 envoys. The total number now serving amounts to 127 missionaries in 25 unevangelized people groups, three urban areas and six strategic international cities. Described as a “holistic” missions strategy, CBF focuses on the spiritual, physical, emotional, intellectual and social needs of people they identify as the most neglected.

Ten church starts in the United States were announced by CBF last August with another 19 reported in June of this year at the website of www.churchstarts.net. It is not clear how many of these starts have matured to constitute as a church or have folded.

Two years ago Vestal told a Baptist dialogue group meeting at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Kan., that CBF yearned to define itself and separate more clearly from the SBC. Admitting his resistance toward calling the group a denomination, Vestal preferred to say, “We are a fellowship that functions like a denomination.”

After a decade, CBF has all the resources and services found in a typical denomination, depending heavily upon a partner network. The Coordinating Council serves as the executive body between assemblies and a 44-member staff functions at the Atlanta office to receive and distribute funds. A dozen more staffers serve in other stateside locations.

Theological education is supported at 12 partnering schools, including institutions founded by American Baptists, Disciples of Christ and United Methodists. CBF provides more than $1.7 million in institutional funding and scholarships, identifying 50 “leader scholars” who are “fully committed to the Baptist ideals CBF advocates.”

Missions education materials inform every age level of CBF’s global mission outreach. Missionary candidates are processed then appointed in commissioning services, and chaplains turn to CBF for endorsement. A placement service helps churches in filling staff vacancies as well as ministers looking for a place to serve.

The national body relates to 18 state and regional organizations. News is disseminated through the CBF-funded Associated Baptist Press. Baptist Joint Committee for Public Affairs provides a religious liberty voice in Washington, D.C. and the Baptist Center for Ethics speaks to current moral issues.

Curriculum and other resources are recommended to churches by CBF with Smith and Helwys Publishing as its primary publishing partner. “We cannot afford to reinvent the wheel,” stated one Council member involved in reviewing materials for churches. “We are seeking products that are already out there which we can adapt to our own use and recommend to our churches.”

Just as the national body relies upon already established ministries like World Vision and Habitat for Humanity through which it can channel funding and volunteers, Vestal believes churches prefer to network with a variety of options instead of turning to a single denomination for needed ministries.

“Partnering is the paradigm for CBF,” Vestal said. “It’s not just a code word. It is really a philosophy and I think it represents the future of Baptist cooperative life. The local church can do whatever it wants to partner with or affiliate, to use the old word, with as many Baptist organizations as it chooses. And I think the future in Baptist life is partnering rather than joining.”

Vestal anticipates churches defining themselves not so much through membership in an organization, but through their core values and commitment to missions. “Strategic partnerships help influence your mission,” in the new paradigm as opposed to “the old way of defining ourselves in a one-dimensional pattern of cooperation.” Some churches are turning to CBF for materials, meetings or ministries even though they are not financially supporting the organization, he said.

CBF is also forging formal relationships with the Baptist General Association of Virginia and Baptist General Convention of Texas to facilitate church starting and other cooperative ministries, Vestal said.

When observers began to label the CBF a denomination-like entity, participants like former CBF moderator John Tyler of Webster Groves, Mo., acknowledged the group’s independence while avoiding the traditional label. In a column he wrote for CBF’s website last year, Tyler declared CBF to be a new and independent Baptist organization. “It is not connected in any way whatsoever with the SBC,” he wrote, citing the lack of a mutual governing presence, no shared financial resources, the lack of common projects or ministries, and “a very different understanding of Baptist life.”

If “governance, organizational structure and methods of the past rather than the future” are the criterion for calling CBF a denomination, Tyler dismisses the label. And yet, the use of the word ‘denomination’ offers identity and a ‘handle’ for helping others understand the kind of Baptist he is, Tyler argued. Conceding that CBF is “denomination-like,” he said, “The Fellowship is decidedly not a part of the SBC.”

He concluded, “As our Fellowship continues to mature and gets some history under its belt, everyone will know what it means to be a Fellowship Baptist. And they will know without a doubt that it isn’t the same thing as being a Southern Baptist.”

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter