When a Vermont pastor's father became deathly ill, the pastor called the Green Mountain Baptist Association. Like many pastors in the state, he works another job to make ends meet. Unable to pay for the long trip home to be near his father, he needed compassionate counsel from a trusted colleague in ministry.
"Within minutes of his phone call, I was able to send out a plea to all our pastors," Terry Dorsett, director of missions and church planting catalyst with the association, told SBC LIFE in an email. "In less than two hours I was able to call him back and tell him that we had collected all that he needed to make the trip home."
That is just one example of the numerous ministries carried out by Baptist associations—groups of local churches that join together for a common purpose. The association is the oldest cooperative unit in Baptist life, tracing its existence back more than three hundred years. For many pastors, the association serves as the primary support system for their work and ministry. Associations are heavily involved in cooperative evangelism, providing resources for local churches, encouraging fellowship among Southern Baptists, equipping churches for ministry and service, and helping connect churches to bear one another's burdens.
Each year, the Southern Baptist Conference of Associational Directors of Missions (SBCADOM) promotes a week of Associational Missions Emphasis. This year's emphasis, slated for May 20-26, follows the theme "Igniting Passion" and includes a small group study book developed in cooperation with the North American Mission Board.
"I think that historically it's just sort of been proven that our Southern Baptist Convention needs associations, because there's a role that associations have that is very unique," said Johnny Rumbough, president of SBCADOM and director of missions for the Lexington Baptist Association in South Carolina.
Associations represent the most local level of Southern Baptist cooperation, serving churches through resources, consultations, and ministry coordination. Dorsett, for example, leads the GMBA to assist in fundraising for churches, while Rumbough meets frequently with church staff and has trained 105 pastor search committees.
Rumbough also serves churches in a more personal way, writing letters to thank church leaders for the support they give to their pastors and church staff.
"There's not enough denominational staff to be able to do that, but the associational leadership can do that, because we're small enough to be able to know 100 percent of our churches but large enough to be able to have a significant impact," he said.
In addition, associations connect churches with opportunities to help other churches and engage in cooperative local ministry. A large church may be paired with a smaller, struggling church, or church members could be shown avenues to serve their communities.
For example, Jeff Crabtree, director of missions for Warren Association of Baptists in south-central Kentucky, paired ten of the more evangelistic churches in the association with ten associational churches that had not baptized anyone the previous year. He asked the stronger churches to pray specifically that the other churches would experience evangelistic effectiveness in the coming year. At its 2009 annual meeting, the association reported that eight churches with no baptisms in 2008 had baptized twenty-nine new believers in 2009, using video footage of actual baptisms in those churches in its report.
The evangelistic impact begun that year has continued. "Our pastors celebrate one another's baptisms at every associational meeting," Crabtree said. In 2010, a total of twenty-three churches in the association reported an increase in baptisms and the association began to pray for one thousand souls to be baptized in the 2010-2011 associational year.
"Our associational churches baptized 1,068 in 2011 and we are now praying for 1,150 baptisms in 2012," Crabtree said. "One of our churches that baptized none in 2010, White Stone Quarry Baptist Church, recently reported it has baptized four people so far this year, the most recent on Easter Sunday morning." But Crabtree was quick to note, "[Even] if we hit 1,150 baptisms this year, lostness still wins in Warren County."
In another instance, Rumbough said a small-group leader in an associational church asked him how his group could serve. The association showed them ways to assist local police officers and their families.
"When a church surfaces and says, 'Hey, we'd like to do something,' we not only know but we already have a relationship with those community entities," Rumbough said.
Beyond helping churches, Baptist associations are heavily involved in evangelism and ministry. That can include financial support of church plants and training for church planters, evangelism at a county fair, state prison ministries, or training churches how to host block parties. Lexington Baptist Association has partnerships for church planting in Atlanta and Canada, and it has adopted an area of London.
But the missions involvement of local associations is reaching new heights through their partnership with NAMB's "Send: North America" church planting initiative. Send: North America relies heavily on associations to serve as catalysts for new church plants. As part of the initiative, directors of missions that receive funding from NAMB will take on the title of church planting catalyst (CPC) and be expected to set church planting as a major priority. NAMB has set a goal for each CPC to help start four new church plants in his area every year.
NAMB has long provided a variety of services to help associations, including training and consultations.
Stan Albright, NAMB's national director for associations, says directors of missions have relationships at the local level that NAMB does not, relationships that can aid evangelistic efforts.
"In other words, if you want to talk to someone [who knows] something about a particular city or town or rural setting, the first person you probably want to talk to is the DOM," Albright said, "because he has lived his life in that association; he has worked among those people."
The SBCADOM will also hold a conference June 17-18 in New Orleans in conjunction with the SBC annual meeting. Among the featured speakers are SBC first vice president Fred Luter, International Mission Board president Tom Elliff, and NAMB president Kevin Ezell.
Rumbough hopes pastors who are unsure about joining their local Baptist associations will consider the ways their churches can join together to reach the world for Christ.
"This is about being able to reach people that are beyond their one church's ability to be able to reach," he said, "because no one church can do what multiple churches can do together."
John Evans, a member of Sagemont Church, is a freelance journalist in Houston, Texas.