Calling the local church the “headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention,” Frank S. Page, president and CEO of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, has committed himself this year to meet with pastors across the country to sense their hearts for Kingdom work and hear their concerns about the Convention’s health and well-being.
The year began with three events that prompted a heightened sense of urgency to meet with pastors and local church leaders—a panel discussion with associational directors of missions at the Network of Baptist Associations annual meeting in Fort Worth, Texas, on January 6–7; an associational pastor’s conference at Severns Valley Baptist Church in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, on January 8; and teaching a Doctor of Ministry class at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, January 13–17.
While at Midwestern, MBTS President Jason Allen asked Page to speak in chapel on January 15 on the subject “The State of the Southern Baptist Convention,” followed by a question and answer dialogue session with area pastors.
Since then, Page has hosted thirty pastor listening sessions in thirteen states, with more than 370 pastors in attendance. These meetings have been organized to coincide with his schedule as he has traveled to various speaking engagements on behalf of the Convention.
These engagements included NAMB “Send North America” conferences; university and seminary chapel services; ethnic fellowship annual gatherings; ethnic advisory council meetings; Cooperative Program advisory meetings; a mental health advisory group meeting; staff chapel at IMB; state convention CP programs; and associational pastors’ conferences.
In addition, he has preached every Sunday in 2014 at churches in six different states. Following the SBC annual meeting, he will represent Southern Baptists internationally at meetings in Mexico, Germany, and Cuba.
For Page, who has served in his position since 2010, traveling the country to encourage pastors and other leaders to work together in fulfilling the Great Commission is his passion. He keeps his eyes on the spiritual lostness of men and women and boys and girls, and encourages pastors and lay people to cooperate together for the purpose of reaching them with the Gospel.
In the following interview with SBC LIFE, Page shared the motivations behind his listening sessions with pastors.
SBC LIFE: You will soon complete four years as president and CEO, what you call “chief encouragement officer,” of the SBC Executive Committee. What has been your strategy to build relationships and encourage cooperation across the Convention?
Page: During my first year and a half, I focused my personal relationships with our national level entities and executives, what I call our lower level of SBC life since our national ministries are the farthest from the churches. I visited the national entity leaders in their offices to establish covenants of relationships. My goal is that we build relationships based on biblical principles of relationship and trust and, yes, even conflict management. As the president of the Executive Committee, it is my primary responsibility to develop these relationships.
Finishing up that second year and during my third year, I tried to focus more on our state Baptist convention partners. I call that our middle level of SBC life. I visited with every one of the forty-two state convention executives in his own state to build those relationships.
This year, I have spent a strong amount of my time with what I consider the top level of SBC life, local pastors and churches. While I will continue meeting with and relating to our national and state convention partners, I need to spend more time with what my predecessor Morris Chapman wisely and rightly called the “headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention”—local churches and their pastors.
SBC LIFE: Why is referring to the local church as the “headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention” important?
Page: The polity of Southern Baptists is different than the polity of other denominations. Most people outside our Convention do not understand that. Unfortunately, people inside the Convention often don’t understand it either and think we have this hierarchy. Well, it’s just not there. Our folks need to know where the headquarters really is—the local church! We believe in the autonomy of the local church.
SBC LIFE: What have you hoped to accomplish through these pastor listening sessions this year?
Page: I think the key is building relationships and building trust. It’s time to build some momentum on correct relationships.
I also do what I call “impartation of information”—giving them good, correct, encouraging information. I love to get out in front of pastors and let them know that we as a Convention are trying to be less bureaucratic. For example, we’ve reduced our CP allocation at the Executive Committee twice, and hopefully will do a third time next year, as we seek to become more mission focused. Imparting factual information helps build relationships; it’s not just saying hello to people.
I also give them an overview of what’s happening in our Convention. I tell them what’s going on with IMB, NAMB, the seminaries. That encourages them.
I also let them know things that are happening at the state level. When I say, for example, “Did you know our states have dropped from 1,750 to 1,350 employees?,” many are surprised. They don’t know that.
SBC LIFE: Can you describe the variety of groups and individuals that have participated in the thirty listening sessions you have hosted across the Convention?
Page: We purposefully involved a representative group of pastors in each listening session. We reached out to traditional, legacy-type churches and those involved in small church settings. We also reached out to younger pastors and sought a strong representation of church planters. One fascinating group we met with called themselves “barely Baptist.” Each meeting has been racially and ethnically diverse. Some pastors prefer a blended worship style, some contemporary, some traditional. It’s been a balanced but eclectic group of pastors.
SBC LIFE: What two or three takeaways and challenges can you summarize from these meetings?
Page: There has been a renewed sense of encouragement on the part of our pastors that denominational leaders care what they have to say.
There also has been a renewed sense of participation in Cooperative Program issues. As these pastors learn more, they want to step up to the plate and be more involved than they have in the past. I tell every group that the Cooperative Program is the only way I know of where a church can concurrently and consistently fulfill Acts 1:8. I ask, “Do you want to be a part of that?” It is encouraging to see these pastors say, “Yes, we want to be a part of that!”
I also hear concerns from them. Some are about state ministries, some about national entities, some about the lostness of our continent and our world. We have collected these concerns and will be sharing them with the appropriate persons at the national and state and sometimes local levels.
Another challenge is a lack of reception of information. In almost every place we go, pastors act like this is the first time they have heard information about the Convention. They look me bold-faced in the eye and say, “I haven’t ever heard that; I didn’t know that.”
Sometimes it’s more blatant. One pastor in Florida said, “I gotta tell you, every thing I get from the state, everything I get from the association, I immediately throw it away in the trash. But I won’t now!” There is a receptivity now that was not there.
Sometimes it is simply information overload. They are desensitized to certain ways of receiving information, so we have to find a better way to get their attention.
But, when there is a relationship, there is a receptivity! Now they are listening. That’s why I think it is very important that I and other Baptist leaders be out there as much as we can. When there is a concern about a state ministry or a national ministry, if there is no connection, the pastors’ perceptions become their reality. Relationships help correct inaccurate perceptions.
SBC LIFE: Have you seen any rays of light in these meetings that have encouraged you?
Page: I see a group of pastors that realize we are in a world that is highly secular. Ours is not a religiously-encouraging culture. Because of that, they see the need to be Salt and Light like never before. And, they see the need to share the Gospel! People are beginning to realize sharing the Gospel is not merely a nice thing to do; it is imperative. That is a ray of light!
A second ray of light, I am seeing more unity that I’ve ever seen. I see a more positive spirit about our national entities than I’ve ever seen before. People are excited about church planting, about international missions. They’re excited about our seminaries, and proud of them. When I was coming up in ministry, we didn’t have that. But now we do. That’s a ray of light.
Plus I see a new generation of pastors who believe the Word and, when properly directed, want to come together to see their work based on the inerrant Word of God. Unfortunately it wasn’t that way when I was growing up, but now it’s not even an issue. That is a great ray of light.