D.C. Baptist convention represents diverse constituency - Word&Way

D.C. Baptist convention represents diverse constituency

WASHINGTON — Ricky Creech will lead one of the most diverse Baptist bodies in America following his election March 28 as executive director of the District of Columbia Baptist Convention.

The D.C. convention’s 153 churches include pastors who self-identify both as fundamentalist and as liberal; they are divided nearly evenly between predominantly black or white memberships and many have female ministerial staff; it has the ethnic language churches common to an international city; it affiliates with four national Baptist entities; and it intentionally magnetizes missions to create unity, rather than trying to hammer out universal agreement on theological fine points.

All of which pumps the blood right through Creech’s veins.

Creech, 47, was director of missions for the Birmingham (Ala.) Baptist Association until 2006, when he left full-time Baptist employment to consult with churches interested in doing ministry “outside the box.” He joined the staff of an Atlanta area United Methodist church that was reeling from staff issues including embezzlement and moral failure.

While he loved his service there, it also confirmed to him that denominational work was in his DNA.

The D.C. convention traces its roots to the Baltimore Baptist Association, started in 1793.  Controversies, population growth and people movement changed the affiliation of the few D.C. area churches from Baltimore to the Maryland Baptist Union Association and eventually to the old Potomac Baptist Association in Virginia (now part of NorthStar Church Network). Finally, in 1877, six Washington churches formed the Columbia Association of Baptist Churches to “throw upon us a burden of evangelical duty.”

As early as 1880 the association built a home for the aged and in 1914 it started a residential home for disadvantaged children. The association took the name District of Columbia Baptist Convention in 1934.

Always a convention with a worldview, the D.C. convention shared property with the Baptist World Alliance from 1947 until 1984 when the BWA moved its offices to Virginia.

Rufus Weaver, executive director from 1934-43 led in establishing the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs as an effort to unify Baptists in America on matters of national and international issues.

The D.C. Baptist Convention has always related to the American Baptist Churches USA, and the Southern Baptist Convention. In 1998 it became triply aligned by affiliating with the Progressive National Baptist Convention and recently added a fourth affiliation, joining the Baptist World Alliance through the BWA’s regional identity, the North American Baptist Fellowship.

Under Jere Allen, executive director from 1991-2000, the DCBC initiated a racial reconciliation resolution that was adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1995.

The resolution, which drew fire from colleagues around the nation, confirmed DCBC commitments to diversity. The convention included in subsequent strategic plans expectations for all committees and committee chairs to reflect its racial and gender makeup. Staff also must reflect that diversity. The annual meeting is hosted alternately by black and white churches.

“It’s amazing to go to a convention or a training conference of the DCBC and see the diversity there,” said Allen, 76, who now lives in Birmingham. When Allen realized that leaders of both the ABC/USA and SBC sometimes worked in the same town and had never met, he sponsored an historic meeting for them in Washington where they informally agreed to better communications.

Allen also led D.C. churches to adopt legislators, and began a prayer ministry for members of Congress.

In 2001, with background both in the American Baptist Churches and the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Jeffrey Haggray became the first African-American executive of a state convention related to the Southern Baptist Convention and the second to lead a region affiliated with the American Baptist Churches.

Currently pastor of First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, Haggray dealt with the loss of about a half million dollars annually when the Southern Baptist Convention’s agency that supports work in North America withdrew funds at the encouragement of a Washington pastor over theological issues.

That loss of funds caused some reduction in staff and campus and social service ministries, but, “We’re still here,” said Leslie Copeland-Tune, director of communications and resource development, who pointed out other state conventions now must accommodate significant funding cuts from the same agency.

Haggray said the convention stood by the biblical principle that “male and female hath he created them” and “decided we would affirm women in ministry on equal footing with men and would not be told by any external body that we couldn’t do that.”

Their costly action was “not about affirming women, but affirming Baptists,” Haggray said. “At some point Baptists have to ask, ‘Are we seriously committed to autonomy of the local church and the ability of Baptists to interpret scripture according to conscience?’ ”

As an “expression of Baptist witness in the nation’s capital,” Haggray said D.C. churches must deal with the diversity represented in various national bodies and personified by those coming to the city to work and live.

“You don’t get to choose who is coming to D.C.,” Haggray said. “We seek to be a welcoming fellowship with focus on the Washington area as the mission field.”

“When you’re on the mission field you have a very different view toward it than does someone who is not on the mission field,” Haggray said. “Once you get here in this very powerful and complex city, you want prayer partners; you want people to work with together, to strategize in mission with folks.”

Although Haggray says the strength of the D.C. convention is its unity, diversity and openness to cooperate with others, diversity is not a goal.

“You can have diversity on a city bus and nobody is talking to each other,” he said.

“Diversity is good, but community is better,” he said. “It’s really community that we seek, to be a community of Baptists in the Washington area, joining resources to achieve our mission.

“We have the audacity to believe you can be both diverse and united in mission.”

It is Haggray that Creech will succeed.

“The D.C. Convention has played a strategic role in Baptist life due to its commitment to bridging the divides among Baptists,” said Roy Medley, general secretary of the American Baptist Churches. “We pray God’s blessings upon Dr. Creech as he gives leadership to this wonderfully diverse convention encompassing our nation’s capital.”

Creech, a graduate of Furman University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was a church and community missionary for the SBC’s Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board). At one point, Creech’s positive reputation in church and community ministries brought him to consult with the D.C. convention.

“I’m good at going into troubled organizations and fixing things,” said Creech, whose philosophy of associational work is that “missiology pulls people together” and the “minutiae of theology builds barriers.”

“Not only was my ministry experience ecumenical in Birmingham, but I was flexible enough that United Methodists would hire me,” Creech said with a chuckle. He said the D.C. convention search committee is “very keen their new executive understands ecumenism.”

Before settling into the executive’s chair, Creech sees several immediate challenges facing the D.C. convention, with its $1.1 million budget, including the need to develop multiple streams of income.

“That day has gone,” he said, when conventions can depend exclusively on congregational giving.

Conventions must find partners who share various convention priorities and may provide some funding. As an example, Creech cited the goal of Birmingham Baptists to remedy substandard housing. They sought and received a community development block grant that increased from $30,000 the first year to $750,000 by the time he left.

He knows the convention must “rebrand itself” and promote its vision to garner congregations’ support. He intends to focus on unique services to empower congregations to fulfill their greatest potential for witness and ministry in their unique context.

“Solutions are not found in a “one size fits all” box but in relationships with those who journey with you asking the hard questions, challenging the status quo, encouraging risk-taking and inspiring God-sized dreams,” Creech said.

“DCBC has a history of being on the forefront of ministry and building unique relationships and it is upon that history that we want to build the future.”

This story was commissioned by the North American Baptist Fellowship. Norman Jameson is a freelance writer and former editor of North Carolina’s Biblical Recorder.