In 1707, Baptist churches in Philadelphia designated their most capable members as messengers to an annual meeting where the group would “consult about such things as were wanting in the churches, and to set them in order” (Gillette, 1851). Following that event, the model of forming local associations of churches proliferated and 125 local associations established themselves before the end of 1814 (Day, 2009). Approximately 1,200 associations exist within the SBC at the time of this writing (The Southern Baptist Convention, 2012).
Outside of the Southern Baptist family, associations constitute a significant block of the U.S. economy. Of the more than 1.9 million U.S.-based organizations recognized in 2009, “90,908 were classified as 501(c)(6) trade or professional associations, and 1,238,201 were classified as 501(c)(3) charities, foundations or religious organizations” (How associations power America, 2011). Associations range in design and constituency and include trade, membership, and professional associations; they provide services to their members such as education, professional development, networking, and in some cases, health insurance. Perhaps not surprisingly, employment within associations is highest in states with significant agriculture and manufacturing sectors, but also in areas with large groups of professionals. California, New York, Illinois, Florida, and Pennsylvania represent the five states with the most association employees. Nearly 10% of the private sector workforce in Washington DC is employed by associations.
It may appear unorthodox that a study concerning the future of Southern Baptist associations would include data from secular associations. There are certainly notable differences between the religious and the secular association, the foremost being that Southern Baptist associations are—at least in theory—collections of like-minded churches with an agreed-upon theology at their core. However, there are a number of commonalities between the two worlds in which associations operate. Throughout the course of this study, it will come to light that the trends and forces determining the future of Southern Baptist associations are very similar to those impacting secular associations. Furthermore, profound operational and managerial insight among secular associational professionals can be applied to the future of Southern Baptist associations, and it would be unwise to dismiss their strategies simply because they lack a theological foundation. Before proceeding, however, the issue of theology must be addressed.