Questions for the Baptist Union

Recently this blog and others have carried items about leadership, listening, influence and involvement within the Baptist world. (see Andy Goodliff Juliet Kilpin Steve Holmes Nigel Coles) So what is going on in the BUGB that is making people think afresh?

The current crisis is a lack of finance. Currently the BUGB (and many of the Associations) are running financial deficits and if we do nothing the money will run out! However, the critical elements are not about money but about denominational life; what is important to us?

What follows is my longest ever blog but in essence there are three questions:

1. Do we want to be a Union that revolves around money, charity status and structures or one which revolves around networking, mission and mutual support?

2. Do we want the organisational parts to be centred at a national level or based at a regional level?

3. Do we want to grapple with questions theologically or pragmatically? Do we want to do the harder work of thinking through who God calls us to be, how we can engage in God's mission and live faithfully as the people of God in a changing world or would we prefer to find a practical fix to some institutional challenges?

If you would rather spend the weekend focused on Advent: hoping, waiting and longing for the coming of Christ do come back next week. For the rest of you here is my overview of the questions.

A. Finance driven questions.

1. Do we look to increase Home Mission giving or decrease expenditure? If we look to increase giving are we realistically going to see a 20% plus inflation rise over the next few years? Anyway is it right to fundraise or should we gratefully accept whatever the churches give?

2. If we decrease expenditure do we decrease the amount we give in Home Mission grants to churches and mission opportunities or spend less on the resources we provide through either the central resource (mostly Didcot) or the Associations?

3. If we decrease resources do we reduce Association funding or the central resource?

4. Whatever answer we give to these questions others flow from them. What do we currently do that we are prepared to live without? How do we process all this given that the Associations are separate legal entities? How do we change the structures so they don’t cost more than available income in the future?

B. Structure driven questions.

1. Why is ‘Baptist Union’ understood in terms of organisation, structure, finance, national officers, and the like? Is this the best (only) way of expressing mutuality or being a denomination? If 'Union' is an expression of something, what is it expressing and to whom? Do we need to be seen to be a denomination like the URC or Methodist Church and if so, why? What does it mean to be a national Union?

2. In making the BUGB charity, in essence the raising and spending of Home Mission money, the controlling element of Union life with a Trustee board at the centre have we sold our birthright as a dissenting tradition?

3. Should the future shape of the Union see more done in Associations and much less done in Didcot, or more done centrally and less done in Associations? Should we (legal issues notwithstanding) close the Associations and be a central denomination with a regional presence? Should we give up having a central resource and using the benefits of modern technology simply function from regional Associations? Are the Associations, with their own governance and management structures, fit for this purpose?

4. What is it that local churches need from the wider Union (irrespective of where the support comes from) in order to be most effective? Is part of the problem that the Union is too remote from local churches and their members?

5. Where is the balance of priority between supporting existing churches and seeking to plant new ones? What levels of risk are we prepared to carry in order to try new things? How important is mission?

6. How should we make these decisions? Should we expect the Union's trustees to consult and then put a plan into action (which is their legal responsibility). Perhaps we should expect the national officers of the Union, aided by the Senior Management Team, to put proposals together. Should we shut the great and the good of the Union into a room and leave them to work it out (eg: Trustees, Association Team Leaders, College Principals)? Should BU Council be making these decisions? Should we rework this year's Baptist Assembly so that adequate time can be given to considering proposals?

C. History driven questions.

1. Much of the modern Baptist Union is the result of changes that occurred at the start of the 20th Century when J H Shakespeare was General Secretary. Shakespeare saw the construction of an institutional framework, which encompassed large areas of Baptist life and created a ‘Baptist Union’ with national profile. This was the result of his vision for a Free Church denomination rather than the outworking of conventional Baptist ecclesiology with its focus on voluntary associating. Did Shakespeare’s reforms institutionalise a tension between Union and Association? Did they create an organisation whose ethos was at odds with that of local churches? Is the creation of a denomination with structures, money, power and influence the root of many of our problems?

2. The last major re-organisation came about as the result of a denominational consultation and a number of reports including ‘Relating and Resourcing’. This report proposed a ‘substantive’ reform of Association life and the creation of a national leadership team among other things. The desire was to create lighter, flexible structures; devolving expertise from the national level. Some of this was enacted but are the difficulties we now face the result of failing to be radical enough last time around? Was the last Denominational Consultation the point when we turned our back on what Shakespeare created and the task now before us is to follow through the dismantling of the institution?

3. Is it true that Baptist life has been at its strongest when local churches and ministers have related (networked) together voluntarily and at its weakest when we have tried to force people to Associate together?

4. Is the lesson of Baptist history that the best changes come as the result of wide agreement and the worst come as the result of a limited number of people coming up with a plan? What does this tell us about how we should proceed now?

I realise there are loads of questions and few answers here. I’ve not written anything for ages and am hoping to get back into writing by working up some of my own suggestions into a coherent journal length article over Christmas, so would welcome other questions you think should be tackled. Overall I remain optimistic for the future of the Baptist Union and can see how it has a great future enabling ministry, supporting churches and inspiring mission.

Let's not forget to pray for those who will have key roles in helping us work through these questions. Not least because whether it is in grant aided churches, Associations or the Central resource most of the money is spent on people; and for some whose income is wholly dependant on Home Mission the next few months will be unsettling.

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