By Andrew Corley
Growing up, I always took a lot of pride in being a Baptist. Ours was (and still is) a traditional southern, main street, FIRST Baptist church, and the congregation was made up of doctors and lawyers, bank presidents and district superintendents, teachers and insurance salesmen. On paper, I thought we looked like every other Baptist Church in the South, but below the surface that wasn’t the case.
I can’t remember a time when my home church didn’t have women as deacons, didn’t have an ordained woman on staff, didn’t celebrate calls to ministry felt by both males and females. I assumed all other Baptists thought the same way we did. I knew there were other Baptist churches in town, but I never stopped to wonder why, to question what made them choose to worship elsewhere.
When I was in 7th grade I had to fill out a demographic survey for a standardized test, and I was blown away by the number of “Baptist” options there were. I finally had to ask the teacher (who of course went to my church) what box to check. She dismissed my question rather quickly, snapped “you’re Southern Baptist,” and reminded me not to talk during testing.
I checked the box, but I couldn’t help wondering if something was wrong. Whenever I heard anyone at church talk about “Southern” Baptists it had been in context of something unbelievable, something that didn’t fit with what we did. Most of the discussions involved questions of how long it would take for the convention to make us change what we were doing. I finally asked my dad about it, and after a pause he said “I guess we are, but that doesn’t mean we have to agree with them.”
At age twelve that didn’t mean that much to me, but I still loved what I knew about being a Baptist, loved that we let the congregation make the decisions for the church, loved that baptism was a choice made by the believer, loved the idea that God could use anyone no matter of vocation–and whatever tensions came along with that, I was still proud to be a Baptist, I was still happy to check that box.
I attended Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., and as the name suggests, the school is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). I flirted with majoring in education for a while, but during my sophomore year I began to feel God calling me toward ministry and dropped education in favor of a major in Religion. Suddenly everyone wasn’t Baptist.
My classmates and professors did not grow up in the same tradition I did. Often I was the only person claiming Southern Baptist in my classes, and as such was called upon to defend the minority opinion, to answer for the rejection of women in leadership roles, for scientific theories being banned from textbooks, and for religious belief and affiliation with a particular political party becoming one and the same. I began to have a faith crisis, not of belief like we often picture students facing in college, but of identity.
For the first time in my life I wondered whether being Baptist was something to take pride in. I still clung to all of the things I loved about the Baptist tradition, but I was no longer sure that I could separate the good from the bad. I no longer had a box I felt comfortable checking.
The answer to my search came in the form of a decision by the South Carolina SBC to adjust Pastor Retirement. In response to this, the pastor of my home church chose to retire earlier than he had planned, and my dad was elected the chair of our Pastor Search Committee. I had almost resigned myself to the fact that if I wanted to continue my theological education, it would have to be at a Presbyterian seminary until he told me about a conversation he’d had with the coordinator of the South Carolina branch of a group called the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Dad told him about my discernment process and the difficulties I’d been having coming to terms with what being a Baptist meant, and passed along my email address. Then, the next morning I had an email from Marion Aldridge. In it he describe what the CBF was, what its origins were, and what it stood for. He also included a list of schools I might be interested in looking into, CBF-affiliated schools that existed for students like me. I explored more about both the organization and the schools, and soon I was hooked.
The more I investigated the more convinced I became that this was God’s answer to my questions of identity, that in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship I had found my box to check.
I’ve considered myself a part of the CBF for four years now. I’m not as wide-eyed as I was before–I understand no group is perfect; but as I’ve attended state and national assemblies, met with other students who went through the same process as I did, and listened to the stories of those who have been with the fellowship from the beginning, I’ve become more and more convinced that God led me to the place I needed to be.
I’m still proud to be a Baptist, proud of all the good things that our tradition stands for, but more than that I’m proud to be a part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. In this Fellowship I found a place to belong and to grow, a place to struggle and place to hope, a place to safely explore my faith and my calling. In this Fellowship I’ve found a box that I’m proud to check.
Andrew Corley is a third-year student at the Gardner-Webb School of Divinity. Andrew currently serves as Youth Minister at Zion Baptist Church in Shelby, N.C., and resides in Boiling Springs N.C. with his wife, Meghan and their dog, Bear.