Friday, September 21, 2007

ABCUSA in the Southwest. Whence and Whither? A Review of Dr. Chetti's Presentation at Atherton

Dr. Chetti soldiered on admirably for the cause of ABC unity in his presentation at Atherton Baptist Homes this week. He was upbeat, encouraging, prophetic, and quite effective. Only a diehard critic of the ABC could have remained unmoved by his excellent work in explaining, defending, and casting a compelling vision. My previous posting represented as fairly as possible the things that were said by Dr. Chetti so that you might have a flavor of the event. Several in attendance at the meeting verify the accuracy of my account.

Now, however, it is time to respond to some of the points raised. Several “nits” could be picked. For example, it was my understanding that Dr. Lee Spitzer did virtually all of the writing and most of the work on the Lancaster proposal. I also believe that Dr. Chetti is the most recent appointment to the audit committee for the American Baptist Homes of the West (an institution organizationally unrelated to Atherton Baptist Homes).

For the purposes of this posting, however, we will focus on the anomalies present in the structure being articulated as the future of the ABCUSA.

Radical Restructuring. Given the declining contributions to the United Mission budget, increases in regional support, and on-going friction over issues such as homosexuality, the ABC has decided to address these issues decisively and effectively. Their plan is to decouple the various program boards and regional entities, eliminate the General Board with its legislative functions, marginalize (or decommission) the Office of the General Secretary as it has existed since the 1970s, and generally promote a plan of decentralization.

The major virtue of the Federation is also its chief disadvantage. Like the old Articles of Confederation in the U.S., people often tire of a central government with no reason for being. Perhaps that is the plan. It will simply cease to exist in any meaningful national instantiation. But, will the proposed common table provide enough organizational glue to hold together such disparate and diverse regional entities?

A Covenant Depending Upon Revitalized and Activist Executive Ministers. After much prayer and agonizing discussion, the executive ministers realized that further factionalism will only destroy the good work everyone values in the ABC. They also sense that they have been too quiescent in the battles sundering the denomination. Therefore, they have concluded that as EMs will become proactive in saving the enterprise. In short, they will try not to get in each other's faces too much. Rather than allowing controversial persons to receive appointments to national offices, positions of leadership, and the like, they will pledge to one another to give “due consideration” to all ABC resolutions, policies, and statements.

However, before the ink could dry on the Tucson Covenant, at least one EM was reassuring his pastors that this did not mean that they would back away from their justice concerns or fail to give otherwise qualified people their leadership due. In what sense, then, does this “address the problem” or move forward? It sounds more like a pact not to see or discuss the elephant in the middle of the room. Any appointments over which EMs have control will be of the "under the radar" variety.

However, by eliminating the General Board and de-emphasizing or decommissioning the Office of the General Secretary, it should result in a noticeable drop in “noise” in the system. Everything will happen at the regional level. If TABCOM wants to have a lesbian as the head of their ministers council, so what? ABCOSH will not even hear news of it and they will likely never hear about it. They will simply be told by sincere Executive Ministers that "we have addressed the problem and that we have moved on.”

But, if “the issue” has been resolved and if the common table implies a high level of trust, why did Dr. Chetti feel the need to place a quarantine around the ABC of Chicago? Since there is no reason to question the integrity of what other regional units do, and since we are committed to not “taking our toys off the table,” does a refusal to accept clergy from Chicago not imply some contradiction of the rhetoric professed? And, what of TABCOM in Massachusetts or the Rochester region? If Los Angeles cannot trust Chicago, on what basis can they trust the arguably more progressive entities in the northeast?

Dr. Chetti proffered that all “34 executives are on the same page.” Here he seems completely sincere in his affirmation. However, based on conversations and e-mails sent to me, that greatly overstates the case. That they all voted for the proposal does not equate with excitement about it. In a less than perfect world, where the left took early and effective aim at the so-called Lancaster Plan, the “writing team” salvaged what could be kept and has put forth plans that will win unanimous support in part because they empower the Executive Ministers and reduce or remove the friction with Valley Forge. Freed from the burdens of the participation in the current Covenant of Relationships, EMs will be able to direct their passion where they want it to go: to their churches and pastors.

Will it work? I have suggested for some time that the plans being promulgated show the greatest potential to extend the life-cycle of the ABCUSA. Had the Tucson Covenant come a couple of years earlier and been honestly followed, it might very well have kept the PSW from withdrawing from the ABC.

At this point, however, the difficulties identified in this response will continue to be problematic for the organization. It remains to be seen how they will address the issues. In the meantime, Dr. Chetti is perhaps the best spokesperson Dr. Medley could find. He has the ability to explain and persuade those who are wavering.

[Since there is currently a battle for the hearts and minds of congregations located in Southern California, Arizona, and Hawaii for loyalty to either Transformation Ministries or ABCOSH, and due to Dr. Chetti's presence on the campus of the ministry where I serve, it seems appropriate to enter into dialogue regarding the points he made this past Monday at Atherton.]

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Dr. Chetti Explains Rationale for ABCOSH at Atherton Baptist Homes

As reported earlier, Dr. Sam Chetti, Executive Minister of the American Bapitst Churches of Los Angeles was present at Atherton Baptist Homes to discuss what is going on in the ABC since the withdrawal of PSW. 36 people were present in the room, mostly residents of our community. Additionally, besides Dr. Chetti and his aide-de-camp (Debbie Gentry), Dr. Dale Salico (his mother is an Atherton resident), Dr. William L. Ebling and his wife (ABH board chair), pastor Dick Sullender from Monrovia (who learned of the event from the Atherton newsletter), and one of my management team (Dale Torry) were also in attendance. Here are some of the details and a few of the points made (as best as I could record them) . . .

· Dr. Chetti explained the range of his responsibilities which include 147 congregations in the ABC of L.A., supervision of 137 employees and staff (the region owns several schools), endeavoring to build a $22 million endowment (they are at $13.25 million now), service on the ABHOW board of trustees ($150 million budget), responsibility as internal auditor for that organization, and shepherding responsibilities (at Dr. Medley’s request) for the emerging ABCOSH (American Baptist Congregations of the Southwest and Hawaii).

· He indicated that “our goal is to thrive and to thrive immensely.”

· In describing the shifts in the ABCUSA structure he indicated that he anticipated the Mission Center to be sold (approx. $10-14 million) and the money used to endow the on-going ministry of the Office of the General Secretary.

· He recounted the history of his idea to move toward a “common table” in the ABC, explaining how he presented the concept to a group of Executive Ministers meeting in Lancaster (PA), secured their agreement with the idea, which was then taken to the General Executive Council of the ABCUSA (GEC). Dr. Chetti explained that in the GEC the “liberals” typically reject whatever the evangelicals and centrists propose. So “after ten minutes” of critiquing the Lancaster proposal, the GEC moved on to other proposals for re-structuring. Nevertheless, when the “writing team” tasked with cobbling together an organizational plan intended to pull together the various ideas put forth at the GEC, they settled on a “federated” proposal closely approximating the Lancaster plan.

· Dr. Chetti opined that we do not need “common ground” but “higher ground.” He recounted a meeting earlier this year in Tucson when it did not look as if the GEC could come to agreement on any plan of action for the ABC. He invited a liberal Executive Minister and a Conservative Minister to meet with him at 10:45 p.m. and to pray earnestly for God’s will to be done. The next morning the group came to more than an agreement, it was a consensus. Attributing the nearly miraculous outcome to the agency of a loving God, the leaders emerged with a commitment/covenant to quit destroying the ABC family with needless factionalism. The EM’s pledged to only appoint/allow persons to national office and representative positions after giving “due consideration” to the existing policies and resolutions of the ABCUSA.

· Dr. Chetti explained that the ABC is a faith family, not a denomination. The “entire denominational structure” needs to change, he averred. The proposed structure will more likely resemble a federation focused on mission and ministry, not legislative decision-making.

· All “34 executives are on the same page,” Dr. Chetti proffered.

· As to the finances of the organization, he indicated that the United Mission numbers are showing declines. Yet the “regions are doing great” in the midst of it as congregations re-direct their giving away from the national organization in favor of the regional entities.

· On the question of homosexuality in the ABC, Dr. Chetti professed that “We have addressed the issue and we are moving forward.” We will be “stronger and leaner, and meaner . . . much leaner, much leaner, much leaner.”

· The ABC is an organization “constantly bounded by our passion for Jesus Christ.” He likened the departure of PSW/TM to a “storm” wrecking “tremendous amounts of devastation.” But “we are re-grouping, we are moving forward. My goal is to be positive, upbeat, transparent.” he concluded.

· The formal presentation ended at 3:27 with calls for questions. Dr. Chetti received some unsolicited kudos for his leadership, answered a few questions, and closed in prayer a few minutes later, dismissing to the finger foods his office had arranged for Atherton to prepare.

My analytical observations of Dr. Chetti’s presentation will wait for a later effort. For now, at least, this represents as objective account of what was said as I can muster. On a personal note, Dr. Medley might consider conscripting Sam as a representative in other venues. He was encouraging, upbeat, and extremely persuasive. A better case for the ABC could hardly have been made.

Pray for Missionaries Battling Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo is experiencing what may be the largest outbreak of Ebola in that country. 186 deaths have been registered in hospitals or clinics, but it is possible that many are dying without being counted. Baptist missionary Bill Clemmer, who heads SANRU the Programme de Santé Rurale, or Rural Health Program), and other Christian missionaries are working closing with the Atlanta based CDC in an effort to confront this recent Ebola outbreak.

Ebola — known as Ebola hemorrhagic fever — is a severe, often-fatal disease in humans that has appeared sporadically since its initial recognition in 1976, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). The disease is caused by infection with Ebola virus, named after a river in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where it was first recognized.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Setting the Record Straight on Transformation Ministries

Recently there have been a number of rumors floating around the southwest about the dire straights facing newly created Transformation Ministries. As a new member of the board, these questions are more than a little existentially relevant for me. Today was our board meeting in Covina. For the benefit of the readership of His Barking Dog, here are the facts learned at today's meeting . . .

* "We have never had such a good balance sheet in the nearly ten years I have been here" (David Gregory, Chief Financial Officer).

* Currently TM is running at 91% of budget (Steve Roblee, Minister of Mission Advancement).

* How many giving churches of record have we lost since the withdrawal? 52 fewer congregations are giving to Trans Min than gave to ABCPSW (Steve Roblee).

* When asked how many significant giving congregations have we lost since the withdrawal from the ABC, Steve Roblee replied: "Two." And one of them has reduced their contribution from $1,200/mo. to $300/mo.

* The first draft of the budget was unbalanced for 2008. However, this appears mainly due to the overly conservative budget assumptions utilized by the ever vigilant CFO. On the investment side alone, even a fairly pessemistic set of assumptions would remove the budget deficit, in and of itself! And, this was only a preliminary draft copy, not the budget to be presented to the board.

* Church giving has been "flat" for the last several years (Gregory). This sounds bad until you examine the "falling like a stone" statistics for most mainline denominations.
* With all of the discussions about how few congregations have formally "signed the covenant" of TM, it should be noted that only 21 have officially withdrawn from TM and been acted upon by the board, and three of those are withdrawing from the ABCUSA as well.

The last time I served on the board of this region was nearly two decades ago. At that time we were burning through our endowment at a dizzying pace. Now, even after the withdrawal from the ABC, TM has a stable budget and a growing endowment. As someone who is responsible for a $13 million budget in my own ministry, I can only marvel at the degree of turnaround under the humble and self-effacing Salico.

By the way, this week's newsletter for Atherton Baptist Homes announced an open meeting with Dr. Sam Chetti of the ABC of LA. He will be on the Atherton campus next Monday, September 17, at 2:30 p.m. to answer questions and to discuss some of the outreach to those desiring to remain loyal American Baptists.

Since most of the Baptists at Atherton (we have about 350 residents) belong to either the First Baptist Church of Alhambra across the street (which voted 99% to withdraw from ABC) or the First Baptist Church of Temple City (which elected to withdraw with a nearly 85% majority), Atherton might seem at first a strange venue for such a meeting. However, our board has declared that it intends to continue ministry to Baptists in our entire constituency regardless of whether they belong to the ABC of LA, Transformation Ministries, or the new ABC group in the southwest.

Dr. Chetti is always welcome on the Atherton campus. In fact, any Baptist readers within driving distance to 214 S. Atlantic, Alhambra, CA might want to drop by on Monday to learn what programs the ABC has to offer.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

When Old is Good and New Not so Much

After plowing through endless pages of some perfectly dreary “contemporary” books lately, I have been reminded of the advice C.S. Lewis once gave regarding the reading of “old books.”

"We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, "But how could they have thought that?"—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them” (from his introduction to “Athanasius on the Incarnation”).

The “top ten” Christian books today include titles such as: 1. Forever; 2. Get Out of that Pit; 3. 90 Minutes in Heaven; 4. Facing Your Giants; 5. Ever After; 6. The Five Love Languages; 7. Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World; 8. Sex God; 9. The Purpose-Driven Life; 10: White Chocolate Moments.
All that is missing is Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential by the famously famous Joel Osteen.

I’m no expert, but my guess is that books by Athanasius, Augustine, Calvin, Owen, Warfield, Charnock, Chesterton, Lewis, Denney, Edwards, Luther, Gill, Bunyan, Kierkegaard, Pink, Ryle, Spurgeon, Brother Lawrence, Law, Hodge, Strong, Dabney, and the like might possibly have a chance to bring more spiritual impact to the reader than truckloads of the contemporary stuff.

And, lest you complain that people would not be able to understand such "complex" works, remember that at the time of the Reformation, Luther's books were eagerly snatched up and read by peasants as well as priests. The massive three-volume Institutes of Elenctic Theology by Reformer Francis Turretin, now considered an advanced volume reserved for specialists, was once viewed as an introductory catechetical text.

Baptist Calvinist Tom Ascol recently reminded us that Baptist John Broadus offered similar advice to young preachers when he wrote:

"I think that young men should be specially exhorted to read old books. If you have a friend in the ministry who is growing old, urge him to read mainly new books, that he may freshen his mind and keep in sympathy with his surroundings. 'But must not young men keep abreast of the age?' Certainly, only the first thing is to get abreast of the age, and in order to this, they must go back to where the age came from, and join there the great procession of its moving thought" ( Lectures on the History of Preaching, 230-31).

My next book? John Owen's The Death of Death in the Death of Christ of course! After all, it is too good to be new.