Although Southern Baptist Convention politics shrouded the birth of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Missouri, leaders point to the strengths that helped it rise above the moderate-fundamental struggle and continue to be a vibrant ministry.
Ministry, not conflict
"Within the conflict that occurred in the state..., we made a very definite statement in our action — that we have ministry to do, rather than be a part of the conflict," explained Bart Tichenor, who was pastor of Little Bonne Femme Baptist Church in Columbia in 1990 when the possibility of a separate organization surfaced.
Greg Hunt, pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City at the time, agreed that CBF became a refuge for Baptists who felt left out of decision-making. Hunt, now president Directions Inc., left the 1990 SBC annual meeting in New Orleans "aware we were at a turning point in Baptist life."
Looking for another option, he attended the Little Bonne Femme gathering and was part of the team that formulated the organization's governing documents. "The group beautifully expressed my hope," he said. And when his church affirmed the new body formally, "it was very liberating for me," he added.
"The original days were very significant in keeping with the spirit of the whole movement. It was not just a pastor-led movement," he said.
Connie McNeill, an early supporter in Missouri who now serves as national CBF's coordinator of administration, points to the strength of fellowship the organization has had from its beginning. "It's the koinonia that exists between CBF churches...a rich and robust fellowship," she said.
On the Missouri Baptist Convention staff for more than 17 years, primarily in student work, McNeill was drawn to CBF. "I'm personally grateful for CBF of Missouri because it was a Baptist home for me when I lived and worked in Missouri," she said.
CBF of Missouri leaders see the organization's ability to hire a full-time coordinator in 1996 as a sign of its strength. "The decision to hire Harold [Phillips] was significant in the growth of the organization," Hunt noted.
McNeill and Tichenor agreed. "I commend Harold, especially, as a peer leader," McNeill said. "He is respected and regarded as a friend. He is unselfish. When he comes to the peer table, it is for the good of the whole," McNeill said.
She also pointed to the stability and commitment of the current staff.
The Missouri organization has partnered with the national body since it began and has provided leadership to it. "It is respected...and it is a leader at the national level with its peers," McNeill said.
"It was very important early on to collaborate with other states," Hunt said. While serving as volunteer regional coordinator for national CBF for a couple of years, he created an annual retreat for state leaders. Missouri was active in that effort and drew inspiration from and provided it to other state organizations.
Tichenor noted the state group's involvement with the national body, as well. "It's not the parent organization," he said. "CBF of Missouri is part of that by our own choosing...as a partner."
Leaders point to CBFMO's primary commitment to be the presence of Christ through missional living and participation in missions and ministry. Tichenor called the national body's Together for Hope Poverty Initiative to minister in this country's 20 poorest counties "one of the most tremendous things that CBF has done, and CBF of Missouri is part of that."
"The way we do business is in stark contrast to the way other groups, Baptist groups, do business," Tichenor explained. "We don't have that much business...so the focus is that we get together for worship, to do hands-on missions and to discuss missions and ministry."
"Lives are blessed and touched" because of CBF of Missouri, McNeill said. "Lives are being changed because of their commitment to being the presence of Christ."
Hunt believes the state organization has been blessed with a sense of vision. From early in its history, CBF of Missouri has planned strategically to meet needs. "It's exciting to see people from across the state come together.... It's a pattern they continue to follow," Hunt said.
For Tichenor, the rise of CBF in Missouri has meant upholding the distinctives that have been fought for throughout Baptist history. "We come together under historic Baptist freedoms...and we still hold to those freedoms," he said.
CBF of Missouri leaders see the future as bright with possibilities because the organization focuses on being the presence of Christ and on helping churches do so.
"Everything we do is Christ-centered," Phillips noted. "The real energy is in local churches...in the context of their communities."
He believes the future hinges on the body's ability to address three areas of concern — continuing to help individuals and churches voluntarily work with other churches, leadership development and effectively doing missions in partnership.
At its beginning, CBF focused on Baptist heritage and missions. "Now that focus seems to be on laity and leadership development and on assisting pastors," he said.
Phillips also pointed to continued ministry with CBF organizations in surrounding states, particularly the regional Midwest Fellowship. "We are wondering what the next step is...what is our responsibility for getting those people included, not for size [of the organization] but for fellowship," he said.
Laura Hoffman, a Missourian serving on the national body's visioning taskforce, believes continuing to develop an "identity as a networking agent" for the kingdom through partnerships and young leaders.
"We have a wonderful history and a hopeful future if we continue to strive to be the presence of Christ in our world," she said.
The future for Tichenor also is centered in being the presence of Christ. "We're going to continue to do innovative things as we have done in the 20 years of our existence. There has never been the goal to be the biggest and the best," he said.
"We will continue to touch lives in particular ways...and I think we will continue to preserve Baptist distinctives.... We are going to be about the business of being the presence of Christ...and doing it in a spirit of cooperating with other folks who want to see the work done."