The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship celebrated its first 20 years during its annual General Assembly June 22-24 in Tampa, Fla. Participants acknowledged the birth pangs that brought the Fellowship into being out of bitter conflict within the Southern Baptist Convention back in 1991 and gave thanks for all CBF adherents have accomplished together in the two decades since.
Now, as the Fellowship moves from its teen years, it has realized that it is time for the organization to "declare a major" and become an even more forward-reaching channel for Baptist energy and ministry, especially as it reaches out to a younger constituency and future generations.
A generation has passed in 20 years, and General Assembly speakers challenged leaders to focus less on past battles and challenges and set a course for what it needs to become in subsequent decades.
Many of the original CBF advocates have passed from the scene. Longtime Coordinator Daniel Vestal, who issued a call for interested Baptists to gather in Atlanta in 1991 in what turned out to be the formational meeting of CBF, is contemplating the timing of his own retirement.
Like many Christian entities, CBF finds itself dealing with harsh economic realities. General Assembly attendees approved a $12.3 million budget for the coming year, a reduction of $2.2 million from the current fiscal year. That means the Fellowship cannot fund all it has done in recent years, and it has already reduced its staff.
The 2012 CBF Task Force is charged with evaluating CBF through the eyes of constituents and partners and then making recommendations to effectively guide the Fellowship into the future. To that end, it has conducted more than 100 listening sessions during the past few months.
Keith Herron, senior pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City and the new moderator-elect of CBF, is keenly aware that this is a pivotal time in the life of the Fellowship. A year from now, he will become CBF moderator, the third Missourian to hold the position. John Tyler and Cynthia Holmes, both from the St. Louis area, are the others.
Herron sees his service in the role as a way of giving back to an organization of which he has been a part since its inception 20 years ago. "CBF is not an institution," he said in a brief interview prior to his election in Tampa. "It is us."
When approached about being nominated as moderator-elect, Herron visited with Holmeswood's deacons and personnel committee. He wanted them to know the significance of such a commitment. CBF's current self-study, with an eye to the organization's future, suggests the next couple of years will be significant, likely with a lot of changes.
Like many leaders and the Fellowship's rank-and-file, Herron is looking forward to seeing what actually results from the 2012 CBF Task Force's research and what form its subsequent recommendations will take.
"In the fall they will begin to unpack [what they have learned] with the Coordinating Council," he said. The task force has heard a lot from people and organizations who have both a high regard for and concerns about CBF.
There are "wonderful stories of new things…fresh things bubbling up," Herron said, even as the task force detects "some anxiety and criticism." He sees honest feedback and dialogue as healthy, as long as CBF's constituents look upon the process as a way to help CBF transition into its third decade of service more effectively. It will be a transition that must include the emergence of another generation of participation and leadership.
"The last five years I have been heartened by the number of young adults who are here," Herron reflected. He is hopeful CBF can find a way to have dialogue with this next generation and convince them to "lead with us."
"They are bright and well-educated," he said. And Herron believes partner seminaries are doing a good job of orienting young pastors to the advantages afforded through CBF affiliation. Herron observed during the General Assembly that "the new guys are talking late" following scheduled sessions.
The moderator-elect believes that the success of the task force's work will depend upon CBF's response. "It will come down to core ideas that will improve who we are and how we are doing," he said.
He describes the process as a "re-dreaming" of what CBF can and needs to be as it moves into the next stage of its existence. Herron hopes adherents — including those who helped birth the Fellowship out of struggle two decades ago and those who have come along since, including partner institutions — will find "a common vision to embrace."
"What will we choose to be?" he asked.
Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.