This year’s Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly was big. For starters it was in Texas where the hats, the egos and the Convention Center all compete for biggest and best. But beyond the swaggering and the geography, CBF turned 21 this year. Outgoing moderator Colleen Burroughs generously observed in her closing report (a “Love Letter”): “Dear CBF, I remember when you were born. It was in the middle of a Holy War that the rest of the world didn’t care much about. And it left us and our family name, a laughing stock. But like all successful births, the pain that forced you into being was well worth the beauty and the wonder of the life created…. And now on your 21st birthday you have grown into a beautiful young mother yourself having given life to countless children of your own, who fill in your address as the only Baptist home they have ever known.”
The bigness of the meeting was also in relationship to numerous staff and organizational transitions that are underway, including Daniel Vestal’s retirement after 16 years. Other coordinators, Rob Nash and Terry Hamrick are transitioning out of leadership. And most significantly the 2012 Task Force Report was voted in by those gathered.
In the nearly opposite way, the meeting was not so big. The number of attendees looked low. However (and this is a big however) a really encouraging number of leaders aged 35 and younger are increasingly filling the seats at the meeting. More importantly, they are leading in clear and unmistakable ways. This was among the most encouraging distinctions of this year’s meeting.
Here are my top 10 favorite moments from my time in Texas:
I love that I could show up at this meeting — after making it 18 out of 20 years of gatherings — and find connection after connection, without any advance preparation. I usually call, email, and text friends to make plans for meals and meetings. But this year my schedule didn’t allow it and my anxiety didn’t demand it. I just showed up and stayed open to what would happen. Although I arrived too late for the BWIM meeting, I still had the delight of lunch with Pam Durso the following day. We began collaborating on women in ministry issues in 2004. Pam is just easy to talk to and savvy about much in Baptist life. She gives both Baptists and friendship a good name.
9. An Evening of Unexpected Grace and a Passport Camp Mini-Reunion
I was walking back to my hotel one evening and heard someone call my name. It was Jen Van Camp. She called me over to an outdoor restaurant where lots of young men and women were chatting and enjoying the slightly cooler after-dark temperatures. I saw lots of folks I know and I met a few others. Soon we realized that a mini-reunion of Passport staffers had come together: Josh Speight, Cody Davidson, Jen and myself. And there we were one wedding, four kids, two doctorates, several masters’ degrees, loads of jobs and 11 years later. We laughed and enjoyed catching up, and we shared a few stories from the summer of 2001. I feel bonded to the friends I made that summer, and I’m so glad to still be connected to many of them. Fun!
8. Research Possibilities
One of the other fun things about reconnecting with Cody and another friend, Frank Granger is that we found ourselves talking about research collaborations. I talked with them at different times in the meeting and learned more about their research in higher education and interest in ministry and theological education. My favorite moment was discovering that we might share interests about better understanding Baptists through our similar vocations of research. That is especially fun to think about down the road! You’ll hear more soon enough!
7. Trevor Hudson
I finally met Trevor in person. Before my daughter was born I edited the lectures he gave at SoulFeast and turned into a book (The Way of Transforming Discipleship). I’ve read other books he’s written, and last fall I started following him on Twitter. He graciously followed me as well and we’ve been getting to know each other along the way. My favorite moment came when I asked him in the workshop he was leading on Friday to describe his practice of silence and scripture, which he graciously did. Then I asked, “How has the practice changed you?” He stood and thought about that for quite a long moment. His willingness to ponder the question so carefully says a lot about who he is. Then he answered with this: “By practicing wasting time with the Lord, it is easier to enjoy wasting time with people.” We could all hope so much for our prayer lives.
6. Colleen Burroughs
This year Colleen has been the Fellowship’s moderator (elected leader). She has had a challenging year working with the staff through all the many transitions, leading the Coordinating Council through changes recommended by 2012 Task Force, and electing a search committee for the new CBF coordinator. And of course so much more behind the scenes. She does it all with grace and humor and a genuine kind of presence that is both startling and comforting at once. She closed her time as moderator with the “Love Letter” (quoted above) shared in the spirit of those shared among her missionary parents and sisters when they went off to boarding school, camp or college. You can watch her closing report here. Before the final report, Colleen said (and I tweeted) one of my favorite moments:
Someone tweeted back that Baptists need to laugh more about sex. No kidding!
5. Tweeting from @ecampbellreed
In fact one of the really fun moments throughout the General Assembly for me was being part of the twitter feed for the meeting. There is a whole other world of ideas, jokes, greetings and information being shared in a parallel way to the “official meeting.” Those messages become part of the meeting and the ongoing life of organizations. The world is changing more rapidly than we can keep track of, and I’m curious about riding those waves of change rather than sitting on the sand wondering what it might be like.
This meeting was especially good for seeing how the leadership of women has been central to the maturing of CBF. Women were chairing, preaching, leading and influencing the entire meeting. I’ve already named a few important ones. Here are a few more. At the Coordinating Council Alumni Dinner (which I wheedled my way into at the last minute) the annual CC Alumni award was presented to Helen Moore-Montgomery (click on her name for the story). She made us laugh with: “I’m 84, I’ve never colored my hair or had a face lift. Just keep going!” She’s been a force in CBF life for including laypeople in every aspect of the organization. My friend of many years Clarissa Strickland remains the institutional memory and sense of humor for CBF. As I sat next to her in worship one night she made a few of her classic wry comments. Here’s one of my favorites: As the crowd was singing “Just as I Am,” and I was rolling my eyes, Clarissa whispers “the busses are waiting.”
A young woman who is gathering both institutional memory and serious cred is Ruth Perkins Lee. She served as Vice-Chair for the 2012 Task Force and understands the coming changes as well as anyone. You can see her, chair David Hull, and other members of the Task Force talking about the report here. I remember when she was a new McAfee graduate. Now she’s leading with confidence, a good sense of humor, grace, and growing wisdom.
3. An Offering
In the midst of the 2012 Task Force Report, we were invited to write one or two things that we thought we — or our congregations — might offer in the way of the gifts to the Fellowship. If we are going to move further beyond centralized resourcing to a truly collaborative and cooperative movement of sharing resources between those who need and those who have to give, then we have to get more honest about what we need and have to give. Without a second’s thought, I offered this: “Glendale Baptist Church can help with the LGBTQ conversations. Please ask us!” Now speaking for one’s church can be tricky, but at GBC we’ve been talking about why we remain members of CBF long enough and recently during A [Baptist] Conference on Sexuality and Covenant. I know my congregation is ready to come alongside others to listen and to bear witness to our own transformations of the last decade. I even challenged my congregation recently to take just such a challenge seriously. You can read it here.
2. Daniel Vestal’s Final Sermon
To mark his retirement from CBF as Coordinator for the last 16 years, Daniel Vestal preached his final sermon with his usual passion and intensity. He made his final sermon about God, the glory of God, who is able to do infinitely more than we can imagine. He echoed the theme of the General Assembly, but he also told some funny stories. My favorite was about his trip to the White House when Pres. Bill Clinton was in office. He offered a welcome from CBF Baptists to the president while shaking his hand. The White House called the next week to say Pres. Clinton appreciated the invitation to CBF. When Daniel realized he had accidentally invited the President of the United States to the General Assembly, he said to himself, “Oh my God what have I done?! I’m gonna get fired!” The crowd roared with laughter.
Many other good things were said by and about Daniel Vestal that evening. You can also watch the sermon here. “Today,” said Vestal, “we are in a time in which we have a loss of theological and spiritual nerve.” And with it we have lost “our sense of awe and wonder.” Yet he urged listeners to remember, with hope that we are in the presence of the “infinitely more God” and although “God is greater than we are” still “God works within us.” Daniel Vestal and I have not always agreed — on several large issues. But he has changed and so have I. And since I introduced him in a breakout session for young Baptists 16 years ago, we have shared a mutual respect and kindness even affection for one another. He has listened to my thoughts on many occasions, and I am grateful for his dedication, passion for Baptist renewal, and his leadership of the CBF.
1. Young Baptists
The final surprise of the General Assembly (for me) was the announcement of the Daniel and Earlene Vestal Leadership Scholar Endowment. Each year scholarships will be awarded to outstanding seminarians in CBF partner schools. Then the first two awardees were announced on the spot: Emily Holladay, a student at the McAfee School of Theology, and Mary Beth Gilbert Foust, a student at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. This was such a fitting end to the meeting. Colleen was right. CBF has become “a beautiful young mother” with “countless children . . . who give CBF as the address of the only Baptist home they have ever known.” I was deeply encouraged with the young men and women I met, re-connected with, and got to know better last week. I feel hopeful they are ready to join in leading CBF. In fact they already are. Thanks be to God.
I’ll have more to say about the 2012 Task Force report in the weeks ahead. So watch for it. For now, this post is nearly as big as the lone star state, so I’ll call it quits and save more for next time.