More than thirty members of the Association of State Baptist Publications (ASBP) gathered for their annual meeting February 11–14 in Charleston, South Carolina, where they learned from author and university professor Penelope Muse Abernathy, heard reports from denominational leaders, and sharpened one another spiritually and professionally.
With the theme “Press On,” based on Philippians 3:14, participants were encouraged to persevere in their callings as Christian journalists, in spite of today’s daunting challenges.
“The ASBP meeting gives those who lead state Baptist newspapers and other publications the opportunity to discuss opportunities and challenges faced in today’s ever-changing publishing environment,” said Tim Yarbrough, 2018–2019 ASBP president and editor/executive director of the Arkansas Baptist News.
Even with the focus of this year’s meeting on current and future state paper opportunities and challenges, the organization is historic in nature. Launched in 1895 as the Southern Baptist Press Association (SBPA), “with hearty endorsement from all of our Southern Baptist papers,” SBPA held its first meeting in May 1896 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with fifteen editors present.
“Though it has experienced zeniths and nadirs in its one-hundred-year history, the Southern Baptist Press Association likewise has proved its value. Editors through the years have profited from the fellowship, mutual support, journalistic training, and cooperative actions the Association has facilitated (and) have sought out the organization as a source for information and professional growth,” wrote C. William Junker in “Contending for the Right to Know.”
Abernathy, who holds the Knight chair in journalism and digital media economics at the University of North Carolina, led three sessions on Tuesday, February 12. Her topics were: How the World Has Changed/What We Know So Far, A New Model for Nurturing Community, and What I’ve Learned and What I’ll Do Differently. Abernathy, who has done extensive research on community newspapers, is author of the book Saving Community Journalism.
She explained that she uses the term “community newspaper” in a broad sense to include magazines, podcasts, and “everything you have to tell your story.
“It is critical that community newspapers survive,” she said.
Yarbrough said, “It was refreshing to hear from researcher Penelope Abernathy, who states, ‘(W)hat is important is not the size of a paper’s print circulation, but rather the mission of the paper.’
“Abernathy offered leaders of Baptist newspapers and publications strategies for improving their reach as they seek to compete during the digital age and inform, inspire, and involve Southern Baptists in our ‘community’ of Kingdom work,” he said.
The 2019 meeting was a first for Seth Brown, newly-elected editor of North Carolina’s Biblical Recorder. “My top three goals were to learn, learn, learn. The workshops led by Penny Abernathy were both practical and insightful. It’s no secret that newspapers are diligently trying to chart a course for the future amid rapidly changing cultural, technological, and financial realities. It would be difficult to overstate how beneficial Abernathy’s expertise and experience were to our group as she guided us through discussions about best practices that could help our ecosystem of Baptist news agencies thrive in the years ahead,” Brown said.
Throughout the meeting, participants heard from Southern Baptist entity leaders, including Paul Chitwood, newly-elected president of the International Mission Board (IMB). As he settles into his new role, Chitwood said he is taking time to “ask, listen, and learn.” He acknowledged that in recent years the IMB has been challenged, due to downsizing and other factors, in its task of communicating God’s work in the world. He committed to “beef up” communications at the IMB with plans to bring on board a seasoned communications specialist as IMB communications vice president. Chitwood, former executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention (KBC), explained that KBC’s decision to merge the historic Kentucky Baptist paper, Western Recorder, with the KBC communications office was largely a cost-saving measure as well as a move intended to expand the KBC’s ability to communicate with a larger audience.
North American Mission Board President Kevin Ezell spoke briefly to the group, outlining NAMB’S church planter assessment process and describing NAMB’S organizational leadership, before introducing Johnny Hunt, NAMB’S vice president of evangelism and leadership. Hunt introduced a new evangelism initiative, Who’s Your One?, and he described how one person leading him to salvation has made such an enormous impact worldwide.
J. D. Greear, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, spoke to state paper editors and staff about the sexual abuse issue in the denomination today, stating, “Now is not the time to defend ourselves,” but rather now is the time to “lament and mourn.” He further expressed, “The safety of victims is priority over reputation of churches.”
Participants also heard reports from O. S. Hawkins, president/chief executive officer, GuideStone Financial Resources; Sandy Wisdom-Martin, executive director-treasurer, Woman’s Missionary Union; Carol Pipes, director of corporate communications, LifeWay Christian Resources; Shawn Hendricks, editor, Baptist Press; and Randy Adams, state executive director, Northwest Baptist Convention. Devotionals were led by Yarbrough; David Williams, editor of the Minnesota-Wisconsin Baptist; and Kevin Parker, editor of the Baptist New Mexican.
Sharpening One Another
In addition to hearing from a variety of speakers, state paper editors listened and learned from each other. “Having just completed nineteen months as managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, the ASBP meeting helped me glean ideas from longtime veterans of the Southern Baptist state paper world. There’s an instant connection (between colleagues) because, one way or another, we share similar struggles, concerns, and goals as we attempt to educate and inform Baptists in each of our states,” said Mark MacDonald, strategic communication catalyst for the Florida Baptist Convention. He added, “Many great discussions and friendly debates spilled over into our free time because we all want to accomplish much, even with the limitations we’ve been given.
“The more I pour into this group, the more I receive from each member. I’m not only developing invaluable connections in the Southern Baptist news world, I’m developing friends who will sharpen me.”
Brown echoed those sentiments. “Good journalism is vital to the health of the Southern Baptist Convention,” he said. “Our churches cooperate voluntarily, so they need reliable information in order to trust one another and the entities that serve them. As Southern Baptist news agencies, journalism is our process, but the real product we create is trust. That makes any venue for us to encourage and sharpen one another invaluable, especially in the context of such an historic organization like the Association of State Baptist Publications.”
Unity in Diversity
Participants also heard a synopsis report on a recent state Baptist paper survey conducted by ASBP. The survey revealed great diversity in how state Baptist papers accomplish their mission but a common commitment to the mission of communicating with Southern Baptists.
“What started out decades ago as an organization for traditional state Baptist newspapers now consists of leaders of a variety of different styles of print and digital publications. While each of us faces similar challenges in the content management and communications ministry world, we all have somewhat different purposes, budgets, staffing, and distribution schedules. We all are working to provide information to members of Southern Baptist churches in our respective states, but we are also consistently evaluating what that looks like,” said Jennifer Rash, newly-elected president and editor-in-chief of The Alabama Baptist.
ASBP, she believes, can help Baptist state paper editors “encourage and assist each other in our roles, even though our purposes and structures are different.”
In the ASBP business session on Thursday, February 14, members honored K. Allan Blume, who retired May 31, as editor of North Carolina’s Biblical Recorder. In a resolution of appreciation read by Hendricks, Blume was described as “a noted North Carolina Baptist minister, statesman, and journalist with a long history of serving Southern Baptist churches.” The group also remembered Jack Harwell, former editor of The Christian Index (Georgia) and former ASBP president, who died January 18. In closing, Yarbrough passed the ASBP gavel to Williams, who will serve as ASBP president 2019–2020. Rash was elected ASBP president-elect, to serve 2020–2021. The next ASBP annual meeting will be held February 10–13 in Tucson, Arizona.
Margaret Colson is executive secretary for Association of State Baptist Publications, writer/copy editor for Arkansas Baptist News, and freelance writer for numerous Southern Baptist publications, and is a member of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Georgia.