OLATHE, Kan. — American Baptist Churches Central Region Executive Minister John Williams challenged delegates and guests to the region's annual gathering to rely on the hope found in the Lord, rather than optimism, as the power to face the future.
In his "State of the Region" address, Williams acknowledged that "nothing looks as it once did." Citing a friend who remembers his hometown as it was in the 1950s, he pointed out, "The problem is that we all live in that world…. It is nothing like it once was."
Congregations, too, must deal with the difference between the past and the present. "Our churches struggle with those differences" and because they do, "our region struggles with those differences." That's why the annual gathering theme, "Following God: Finding the Way," is important to the region and its churches, he added.
"When the paths are no longer familiar, we need a guide who alone knows the paths we need to take," he said. God alone is that hope.
Williams admitted he tends to be a "Pollyanna," one who remains optimistic in the face of harsh reality. "But I've come to realize that optimism doesn't count for much," he said.
He pointed out that the Central Region is considered one of the American Baptist Churches-USA's "strongest" regions. The number one reason for that designation is its commitment to financial partnership with the national body. But the Central Region currently is struggling financially and must ask itself whether the model can be sustained. The portion the region gives is no longer sufficient to meet the need, he said.
He noted the region's 2013 budget likely will require drawing from reserves to balance, meaning that reserves will not be available in 2014. "That's a little scary," he said. "We must determine new ways to function."
Region leaders spent time identifying four core values that will help find those new ways — biblically based, shared Baptist identity, partnered ministry and resourcing one another.
Why does the region need to say it will be biblically based? Acknowledging that most attendees would consider this aspect as a given, he added, "It means we are committed to Scripture as our guide" and needs to be publicly stated.
Identifying a shared identity means the region is committed to a "strong connection" with each other and with the "wider American Baptist family" and that the region embraces the values and places a "high premium on being together."
The region also is committed to partnered ministry, including financial partnership, for world transformation, he emphasized. "We recognize there are things we have to do together…. [Missions] keeps us together as we tell other about Jesus," he said. The region works together "to make a difference for lives in eternity."
He pointed out that the Central Region is the only ABC region that budgets for giving to the national body because the region sees financial partnership as "a vital role."
Resourcing churches includes providing mission and spiritual growth opportunities. The region assists congregations with pastor search, interim ministers, communication, stewardship, credentialing and other resources.
But optimism is not enough to face the current reality. Optimism can "give way to pessimism" because it depends on circumstances. "Circumstances can send you into a tailspin or into the clouds. You just don't know into which direction," he said.
The room went silent when he pointed out that one church has left the region because the congregation sees "no substantive value" in continuing to be part of it. Instead, the church decided to "disregard the opportunities for partnership, fellowship and family."
Williams added that church is "not unique" — 42 percent of the region's churches do not share their ministry with the broader family and 37 percent currently do not contribute financially.
Instead of optimism, the executive minister called participating churches to hope. He pointed to the accomplishments of the past year — of youth changed at camp, of new ministers called to region churches, of two new congregations that have asked to join the region and of the step of faith to call a regional youth minister.
"These are incredibly hopeful days…. Our hope in Christ demands we tell the stories of what we can and must be…about committing ourselves to the future God hold for us. It's not easy, cheap or familiar but it is always the commitment God has held up for American Baptists," Williams challenged.
"I'm asking you to stand together…to work together…to give together…to pray together. I'm not asking you to rescue a sinking ship…but to work together…to strengthen a ship" for future generations.