Editor's Note: SBC LIFE recently interviewed Mile High Associational Team Leader Bob Ryan (the former Director of Missions position) to discuss the changing face of associations in newer work areas of Southern Baptist ministry. In addition to serving as associational team leader, Bob is on the leadership team of AIM, a network of Associations In Megacities. He had just returned from AIM’s annual strategy meeting where he read a paper on ways associations can “prepare for and implement the transfer of the Association to emerging leaders (twenty-five to thirty-five years old), creating a safe process for rethinking purpose and process of the Association to retain/restore relevance to the local church and other missional partners.”
SBC LIFE: Bob, what motivated you to present your paper, “Giving a Legacy: Passing the Associational Baton to the Emerging Generation,” to the AIM annual meeting?
Ryan: Because we have dropped the Numbers 8 mandate for mentoring our children and grandchildren for service! I frequently hear statements like “I will never retire.” The LORD, through Moses, clearly shows that the older generation is charged to provide space, training, and opportunities for future generations to assume leadership roles.
SBC LIFE: What is the “Numbers 8 mandate”?
Ryan: This Mosaic mandate outlines training and preparation for Levitical priests to serve in the Tabernacle. Historical commentaries suggest the order of preparation and service this way:
• Birth–25 years—Levitical youth were trained under the supervision of their parents to be biblical husbands, fathers, and contributors to the community (Deuteronomy 6). Beginning at age twenty, they were registered in preparation for Tabernacle service (1 Chronicles 23:24–27).
• 25–30 years—Levitical men entered service to the Tabernacle (later the Temple, then the synagogues) and community as Levitical priests at age twenty-five (Numbers 8:23). The first five years apparently were “in training” or intern roles. Unlike today, that was not done in an institutional training such as a seminary or university; it was mentored training conducted in the daily service of the Tabernacle itself.
• 30–50 years—Levitical men assumed permanent roles in Tabernacle service and community leadership (Numbers 4:3, 21, 30, 34, 38, 42, 47; 1 Chronicles 23:2–6).
• 50+ years—Levitical “seasoned men” were to cease the heavy lifting roles of the priesthood (Numbers 8:25), which included the actual “heavy lifting” of disassembling, transporting, and reassembling of the Tabernacle each time the Israelites moved their camp (Numbers 4:4–33). These seasoned priests transitioned into a mentoring/coaching role for the younger Levites.
Clearly, we are not the Levitical priesthood. Nevertheless, an argument can be made that pastors and other denominational role-leaders serve in a priestly/prophetic role in today’s churches. If so, the principle of training the next generation—and providing room in the organization for them to assume leadership positions—is an easy one to see. If true, we can be responsible for mentoring the emerging leaders in our churches and in our associations.
SBC LIFE: What are some possible upsides to this model?
Ryan: I believe the emerging generation of leaders is hungry for mature leaders who will invest in their future. Regardless of what our fathers may have or not done in this regard, we can return to the biblical principle espoused in Numbers 8. Unlike the Levitical priesthood, the contemporary coaching model does not seek merely to replicate what has been done in the past. It focuses on creative thinking and processing for future activity. We owe our sons and grandsons in the ministry our best.
John Maxwell said, “When all is said and done, your ability as a leader will not be judged by what you achieved personally . . . [but] by how well the people we invested in carried on after we are gone. . . . In the end, we will be judged according to the Law of Legacy. Your lasting value will be measured by succession” (The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, “The Law of Legacy,” pp. 228-229).
SBC LIFE: How do you see the role of the association changing?
Ryan: Historically, the association served several generally acknowledged purposes. It helped maintain doctrinal purity among its churches, exercising church discipline when a church strayed from an agreed-upon confession of faith. It also sought to foster a sense of “community,” providing mutual fellowship and collaborative ministry.
Somewhere along the way, associations became a conduit for the downward flow of ideas and resources from state conventions and the national convention. In the recent past, a denominational entity would come to an association and say, “We have this and we have that,” and the churches would automatically purchase those resources. Those meetings are no longer attended or supported. Pastors are not interested in the old time evangelism conference designed primarily to inspire us; they are more interested in the how tos from someone who is in the trenches of local church ministry.
The programmatic model of the association is no longer attractive to many pastors. The association can no longer exist as a conduit for downward flowing ideas. While younger leaders desire “community,” they view biblical community as healthy pastors building healthy churches to build healthy new congregations. Associations that survive will empower the local church to be effective by networking ministry at the local level. At their most basic, associations are built on relationships.
SBC LIFE: How has your role changed?
Ryan: First off, my title has changed. Our association is a team. I am a team leader, not a Director of Missions (DOM). The DOM cannot view his role as a pastor to the pastors, although there are some dimensions in which this will naturally occur. I am the one “out there” in the community who sometimes hears the first rumblings, an individual to serve as an external sounding board, a resource person who knows the resources in the local network of churches, the state convention, the SBC entities, and other ministry vendors and networks.
The team leader is a networker of resources, connecting pastors with pastors and other resource persons locally, regionally, and beyond. I am charged to provide an outlet, encouraging pastors to connect on a personal level. Pastors who play together, pray together . . . then network together. The DOM is the eyes and ears in the association linking pastors to the hands and feet of colleagues who can help them accomplish their success.
SBC LIFE: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the association?
Ryan: Clearly, there is a competition for resources. And often the DOM is caught in the middle of conflict or competition between the goals of the SBC, the state convention, and the churches in his association. And we all just take it in stride that some think DOMs only serve because they couldn’t hack it as pastors. But, there is a “call” to serve as a DOM. It is not to be the “on call” pulpit supply for associational churches, although we are delighted to preach at every opportunity.
Our role is to take the back seat, not be in the limelight, working to network pastors, identify ministry needs in the local community, and assemble resources to address those needs. If associations can navigate these kinds of changes and provide opportunities for emerging leaders to fill strategic roles of leadership within the associational structure, I think the future is filled with promise!