Considerable work is done every year to scan the associational environment and discern trends that are shaping the future of associations (Alcorn & Alcorn, 2012; American Society of Association Executives & The Center for Association Leadership, 2001, 2006; Church, 2011; Dixon, n.d.; Drake, 2012; Funk, 2006). While a full treatment of each of the available trends is well beyond the scope of this work, three trends will be explored in depth. The selected trends each have implications to the future of secular and Baptist associations. 

  1. The changing purpose of the association
  2. Member-driven structures
  3. The question of membership

The changing purpose of the association

Perhaps the longest-standing reason for the existence of associations is networking and sharing information (Dixon, n.d.; Measures, 2000). With unique access to front-line practitioners, associations were able to produce resources pertaining to the latest models, approaches, and systems among their members. Associations were at one time the gatekeeper to associational information. Secular associations have also long been entrusted to represent the needs of their members to larger entities such as the government or the media (Dixon, n.d.).

Following the advent of the state and national conventions, Baptist associations were used to channel information from the larger entities to the local churches. Association personnel became representatives for the convention and advised churches on how to best use convention material or programs (Measures, 2000). This may still be the case in associations with smaller staffs, those where the staff positions are subsidized by the state or national convention, or where the DOM is an influential player at the state or national level.

Should the contemporary association exist only for networking, its future existence is unstable. However, networking should not be dismissed entirely. The ASAE (2007) produced findings stating that networking still ranked as the highest member benefit among Board members and the third highest among members. The findings suggest that active membership and participation leads to increased satisfaction. When leaders experience greater satisfaction, it may lead to the false assumption that everyone experiences the same level of satisfaction as they do, otherwise termed the “curse of knowledge” (Heath & Heath, 2007, pp. 19-21). When leaders are out of sync with the members, organizational direction may be set to benefit a subset of the membership, even if they are the most engaged members Drake (2012).

Dixon (n.d.) suggests three purposes for the association: thought leadership, community support, and collective action. Baptist associations must also adopt these purposes, even if only as a part of their overall foundation. Finn (2012) suggests that associations focus on “promoting local evangelism and mercy ministries, contextual church planting, church revitalization, gospel-centered fellowship for pastors, and collaborative missions and service opportunities” (para. 7). Other associations have found a niche by providing specialized research and consultation, disaster relief training, and leadership coaching.

Regardless of future strategic decisions regarding the association’s purpose, leaders would do well to remember three things:

1. Associations are merely one form of networking open to their members. Social media outlets, intra-denominational groups, and affinity groups all exist to provide relationships, information, and development to their participants. The days of choosing one or two networks to belong to are over.

2. Associations cannot rely on their roles as guardians of information. Internet search engines can provide more information at a faster rate than any person or organization. The Internet has conditioned people to search for free information first, and while content providers continue to search for an economic model whereby they can charge a fee for information, there is frequently a competitor providing the same quality of information for free. Furthermore, when there were fewer curriculum options, churches were considered presumed customers of denominational literature, and associations the presumed pushers of those programs. An ever-expanding array of curriculum options has relegated denominational publishers to the same competition for customers as mainstream publishers.

3. Geographically-based associations are not the only game in town. Baptist associations were once solely responsible for their geographic context, but now state conventions and national entities deploy personnel to interact directly with churches. Some state conventions have done away with local associations. And other types of associations, like those that are affinity-based, have no ties to traditional geographic boundaries. If the SBC ever decides that churches can contribute directly to the CP without state convention channels, it will have profound impacts on the association, both positive and negative.

Member-driven structures

“There is a growing disconnect between those associations who choose to embrace social benefit as part of their mission and those associations who choose to ‘represent their members’ interests’ exclusively” (Alcorn & Alcorn, 2012, p. 19).

“The present needs of the churches transcend the structures created to serve them. As churches change, so must associations and conventions” (Steely, 1982, p. 7, as cited in Measures, 2000).

“To be a guiding force every Christian entity must have a fluid policy which tends to make relatively easy the necessary adjustment to changing circumstances” (Torbet, 1959, p. 231, as cited in Measures, 2000).

Even with the decline of the traditional associational purposes, Baptist associations remain the closest entity to the churches. Such a position places the association at the crossroads of service and leadership, though by no means are those terms mutually exclusive (Blackaby & Blackaby, 2001; Blanchard & Hodges, 2005; De Pree, 2004; Greenleaf, 2002; Howell, 2003). Associations are technically subservient to their member churches. Yet many member churches view their associational staff as leaders. The formal responsibility of associations is to equip their members to meet needs designated by the churches. The informal responsibility of many associations is to provide their churches with a panoramic view of unmet needs in the world. Accordingly, associations must equip churches to meet needs previously unknown by their churches. To balance the demands of formal and informal responsibilities, positional weakness within the convention structure but vibrant relational connection to the front-line ministries, the currency of influence is more important to associations than any other form of support their members might provide.

Chapman (2009) rightly reminds all levels of the SBC that pastors and their churches ultimately drive the changes within the SBC and the priorities of their ministries. It is a regrettable mistake for associations, conventions, or national entities to assume that because they launch a program or designate a need, it will be supported by the churches automatically. Should a squad leader leap from their trench without the support of his squad, that leader will find himself alone in the fight.

Day (2009) enumerates a variety of ways that associations will have to direct their energies to more directly support the day-to-day ministries of their member churches. Day provides several innovative thoughts—some of which will be presented later in this study—regarding the restructuring of the SBC and associations to better accomplish the Kingdom-purposes for which they were founded. Day (2009) also refers to the transition of current DOM responsibilities to a more “catalytic and facilitative leadership role” (p. 238) that better supports the work of the churches. However, Day (2009) also speaks in extreme terms regarding the association of the future.

If the work of an association, or any cooperative body, consists of the work of the churches, then the ministry of that cooperative body must be focused upon providing the human, financial, and material resources that assist the church in accomplishment of their mission. The association of the future will work hard to resist developing associational programs and ministries. It will resist the ever-present impulse to become a “substitute” for the church. It will resist inviting the churches to support the programs of the association. Instead, it will work hard to generate support and resources that will assist the churches in fulfilling the mission that God has given to them.” (Day, 2009, p. 238)

In the event that all member churches approach their existence with the best theological intentions and methodological strategies, the association would count it joy to assist them in every way. However, what if churches are not aware of the needs around them, or not privy to new methods and strategies that have proven successful in other locations? What if the association can rally member churches around a Kingdom-focused cause heretofore ignored? Are associations merely an avenue for resource accumulation by their churches?

Leaders who utilize the motivations of the followers in order to accomplish the shared goals of both the leader and the follower practice transforming leadership (Burns, 1978). As it applies to churches and associations, Burns’ definition seems elementary because it is assumed that both entities want to see the missio Dei accomplished. While associations were never intended to be the front-line of ministries, there is a tremendous leadership role to be played. The degree to which associations can balance meeting the explicit needs of their members and influencing them to consider new needs in the future will have considerable bearing on the association’s future efficacy.

The issue of membership

“Everyone is a member, just some ain’t paying their dues” (Charles Rumbarger, as cited in Drake, 2012, para. 18).

A prevailing issue among secular associations is that of membership. The vast majority of associations charge a membership fee in return for services to the members, member networking, and any prestige that may come from being a member. As such, associations put extraordinary effort into acquiring new members that will both increase their budgets and their social capital. Unfortunately, membership-centric business models are labor intensive resulting in diminished returns (de Cagna, 2012).

Baptist associations have no membership fees. Theologically-aligned churches apply to membership within the association and commonly offer financial support, though it is not required in the purest sense. Churches apply for membership within state conventions separately, though the association may expedite the process. Baptist associations are commonly a mix of high-value relationships—those that contribute significant financial or material support—and low-value relationships, churches that contribute little and rarely participate in associational functions.

DOMs are more often called upon to cultivate and retain churches as invested members than they are expected to recruit new churches to the association. In some parts of the country, DOMs have an unspoken agreement to relate to churches only within their county, while in other parts of the country, the association consists of churches according to affinity or theological stance. Typically, new Baptist churches with a denominational heritage join the local association almost as a matter of course. Conversely, new churches with no history in the denomination must be solicited like any potential recruit. It is important to understand that new churches are under no obligation to join the association, even if the association was instrumental to the church being founded.

The membership-centric model has come under scrutiny in both secular and Baptist circles, though for vastly different reasons. De Cagna (2012) and Drake (2012) question the business model implications of secular associations who rely on membership fees for the bulk of their income. Day (2009) alludes to the redundancy within associations and their state conventions, and questions the very need for different entities to exist when they only replicate services. Considering member-driven structures as a driver for the future of associations begs a variety of questions concerning membership in general.

Is a membership-centric business model still a viable model in the future (de Cagna, 2012)?

What is the best member/non-member distinction in terms of content and benefit delivery (Drake, 2012)?

If “collaboration is the new content” (de Cagna, 2012, slide 29), to what degree can associations collaborate with non-members in the production of content beneficial to members and non-members alike?

Regardless of the particular membership structure employed, Alcorn and Alcorn (2012) remind all associations that charging membership dues (or expecting churches to contribute support) before demonstrating the value of the association is a losing formula. “By flipping the construct from “dues to value” to “values to dues” we circumvent the “consumer” experience and gain access to the “co-creator” experience which is more sustainable over the long term” (p. 29). Associations must prove their relevancy and perpetuate their relevancy into the future with no comfort taken in historical relationships. Perpetuating relevancy will come into sharp focus through the scenarios contained in this study.

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