By Steven Norris
It’s always good to be together with family. That is what the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) General Assembly felt like for me this year: one big family reunion, bringing together friends from seminary, from my time in North Carolina, and from my new home in Georgia all in one place. Some of the best times of the three-day event were the informal conversations over a cup of coffee or a meal that nourished the soul as much as the body.
General Assembly was held June 28-30 at Hyatt Regency in downtown Atlanta. CBF decided to try something different this year and opened up the assembly with a big party in “The Gathering Space,” a large room set aside for informal gatherings. As participants mingled around, they could purchase crafts from the mission fair (provided by CBF’s various field personnel), talk to exhibitors from various theological schools and church-related businesses, or find a place on the dance floor where a live DJ was playing fun tunes (yes, our fellowship is made up of “dancing Baptists”).
The theme for the week was “Holy Ambition” and drew inspiration from Hebrews 10:24-25. This theme found its way throughout the various gatherings, challenging members of CBF to dream God’s dream together and to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” as we pursue the way of Jesus as a fellowship.
One way that this “holy ambition” was emphasized was through the release of a new curriculum co-sponsored by CBF and Baptist Women in Ministry (BWIM) entitled “Equally Called.” This curriculum for congregations, youth, and children seeks to lay out in positive terms the scripture and teaching behind the conviction that both women and men have a place among the leadership of CBF churches (deacons, ministers, and pastors alike). It is part Bible study, discussion, and theological reflection from some really gifted pastors and theologians.
On the heels of Southern Baptist Convention’s decision to remove from fellowship churches that have women “pastors” or “elders,” I certainly felt that the resource was timely. First Baptist Griffin has a long history of recognizing God’s call and affirming that “in Christ, there is no Jew, Greek, slave or free, male and female” (Galatians 3:28). Some of the conversation around my particular table revealed that there is still work for us to do, but I am proud to be a part of a church that embraces and celebrates the gifting of all of our members.
Another way that CBF is seeking to pursue a “holy ambition” was in the commissioning of new chaplains, pastoral counselors, and Global Service Corps personnel, and CBF Field Personnel (missionaries). Two of those commissioned had special resonance for me. Stella Perrin, newly appointed Field Personnel to Cyprus, was a seminary classmate and friend of mine from North Carolina. A gifted pastor and school counselor, I look forward to hearing about the work that she will be doing with refugees around the area of mental health. Additionally, one of the newly endorsed chaplains was Rev. Robert Stanley, the lead chaplain for Wellstar Spalding Regional Medical Center right here in our own backyard.
The breakout sessions that I attended centered around Baptist identity in a time when there are competing visions of what it means to be a Baptist. We talked about the work being done through the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty to preserve religious freedom and liberty for all — Baptist and non-Baptist alike. We talked about how to live into our Baptist identity amid a time when the “Baptist” label is not always seen as a positive thing. This identity includes a deep commitment to the authority of the local church and celebrating diversity among our Baptist brothers and sisters. The final session looked at being a “purple” church and was a stark reminder of all the issues that have divided congregations and the power of the Gospel to bring us together.
My time at General Assembly affirmed three things that I love about our fellowship. One, we are a family. Unlike contentious meetings among some other denominations recently (one thinks of the United Methodist Church and Southern Baptist Convention, among others), I witnessed a strong sense of family and deep affection among CBF folks. Even when a couple of members spoke rather prophetically from the floor about a particular motion, it was done in deep love and respect. There was no malice or divisiveness, merely brothers and sisters holding each other accountable to live into our ideals with integrity.
Two, that unity came in the midst of profound diversity. CBF is in no way a monolithic organization. There were folks representing churches and organizations reflecting a wide spectrum of theological conviction. My hunch is that some of that advocacy would be uncomfortable for some members of our congregation. Despite that, I sensed a real spirit of commonality and love among a fellowship that seeks to be a “big tent,” making room for differences and learning from one another.
Third, God is doing some profound work through the ministries of our fellowship. To rub shoulders with Field Personnel and listen to the stories of lives being transformed by the grace of God was inspiring. To listen in on live recordings of the CBF Podcast meant witnessing some profound conversations with faith leaders doing holy work around our world. To meet new CBF leaders (CBF’s new Global Missions Coordinator, Laura Ayala is a Puerto Rican pastor) and see a fellowship that is doing a better job to live into its convictions regarding diversity and inclusion suggests to me that we are moving in the right direction — together.