The following is an edited excerpt from Suzii Paynter’s June 26 address to the 2014 CBF General Assembly in Atlanta. It first appeared in the August/September issue of fellowship! magazine.
By Suzii Paynter
I am a native of San Antonio, Texas — home of the San Antonio Spurs. I love basketball and my hometown team, as you know, recently won the NBA Championship. Every year, of course, there is a winner, but not every year is the buzz and the dominance of the win attributed to humble, relentless, elegant teamwork. In a league where everyone focuses on the “stars,” the Spurs are living proof that “We” is greater than “Me.”
Teamwork — that is the prevailing wish expressed in the “what if” questions that guided our 2012 Task Force. What if we could develop a seamless cooperative community made up of a national organization, state/regional organizations and all our partners? What if we could share resources throughout the system to help one another? What if we could think about the abundance of resources instead of the scarcity? What if this seamless community could find a way to put more funds on the mission field? And what if we were known and loved far and wide for being the presence of Christ?
The 2012 Task Force Report is a blueprint for identity, missions and ministry. The beginning section asks these “what if” questions — those are questions of wishes and dreams. When I read them it sounds like we’re seeking a utopian and unattainable community. Hey, I know you and we are no utopian group!
However, the difference between a wish and a dream is the power of forming something together — collaboration, cooperation, co-creating in the Spirit; humble, relentless, elegant teamwork.
What we too easily describe in ethereal theologies as mystical union in Christ or the gift of the Holy Spirit, Wendell Berry, our farmer, novelist and creator of the Port William community, renders narratively as a community woven together by the earthly realities of kinship, friendship, history, memory, kindness, work and affection.
Fellowship, we belong to God. In his reminder that we are woven into this belonging that precedes and grounds us, Berry is inviting us to embrace and to enact a knowing participation in a “kindness so comprehensive.” The first lesson from Berry’s Port William is to rejoice in and sing with our given membership with everything in God’s redeeming, enduring love.
Fellowship, we are one part “what if” dream and one part Port William community.
My elevator word, not elevator speech, is that CBF is a “denomi-network.” We are not a denomination. We are interconnected. We are woven together. In a world of religious institutional and denominational decline, we are vital, we are alive, and it is not accidental. The Fellowship is faithful and intentional and we are developing. To connect in this Fellowship is to connect with the larger body of Christ. Your membership is not toward CBF, but by forming together with others in CBF, we are becoming the body of Christ.
We have lived and developed a different way of being a Christian network — big tent, federated, cooperative, diverse opinions but generous to one another. We are church and missions (not issue) centered and not constituent limited. We have created and connected with existing networks of missions and ministry, and we seek a balanced expression with work in states and regions as well as globally.
So, what is the clearest way to articulate the identity of CBF as we look to the future? A keystone quality of the Fellowship is hospitality. There is no living Fellowship without a culture of hospitality. We have created an environment of hospitality and teamwork for us as a Fellowship by moving to new offices in Decatur. Putting hospitality into practice means creating more access, more doors into the Fellowship, more ways to connect and participate.
Did you know that the Fellowship hosts more than 500 nights of hotel rooms each year for field personnel, Governing Board and council members, state and regional coordinators, seekers to join missions, students in for interviews, church starters, chaplains, donors, pastors, church staff, lay leaders, grant-makers and grant-seekers, partners and trustees?
In our move, we saved money and we eliminated physical divisions and silos. But the reason to relocate was to build a culture of hospitality and to provide fellowship for those who come to work with the Fellowship and with the staff — a culture based on identity.
Another part of our identity is the need to refresh and enhance our public witness, our public face and voice. Being the Fellowship is also a call for important voices to shape us. Our identity is to be explored in biblical reflection, in theological conversation and in genuine prayer. This year, as a staff, we have engaged a theologian-in-residence, David Gushee. And he’s been woven together with us in conversation and reflection and has seasoned our practice.
One practice of enhancing our identity as CBF has been the practice of speaking the name of the Fellowship in public places. This past year, CBF was represented at both the George W. Bush Library and the Oval Office. In renewed collaboration with the Baptist World Alliance and 121 Baptist Unions around the world, CBF’s public witness was also represented at the United Nations on behalf of women and girls by Phyllis Boozer, coordinator of the Baptist Fellowship of the Northeast, and in Geneva, Switzerland, on behalf of the religiously persecuted by Shane McNary, one of our field personnel serving in Slovakia. CBF was also represented at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau by Stephen Reeves, our associate coordinator for partnerships and advocacy.
Like the daily work of Wendell Berry’s Port William, there has been some manual labor of Fellowship building we’ve had to attend to this year. Governance — this may be the quotidian work of being a fellowship, but it is a worthy effort. Our journey and destination are set by the structures we employ. We have been very attentive to this question — how can CBF be restructured to be a more effective governing body for the Fellowship?
And what if we can share more resources and invest more in the mission field? How can we be most faithful in following the Great Commission to share the message of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth? CBF has a missions portfolio that includes both missions of presence (long term) and missions that are projects (short term), and so does your church. This is one of the ways in which our missions has changed.
We have a talented and experienced leader in Steven Porter as the new Global Missions coordinator, and he will be working with absolutely the best field personnel on the planet — capable, faithful miraculously-talented people. Structures for sending personnel and supporting global centers through CBF Global Missions allow for a wide variety of mission models. This trend will continue to expand.
CBF started as a mission-sending enterprise with an agency model of full-time, career field personnel. The common unit was a couple with an international placement. Developing the need for short-term, non-career opportunities prompted the expansion to short-term models of missions such as Student.Go and support for church mission trips as they bloomed and blossomed like crazy.
Partnership requests and asset-based mission paradigms created opportunities for partnership with states and regions, especially in our rural poverty initiative, Together for Hope. We have built a global network of relationships and teams. Let me tell you, in CBF life no one sails alone in missions. It requires elegant, persistent, practiced, Spurs-like teamwork.
And next year, July 2015, again our CBF churches, Global Missions staff, field personnel and the South Africa Global Missions Church Network will host missions opportunities for the BWA World Congress in South Africa. Eight CBF churches along with two field personnel will host the world for missions in team play. Consider this opportunity for next summer.
Several years ago, we as CBF chose an emphasis on young Baptists as a priority. We have a dynamic young Baptist ecosystem and like most ecosystems there are nurturers, and we’ve got some super nurturers from CBF staff to Passport Camps to Wilshire Pastoral Residency program to our 15 partner seminaries and divinity schools. A benchmark for our future is more intentional teamwork around this ecosystem. Connecting congregations and young leaders will continue to be a focus for the Fellowship.
Fellowship congregations are loving. They are joyful. They are enlightened, educated congregations. The most powerful things in our world — the spiritual things — are invisible, and we live in a very material world. Our churches are becoming experts at making the invisible, visible. We need to reclaim that and make visible the things that are important: love, joy, peace, kindness, faithfulness, perseverance, seeing the fruit of the spirit.
I know this: I alone cannot be your church. You alone cannot be mine. But we are already membered through time in a timeless love — the comprehensive kindness and enduring, redeeming love of Christ. This is our Fellowship, and we can be woven together.
Suzii Paynter is Executive Coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.