A couple of posts back where I was pondering how we are sometimes not seen as a real church by others (who invite us to come and join them), I made a comment regarding the new ‘Draft Covenant for Membership in Baptist Churches in WA’.
I had just finished reading the document and my comment read: “I just got the new draft membership covenant from the Baptist Union of WA where the criteria for membership is at least 40 people… or you can be on probation until you make it. What the?..”
This document has been circulated around churches and is open for review. That is a good thing as hopefully in the process it will get shaped into a form that works for all.
I’m about to write some random reflections on this document as a way of processing my own thinking. For most of you this will be as interesting as watching paint dry… For other of you my concerns and questions will likely be your own, so read on.
The original comment roused a bit of debate, and I still believe it is quite valid. The whole idea of choosing a number of members that qualifies a church for admission to the organisation is what I find absurd and with no biblical currency whatsover.
A subsequent statement in the covenant reads: “If a church has not reached a membership of 40 adults at the end of the probationary period the church may remain on probation with the BUWA under the oversight of the assigned BUWA representative If the church remains on probation with the BUWA regular reviews will be undertaken at agreed intervals.”
I don’t think it offers a sense of validity and authenticity to a community of people if they are ‘under oversight’ and ‘on probation’. In fact I think it would be easy to find that kind of language a tad offensive and condescending.
It has a personal edge to it in that our own community would not make the cut and after 43 years of being ‘Baptist’ I would find myself outside of that group. ‘There are worse things that could happen’ I hear you say! And yes, of course there are, but despite my very small ‘b’ approach to being Baptist’ (theologically I could fit in several arenas) I do feel a strong part of this group and would feel loss to have to move from it.
Now just so we are clear, I don’t think anyone has set out to get rid of me/us of anyone else, but these reflections are what I felt when reading the paper. I am fairly certain the intent of the paper is to get us all moving in the same direction – to get us on the same trajectory – and I understand that too. Its what organisations do. They streamline for efficiency and maximum effectiveness in attaining common objectives. But in this process it is inevitable that some will not fit the criteria. Some will not ‘get on board’ to use church vision language.
After reading the document I called one of the people on the committee who formed the document whose opinion I would value and respect and he was happy to hear my thoughts and asked for them to be fed back to the denomination. All good in that regard.
I have since been pondering how to respond to this. My primary concern is the de-legitimising of those in new or experimental churches that do not fit the framework that seems to have formed this paper. It is clearly geared more for those in regular established churches – and I realise this makes 99% of the Baptist Union of WA.
According to the document membership of the denomination requires several things aside from the obvious statements of faith etc. I am considering how they sit with me/us (Upstream)
a) Playing a part in decision making i.e. attending the Baptist assemblies. I have attended one of these in my 15 years as a minister and have sought to avoid them at every turn. On one hand I have been glad to miss them and on the other hand also realise that if you don’t show up you can’t influence the decisions and directions of an organisation. I am told the nature of these meetings are changing, but my desire for involvement is still low. I am not sure I could sign on to this, but then maybe that’s a statement of where my own priorities lie. I am aware of the consequences of that but I am also aware that the trajectory I am currently on may put me at odds with the trajectory of the broader denomination (yes – we are both concerned for ‘mission’ but in different ways) and I may be a spanner in the works if I were to get involved.
b) Promotion of the Vose Seminary as the preferred training option – no problem there. This is a good mob and I’d be happy to send people their way. But if it ever got dodgy I would send people in other directions too…
c) Church planting thru establishing new churches including multiple campus churches – no problems with this, although I did notice that later in the document ‘multiple campus churches’ is described as the ‘preferred option’. Not so sure…
d) Supply the BUWA with a copy of your constitution. That one’s a bit tricky as we don’t have one. We are ‘covered’ for insurance and legal purposes by SUWA and for all intents and purposes are officially an SU project moreso than a Baptist project (if we are talking legalities) I guess we fall under the SU constitution… however my care factor on this one is low. I guess we could knock together a constitution and submit it but it doesn’t feel like the best option for us.
e) Supply an annual statistical return – This one doesn’t sit well with me because the things being measured don’t reflect where our energy is spent and inevitably we finish up looking pretty shithouse. However I realise that organisations do need to keep track of things and this is legitimate within that framework. We just don’t fit the framework very well here.
f) A willingness to pay a financial levy – While it might surprise some, I don’t have a problem with this. If I draw from the benefits of a group then I am willing to pay my share for what is on offer. I actually think its good that it is framed as a financial levy rather than an offering. We currently pay SU a small sum each year for the privelege of their administrative support.
The rest is fairly stock standard stuff.
It is in the later part of the document that I find myself tripping up. There is a requirement for all pastoral staff to be fully registered with the BUWA or to be pursuing registration. I am assuming this is the same as ‘accreditation’ (which superceded ‘ordination’). I am not accredited and made that choice consciously 12 years ago because I felt the requirements were unreasonable and unnecessary. I don’t feel any need to change in that regard.
Every church needs to apply for membership – which I imagine will prove an annoyance to many and a source of increased workload to those in the denomination. The process is fair (in the framework of BUWA) but will be a huge task. Any church not a ‘full member’ cannot claim affiliation or use the BUWA name of logo. Hmmm… we are unlikely to ever be a full member so we are no longer allowed to call ourselves a Baptist church…
The final section relates to the 40 adult members required to be admitted to full membership. Yes, it does state that some may be admitted at the discretion of the council, but 40 is clearly the baseline. I was told that this number was chosen because this is how many people a church needs to be ‘viable’. (ie pay a pastor)
Anyhow those are my thoughts on how I see this document and where I imagine we fit or don’t fit the criteria.
At the moment there are ‘member churches’ in the BUWA and ‘associated churches’. We would be one of the latter. It seems these will no longer exist under this proposal. I guess the question is, ‘is that a good thing or a bad thing?’
I am well aware that in today’s society we can’t escape some level of legal / admin baggage and our affiliation with SU shows that. We run camps and are covered for insurance – we run markets and are covered etc. Its a necessity (or we gamble on the goodwill of people) and no amount of carping can change that.
I think my dis-ease with the document stems from two sources:
a) I don’t think I want to fulfill all the obligations of membership. If this is what is required then I am probably going to say ‘not for me’. Part of this comes from the form our community takes and from my own growing disinclination towards institutional church structures.
b) The less obvious tenor and tone of the BUWA at the moment does not resonate with my own direction. As a denomination we have bought heavily into Paul borden’s recommendations and while the missional intent is commendable, the rugged pragmatism that seems to shape things leaves me with strong concerns. I don’t think this would be news to anyone. The more business-like approach tends to leave me cold these days. It is also common knowledge that Borden recommends denominations treat those who are not ‘on board’ with ‘benign neglect’. I guess we could treat the recommendations with benign neglect also…!
I guess there are two options available. Simply stop calling ourselves a Baptist church and exist as an SU project (where obligations are fewer) and as an independent local community church. Or I could try to be a voice that seeks to influence the denomination to think differently about its approach to membership. I honestly don’t think I have energy for this. I am not sure I want to be the spanner in the works – the voice of constant critique. I guess its easy enough to say ‘if you don’t like it go somewhere else’ and that would be ok, except I feel I belong here.
While I don’t like the thought of losing that sense of identity as a ‘Baptist’, I am not sure I/we can genuinely fulfill all of what is required – and I agree some of it is reasonable.
Its taken me a while to write this, but it has actually helped me to reflect on my own opinions on these issues and to identify what the issues are and the choices ahead. I guess there are choices to be made and no doubt you will hear more in time.
Anyway, if you’ve read this far then I’d be interested in your own reflections.
I think there is a growing number of people who are finding their experience of church outside the ‘institutional’ framework, but I wonder if there is some level of ‘institutionalisation’ inevitable.
Can we just exist as a fluid network of believers with minimal infrastructure and overheads or is it a function of our society that we simply need to accept?…