October 3, 2016
By Aaron Weaver
DECATUR, Ga. — The CBF Governing Board’s 6-member ad hoc committee leading the implementation of the Illumination Project is working diligently and is preparing to enter the next phase of its work listening to, reflecting and expressing the diverse voices of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship on matters of human sexuality. This report, from committee chair Charlie Fuller, came on the second day of the CBF Governing Board’s Sept. 29-30 meeting.
The Illumination Project is an initiative adopted by the Governing Board at the 2016 General Assembly in Greensboro, N.C., to create and facilitate a process of discernment and accompaniment to form and strengthen unity through cooperation across the Fellowship. While the project’s first implementation concerns CBF’s hiring policy, the project aims to provide “more light and less heat” in situations where the Fellowship finds itself in conflict or has varying convictions, furthering CBF’s 25-year history of forming intentional community in spite of differences.
Fuller said the committee hopes the Illumination Project will help CBF live into its name.
“We want to try to help our Fellowship to live into all the parts of our name. What does it mean to be Cooperative? What does it mean to cooperate in our shared mission? According to the identity statement developed and articulated by the 2012 Task Force, we are a missionary-sending-and supporting network. How then does that work itself out in the form of cooperation?” Fuller said.
“We are Baptist, and we find the Holy Spirit from the bottom up,” said Fuller, emphasizing the historic Baptist commitments to religious freedom, the priesthood of the believer and the autonomy of the local church. “We want to remind people what it means to be Baptist. It’s been good to us for 400 years — we want to keep the main thing the main thing.”
Fuller highlighted the importance of “fellowship” in CBF’s name.
“Fellowship is important. How do we work together and support one another? Fellowship is an important word. It is a crucial word. We hope in this process to dig down into our identity.”
In proposing the project at the 2016 General Assembly, CBF Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter said that the first commitment in this transparent process is to listen to, reflect and express the voices of the Fellowship. She noted that conversations around difficult subjects has been a strategy in the Fellowship, with dozens of group conference calls in the past year with Cooperative Baptists around cultural challenges from North Carolina’s HB2 law regarding the use of bathrooms in public buildings to “religious freedom” legislation to matters of human sexuality.
With a commitment to Scripture and through the creation of models of dialogue and decision-making, the Illumination Project will illuminate the qualities that have built unity in CBF and, through discernment, identify intentional efforts by which the Fellowship can live more deeply into its calling as a cooperative body, Paynter explained at the General Assembly in June.
The Committee’s Progress
Fuller’s report follows a Sept. 19-20 retreat of the Illumination Project’s ad hoc committee at the CBF offices in Decatur, Ga., where the group began to plan for entering into a season of hearing the diversity of voices within CBF as well as its partners in the United States and around the world on matters of human sexuality. Hearing the personal stories and experiences of a wide variety of voices, including stakeholders across the Fellowship, seeking to understand concerns of vital importance to stakeholders and discern what needs stakeholders have that need to be addressed is a priority of the project, the committee stressed at the retreat.
The group noted that future purposeful conversations throughout CBF’s 18 states and regions will offer a more robust picture of who the Fellowship is on matters of human sexuality, and this process of facilitated discussions will respect the dignity of each person, honoring and keeping the Imago Dei of all people at the forefront. Since CBF’s polity tasks the Governing Board rather than the General Assembly with the exclusive responsibility of creating, monitoring and reviewing policies and funding, it is of the utmost importance to hear from the breadth of the Fellowship, the committee said.
In a joint meeting of the ad hoc committee with other members of the CBF Governing Board, the leaders discussed the inclusion of representatives of CBF stakeholder groups, including churches, individuals and global and U.S.-based partner organizations. Identifying and formally interviewing stakeholders is a key step in this illumination process. These interviews will be used to develop composite profiles that will be used by the committee in the continuing implementation of the project. CBF General Assembly in June 2017 will also provide opportunities for all Cooperative Baptists to engage the process.
An additional objective of the committee is to equip congregations with a toolkit to assist in dealing in healthy ways with difficult questions, offering a framework on how to strengthen unity through cooperation in the face of challenges and disagreements in the current cultural context, including a diversity of viewpoints among Fellowship congregations on matters related to human sexuality.
“We are building a process and implementing it at the same time,” said Fuller during his Sept. 30 report to the Governing Board. “We hope that this process then becomes a toolkit that congregations can use to assist with difficult conversations, not just about matters of human sexuality.”
CBF Moderator-Elect Shauw Chin Capps stressed the importance of this phase of the Illumination Project focused on hearing a wide array of stories from the Fellowship on matters of human sexuality.
“This season of listening to and reflecting the multitude of voices of the Fellowship is extremely important as we seek to build and implement a meaningful process for this important work,” Capps said. “We are humbled to hear the diverse stories of Cooperative Baptists, and we are prepared to listen and discern the voice of God and the guidance of the Spirit in the time that is needed.”
CBF Moderator Doug Dortch encouraged Cooperative Baptists to be engaged in the Illumination Project and share their stories as the committee enters into a stage of careful listening and reflecting.
“Please participate,” Dortch said. “We want to take time to hear stories from throughout the Fellowship and give many opportunities for participation in the process in the coming months.”
The 6-member committee is comprised of Governing Board members including CBF Moderator Doug Dortch as well as former CBF Moderator Kasey Jones:
- Charlie Fuller (Chair) — Minister for Congregational Life, Second Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark.
- Paul Baxley — Senior Minister, First Baptist Church, Athens, Ga.
- Doug Dortch — Senior Minister, Mountain Brook Baptist Church, Birmingham, Ala. (CBF Moderator, 2016-2017)
- Kasey Jones — Senior Pastor, National Baptist Memorial Church, Washington, D.C. (CBF Moderator, 2014-2015)
- Steve Wells — Pastor, South Main Baptist Church, Houston, Texas
- Rebecca Wiggs — Attorney, Watkins & Eager, Jackson, Miss.
The ad hoc committee will convene again via a monthly conference call on Oct. 11.
Illumination Project — Frequently Asked Questions
1. Why the need for an Illumination Project? Why now?
At times in our nation’s religious and cultural climate when deliberative dialogue is needed most, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship seeks to model the way of unity through cooperation as it develops a process of discernment and accompaniment involving CBF congregational leaders and other CBF stakeholders. The Illumination Project aims to shed light on the qualities that have built unity in CBF, and through discernment, will identify intentional processes by which the Fellowship can maintain and grow through cooperation. The Governing Board can use this process at its discretion — at specific times for specific issues.
Controversial issues continue to painfully divide the church, in part because we lack an intentional practice of deliberative dialogue. Whatever conversations and processes have carried us to a certain time, there is a need to reconvene with intent as new points of stress present themselves. Recent events that have shaped the current cultural context include North Carolina’s HB2 law, a new Mississippi law that allows businesses to refuse to serve to gay couples out of a religious objection as well as a similar law that was vetoed, the worst mass shooting in American history at a gay nightclub in Orlando, the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling requiring all sates to license same-sex marriage, and a concern in Texas that pastors would be forced to perform same-sex weddings despite their conscientious objection.
2. What kind of process is the Illumination Project planning to create and implement?
The Illumination Project aims to create a process for hearing the voices of the Fellowship. In authentic Baptist fashion, the Illumination Project seeks to discern the leading of the Holy Spirit through the voices of the Fellowship. Since there are 1,800 churches, more than a million people in our pews on any given Sunday and many partners in the United States and around the world, the goal is to hear representative stories from across our Fellowship.
3. Who are members of the ad hoc committee and how were they selected?
The 6-member ad hoc committee of the Illumination Project is comprised of CBF Governing members including CBF Moderator Doug Dortch as well as former CBF Moderator Kasey Jones. CBF Moderator Doug Dortch appointed the committee in July 2016 and selected Governing Board member Charlie Fuller, minister for congregational life at Second Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., to serve as the committee’s chair.
In addition to Fuller and Dortch, other committee members include: Paul Baxley, senior minister, First Baptist Church, Athens, Ga.; Kasey Jones, senior pastor, National Baptist Memorial Church, Washington, D.C.; Steve Wells, pastor, South Main Baptist Church, Houston, Texas; and Rebecca Wiggs, attorney, Watkins & Eager, Jackson, Miss.
4. How does this process differ from the approaches taken by other Christian denominations and groups? (e.g. Methodists, Presbyterians)
Many other Christian denominations and groups have a “top-down” hierarchical structure. Authority comes from a bishop or other leaders. These mainline denominations ordain clergy and exert authority in many other ways over their churches. CBF does not do that. CBF from its very beginning has celebrated the autonomy of every local church. CBF does not ordain clergy nor make decisions for individual churches. In CBF life, authority emanates from the “bottom up.” The Illumination Project seeks to hear the stories from the grassroots of CBF and our other partners, both in the U.S. and globally. It’s through these stories that we hope for the Holy Spirit to lead us forward.
5. What is CBF’s hiring policy and is the Illumination Project only about that?
While CBF is not involved in decision-making at the local congregation level, the Fellowship has a hiring policy for its own staff, which states that CBF “does not allow for the expenditure of funds for organizations or causes that condone, advocate or affirm homosexual practice. Neither does CBF allow for the purposeful hiring of a staff person or the sending of a missionary who is a practicing homosexual.”
The Illumination Project is about more than this hiring policy, even as our shared life as a Fellowship is about so much more than the hiring policy. The Illumination Project is about hearing the stories of how individuals find meaning in our shared identity as a mission-sending organization.
6. Who will be asked to participate in the process? How are participants selected?
The identification of stakeholders is well underway and will include our global partners as well as the various individuals, churches and groups connected to CBF domestically. We appreciate your prayers for this vital part of our process. We seek to identify and hear from the breadth of our Fellowship, treasuring every voice and valuing the dignity of every story we hear.
7. What will the committee do with the information and stories collected?
The Illumination Project is employing a process called Integrative Thinking, designed to address complex decision-making, specifically where there are ideas in tension with one another. The Illumination Project Committee members are committed to objectively hearing the collective voices of the Fellowship as a whole. The information and stories collected will be used to develop composite profiles that will then be used by the Illumination Project Committee in the continuing implementation of the project. The purpose of the composites will be to reflect back to the Fellowship through larger group discussions its own diversity and thus stimulate the creation of additional and deeper stories. It is hoped that through this process a set of potential pathways forward will emerge that will then be presented to the CBF Governing Board.
8. What are the stages of the Illumination Project? How far along is the committee in its work?
With the help of an outside group experienced in developing such decision-making processes, the Illumination Project Committee is completing the initial work of designing the stages of the project, while simultaneously implementing the process.
9. What is the timeline for this process? Will there be a vote at General Assembly?
A process of this depth and importance will require much time. Seriously and comprehensively hearing the voices of such a large Fellowship cannot be done quickly. We ask all members of the Fellowship to be patient and wait along with us for the voice of the Holy Spirit to rise up from our people.
According to the CBF Constitution and Bylaws, personnel policies are the purview of the Governing Board. They are not voted on by the General Assembly. The earliest possible time for the committee’s findings to be presented to the Governing Board will be at their September 2017 meeting. A presentation at the January 2018 meeting is much more reasonable. At that point, it will be up to the Governing Board to respond to the findings of the Illumination Project Committee.
10. How can I participate in the work of the Illumination Project?
Hearing stories from a diverse group of individuals, congregations and partners is essential for success of the Illumination Project. It is expected that sessions will be held across the Fellowship, including many at CBF state and regional meetings in the spring of 2017, as well as at the CBF General Assembly in June 2017. You may also engage the CBF Governing Board’s 6-member ad hoc committee leading the implementation of the Illumination Project by sending a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about the Illumination Project and share these answers to Frequently Asked Questions, visit www.cbf.net/illuminationproject. Contact Illumination Project committee chair Charlie Fuller with any questions or comments at email@example.com.
CBF is a Christian Network that helps people put their faith to practice through ministry efforts, global missions and a broad community of support. The Fellowship’s mission is to serve Christians and churches as they discover and fulfill their God-given mission.