By Dennis E. McFadden
Now that dust has begun to settle following the unprecedented gathering of 350 ABC pastoral and lay leaders at Northern Baptist Seminary this past Friday and Saturday, questions arise as to its meaning.
On one level, no one should expect a two day event to solve all of the problems of an organization or movement. And, in this sense, Lombard did not disappoint. At almost every turn questions posed by conferees were met with honest expressions of uncertainty. “I don’t know.” “We need to work on that.” “That remains to be seen.” These kinds of expressions were frequent as the lexicon of studied ambiguity was pressed into service repeatedly during the two days.
But on the larger scale of downstream consequences, the “Summons to Lead” appears to have accomplished a great deal. It brought together an amazing collection of leaders from the ranks of pastors, regional executives, parachurch executives, and laypeople. The one concrete result of the meeting was what many had come to Lombard hoping to hear: We pulled the trigger. A new organization/movement was birthed. Yes, the organizational details remain tantalizingly disorganized; the questions of credentialing, endorsement of chaplains, and specific form of governance must wait for another day; even the specifics of the sub-committee to flesh out the details were left untidy and unexplained.
What did happen is that an agreement by acclamation was given to the rough draft of a vision statement. The participants affirmed the call to be “A group of Baptist congregations committed together to an orthodox, biblical and theological foundation that will result in the growth of the church of Jesus Christ as demonstrated by healthy congregations.”
The tentative shape and direction of the new organization, albeit still in the most embryonic of stages, appears fairly clear. It will provide a rallying point and national identification for regions that leave the ABCUSA (e.g., the proposed departure of PSW), it will offer a home for those regions in the process of deciding whether or not to leave (e.g., IN/KY still waiting for the second reading of their motion in November’s General Board meeting), and it will become a concrete fellowship group of affinity for congregations feeling isolated within more progressive regions. As such, the network/movement will have a “one size fits all” flexibility to it. Able to provide national identification for the newly unaffiliated regions and still capable of providing fellowship for congregations unwilling or unable to disaffiliate with the ABCUSA, the emerging reality promises to meet needs with a minimum of bureaucracy.
One of the tactical advantages of this new organization is the ability to learn from what modern denominations have done wrong or just poorly. Consigned to the mixed blessing of no necessary organizational tradition, what comes up from the grass roots will be able to take advantage of contemporary trends in non-hierarchical management and renewed biblical study about the church.
Myriads of potential pitfalls await the committee working on structure, the existing core of ABE, the emerging leadership of the new reality, and those attempting to live within both the ABCUSA context and that of this new entity. With so many uncertainties remaining regarding how the ABCUSA meltdown will proceed (e.g., the final vote on the IN/KY proposal and the resulting reaction by that region, whether Dr. Medley will sit for another term as General Secretary, and how successful implementation will be of the proposed restructuring recommendations from the McConkey-Johnston consulting firm), only a fool would predict a certain success to the efforts of Lombard.
One factor augurs well for future prospects. Unlike so many renewal/separatist movements in the history of the church, this one was not birthed in mean-spirited anger. The Lombard gathering was remarkably harmonious and united. Rather than being "against" something, the tone was upbeat, positive, and hopeful.
At the ABE meetings at Lombard, I sat next to one of my oldest friends who happened to turn 75 this past Sunday. He has been a leader among American Baptists for more than four decades. First as a pastor of small, medium, and large churches, then as a member of our General Board, on the executive committee of our GB in both of his terms, as President of BIM, as a World Mission Support person for one of our regions, as the chairman of the Board for one of our premier institutions (Atherton Baptist Homes), and as an interim executive minister of the PSW.
As a young teen, he was privy to the counsels of those contemplating the CBA split from the ABC. On several occasions he was allowed to sit in the corner and eavesdrop on the plans and plots of the secessionists. After watching two days of meetings in Lombard, almost with tears in his eyes, he said to me: "Do you know the difference between then and now? Then, the conversations were personality driven, full of anger and recriminations, and taken up with jealousy and conflicts between the various leaders. It was an angry anti-ABC spirit and they brought that temperament into their new movement. I don't see ANY of that here today in Lombard. This is a new day and a new thing. God is on the move."
[These are my own observations based on the Lombard gathering and my own independent conversations. I did not discuss this posting with any employee from PSW, nor should anyone interpret my opinions as representing the PSW or any other entity]