Who is the Association?

Before assessing the changes that might be necessary for associations in the future, a brief note explaining the complexity of associational polity seems appropriate. Regardless of the association’s size and specific organizational structure, Baptist associations and conventions generally conform to six principles:

1. Members must be equal in rank and privilege.

2. Cooperation is voluntary.

3. All are autonomous and independent.

4. [Conventions and associations] are advisory and exemplary in nature.

5. [Conventions and associations] exist to enable churches to carry divinely ordained task more efficiently and expeditiously.

6. [Conventions and associations] can be dissolved or disbanded by the members (Patterson, 1958, p. 878, as cited in Measures, 2000).

Confronted with these principles, who is the primary customer of the association? If one answers the member churches, the corresponding question becomes, “Who is the church?” Do associations serve pastors, the members of a church, or some combination of both? Furthermore, if associations equip churches to do ministry, can it be said that associations are really serving the people who might benefit from the churches’ ministries. Serving the customer of the customer is akin to the “demand-driven association model” (Funk, 2006) in that the final customer of an association can only be indirectly impacted. Therefore if an association is measuring its effectiveness, should it not incorporate its members’ efficacy measurements as their own in some way?

However, in a discussion regarding changing the direction of an association itself, who is in charge? “There is no Baptist pontiff in Nashville, Atlanta, Louisville, Winston-Salem, or Fort Worth, or in any state convention office or mission agency headquarters. The heart of the Southern Baptist Convention is in its 50,000 congregations” (Stetzer, 2011, p. 56). The DOM reports to the churches, often represented by a council or leadership team of some kind. Associations whose budgets are funded in any way by state convention or national entities must be good stewards of those relationships to ensure continuing support. Strategic planners commonly suggest that all stakeholders—or their representatives—take  part in organizational planning efforts, but the Baptist reality of this suggestion is a complex mix of staff, messengers, and personnel from other Baptist entities (Bryson, 2011). Charging DOMs with the task of leading change is akin to asking them to lead a wide array of constituencies. They must simultaneously cast a vision their churches will endorse through formal permission and active participation, operationalize the vision in the form of a plan their paid and volunteer staff can implement, and align with or influence outside stakeholder agencies enough to maintain support through funding and other forms of support.

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