Inland Empire Baptist Association in Southern California has forged a new path in the concept of Southern Baptist partnerships.
Ministry, encouragement, and inspiration flow in both directions when Southern Baptists cooperate. This has been noted for years in partnerships between strong Southern state conventions and those in “new work” areas, and even between strong Southern associations and either churches or associations in “new work” states, as well as in global missions.
“You get more done when you cooperate together, when you partner together,” Inland Empire’s Director of Missions (DOM) Deryl Lackey told SBC LIFE. “We figured that if state conventions have done this, why not us?
“Yet we wanted it to be another association in California,” Lackey continued. “That way we can be close enough to send teams and maintain regular contact at various state meetings.”
Lackey had seen J Ballard at DOM get-togethers and was impressed with what he saw and heard from the DOM of the Feather River Baptist Association in the far northeastern corner of California.
A year later, in September 2016, Inland Empire added $500 a month support for Feather River to its budget, with additional resources as needed, and the possibility of mission trips flowing in both directions. It’s an open-ended partnership, dependent on Feather River’s needs and the ability of Inland Empire to help meet those needs.
“Our association loves and admires the work J and his wife are doing in Feather River,” Lackey said. “It is amazing to us how much they accomplish with limited resources. We admire their people skills, work ethic, and genuine enthusiasm for the work and area God has called them into.
“Once you meet J and Nicky, you know they are the type of people you want to be a blessing to,” the Inland Empire DOM continued. “They are a great investment of our resources, and we are honored to partner with them.”
Inland Empire is an association of about 230 churches east of Los Angeles. California Baptist University and Gateway Seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention both are in Inland Empire. While four churches run more than five thousand in Sunday morning worship, and twenty churches average between five hundred and one thousand, most Sunday morning congregations number no more than 125, the DOM said.
It’s an association that majors on church planting, church health, and leadership development, and yet, “One of our desires in the last few years is to be involved in ministries outside our area,” Lackey said. “We ask that our churches not keep all their income, but share that with Great Commission causes. We felt it was only right that we do the very same thing.”
In addition to its partnership with Feather River Baptist Association, Inland Empire partners with Transformation City Church plant in Vancouver, Canada. This allows the association’s churches to participate in an international mission trip over a weekend, and yet stay in the same time zone, the DOM said.
In-association ministries include an annual pastors’ wives retreat, quarterly get-togethers for pastors’ wives, and an annual marriage retreat for vocational ministers and spouses. This year’s annual pastors’ retreat for the first time is to be in English Monday through Wednesday, and in Spanish Thursday through Saturday, in a new partnership with the nearby Orange County Baptist Association.
Churches in Inland Empire have sponsored twenty-six church plants in the last four years, and nineteen existing churches have also joined the association and California Southern Baptist Convention within the last five years.
“The most common reason: missions,” Lackey said. “Also, some are really impressed with our disaster relief ministries, and the resources we have for spiritual leaders.
“In this day and age, especially with the laws changing in California, it’s not wise to be on your own,” the DOM continued. “It helps to have the resources, expertise, and strength of a larger church family.”
Located in a 115-mile-wide, 325-mile-long strip of mostly rural mountain roads between Nevada’s Black Rock Desert and the timbered land near the Lassen volcano, Feather River Baptist Association is home to seventeen small congregations, including seven new since J Ballard was named DOM in 2009.
It’s in a part of California where, in the sixty years since logging and timber industries withered, the area has become dependent on government jobs—dams, prisons, power plants, and forest service—for its economic base. Churches that once averaged fifty to one hundred in Sunday morning worship today might have a couple of dozen.
“Each of the churches in Feather River is uniquely planted where it can be used by God,” Ballard told SBC LIFE. “Going forward, we want to raise up the next generation of leaders and be a lighthouse of the Gospel in each of our communities.”
A sense of missions awareness permeates the association, which responded to that by informally renaming itself the Feather River Missions Network.
“The amount of world missions impact these churches have is amazing,” Ballard said. “Almost all of them are doing something: a Mexico orphanage, West Africa, South America, South Asia, and more.”
In 2008, J’s wife Nicky started a missions summer camp in the association where previously there had been no summer camp for Southern Baptist children and youth.
“We figured we’d make missionaries,” Ballard said. “I think every Christian should be a missionary.”
At Missions Camp, “we teach them to do Bible stories and make Gospel presentations with bracelets and face-painting, and in the afternoons, the youth go into town and do a missions-related service project,” the Feather River DOM said. “Last year we had four salvations, six rededications, and seventeen surrendered to Christian service.”
Missions Camp is an idea that is spreading. This year, Sierra Butte Baptist Association is joining with and sending campers to the camp.
Disaster Relief is one way Feather River church members work together in ministry. The association received a Send Relief trailer from the North American Mission Board last summer, which association churches have stocked for mud-out ministry, and with which seven people from the association traveled to Houston in January to assist in Hurricane Harvey relief.
Ballard is a one-third time director of missions. He supplements that with the church he planted in Reno five years ago, Faith Ministry. Five miles east of the California state line, Faith Ministry last year committed to replant First Baptist Church of Truckee, California.
“Feather River is so blessed by the assistance from Inland Empire,” Ballard said. “Much of the field support is a direct result of their mission partnership. Our pastors are a long way from each other and from bigger towns, and pastors can feel isolated.
“The funds from Inland Empire send guys to conferences, pay for fellowship dinners twice a year, and simply pay for some needed items to encourage them and their wives,” Ballard continued. “We work together with Inland Empire. That’s the Southern Baptist way.”
Karen L. Willoughby is national correspondent with SBC LIFE and is a member of First Baptist Church in Pleasant Grove, Utah.