Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Question from a Pastor About Leaving the ABC?

Since the separation of the Transformation Ministries (formerly ABCPSW) congregations from the ABC several years ago, this barking dog has been uncharacteristically quiet. Most of my silence is due to the fact that I no longer have a “dog” in this fight. Now, however, with Dr. Dale Salico retiring from leadership as Mission Lead (aka Executive Minister) of TM this month and after receiving a telephone call from a pastor in New England, another post might be in order.

Yesterday a New England pastor asked me if I thought that it was “sin” to remain in the ABCUSA. My answer? No, of course not; at least not anymore.

ABCPSW separated from the national body for reasons of historic particularity now no longer as pressing. In a longstanding disagreement with ABCUSA, the PSW board attempted to “send a message” by voting to withdraw from the “budget covenant” with the denomination.

Dr. Medley, then as now the General Secretary of the ABCUSA, countered by insisting that such an option was not open to PSW. Either they keep the budget covenant or they would be in breach of the “covenant of relationships” as well. Taking Dr. Medley at his word, they (I was not a member of the board at that time), felt that the honorable thing was to withdraw entirely. This move was confirmed by an overwhelming percentage of delegates who also voted to leave the national body.

Since then, 155 congregations have signed the covenant to participate with TM. A number of mostly (not entirely) weaker congregations opted to stay affiliated with the ABCUSA and are now known as ABCOSH and administratively linked to the ABCLA. And, some of the churches, including a handful of the stronger ones, were alienated enough from ABC generally, that they took no action at all, leaving them technically in the ABC fold without meaningful involvement of any kind.

Since the PSW withdrawal, ABC responded by adopting policies of accommodation previously called for by Dr. Salico and rejected by the other Executive Ministers at the time. These changes, had they come earlier, would arguably have kept PSW from withdrawing in the first place. Chiefly, they relate to a common sense compromise hammered out by the Executive Ministers, meeting in Tucson several years ago. Since the denomination has a position on human sexuality that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” EM’s agreed not to send representatives to national boards, committees, and task forces who were openly gay or lesbian and not to issue contradictory statements on the matter. This preserved the conscience of conservatives and the freedom of each region to do whatever it wants to in its own precincts relative to the question. How Baptist!

And, since the time of TM’s withdrawal, the ABC has worked diligently on by-laws that will instantiate the de-centralization of the denomination that I have been dubbing the “Balkanization of the ABC” and predicting would come since the 1990s. Practically, each region will have a greater distance from Valley Forge, no longer looking to the national body to issue policy statements for the whole, at least not so easily. The proposed organization will transfer to the individual regional units far more autonomy and independence of action.

The fact that these changes were not adopted in the Pasadena Biennial owes to a number of other factors, among them the worst recession in decades and an unusually expensive venue for travel and lodging. This resulted in an historic low turnout of voting delegates dealing with a complex proposal without the kind of preparation that many of them deemed necessary. It does not, however, take away from the fact that the ABC is moving in a dramatically more decentralized direction and will, in time, certainly approve the enabling documents to legitimize it.

In light of all of these changes, most conservatives should not have conscience problems remaining within the ABC, although they are highly unlikely to effect systemic changes in the theological trajectory of the organization. Like the other mainline denominations, the course would seem to be set, with progressives in firm control of the national bureaucracy and many of the judicatories. Still, Baptist organizations, particularly highly decentralized ones, afford space for conservatives to be true to their values while maintaining selective involvement in the “family.” Indeed, the person who took a lead role in persuading the PSW region board to leave the ABC has since accepted a posting as senior pastor of an ABC congregation in the Midwest, evidently feeling that it did not involve a compromise of conscience.

Does this mean that TM should re-join the ABC after Dr. Salico’s retirement? No. There is a difference between upsetting the status quo in a bad and dysfunctional marriage by getting divorced and remarrying the spouse after the divorce is a fait accompli! TM has recently completed a comprehensive process under the auspices of a professional management firm, has a clearly defined sense of mission, vision, and values, and virtually never even mentions the ABC in board meetings, either negatively or positively, any more. Re-affiliation would prove almost as difficult as disaffiliation. And, from the reports given me by friends in the GEC, the denomination is happy to be “rid” of the problems associated with the PSW.

I still mourn the loss of the “family” that had been my home from 1955 until the separation of TM from the PSW. It is good to know that my friends in the east are able to stay true to the Gospel without leaving the ABC. And, those of us in Transformation Ministries rejoice in the opportunities afforded us for charting a direction without the stress and discord of our previous state.