Prince Raney Rivers: Two are better than one

Even in free church traditions that value the autonomy of the local congregation, conventions matter.

I asked what I thought was a benign question. “How’s it going?” I was in town and decided to stop by the headquarters of the statewide Baptist convention to say hello to the hard-working staff who keep the organization running like a well-oiled machine.

My question, meant to be personal, prompted instead a discussion about the state of the institution. And we all know that conversations about the health of religious institutions inevitably lead to the subject of money.

It is not surprising that local church giving to the Convention has declined over the years. Obvious economic factors have contributed to this decrease. But not so obvious is a theory about the inverse relationship between the number of new, young pastors and local church contributions to the convention.

I wanted to know more. The theory goes like this: Younger pastors are less likely to have deep, formative relationships with the convention. It’s more likely they were called to the church from outside of North Carolina where convention life tends to be weaker. Their primary role models in ministry are more likely to be prominent clergy known by reputation rather than seasoned pastors who have provided personal mentorship. As these ministers become leaders in congregations, shaping mission and directing spending, they are more likely to cut or drastically reduce financial contributions to a convention they regard as irrelevant.

But it’s not. The African-American Baptist convention in North Carolina (General Baptist State Convention) is a collective of 2,000 churches that collaborate on mission. The Convention does not pass resolutions or set church policies. It supports missions. I walked out of the headquarters building that day wondering about sustainability of a significant institution and what I might say to a new, young pastor who believed convention life was a waste of her or his time.

Let me be candid. Our convention is far from perfect. Traditional conventions are not the only game in town anymore. So what potential value do these institutions have today?

Ministry is a demanding vocation that daily grinds “lone ranger” pastors into dust. Burn out is real. As I see it, the value of participating in convention life is in the quality of the relationships developed over the course of one’s ministry. Conventions should think about how to be more intentional about fostering collegial relationships, which are the building blocks of social capital.

When I was in seminary, the state convention met in Durham, N.C. so a few classmates and I attended some of the sessions at a downtown hotel. A seasoned pastor noticed us wandering around the lobby. He took the time to ask us questions and introduce us to everybody he knew -- and he knew everybody! I attribute a significant portion of my vitality in ministry to the community of pastors with whom I have been able to develop meaningful relationships. These pastors have been co-labors, counselors and confidants. I did not need to attend a conference to gain an audience with them. All I had to do was pick up the phone and call or get in my car and meet them at a restaurant.

Secondly, there is strength in numbers. Local church autonomy is a cherished value of Baptist life, but so much of the evil we face is institutionalized, systematic evil. Any congregation proposing to be a faithful witness for Jesus Christ faces formidable opposition. Ecclesiastes reminds us that “a three strand cord is not easily broken.” We will need to link arms with one another if we are to stand at all. In “Bowling Alone,” Robert Putnam reminds us that community connectedness is not just about warm fuzzy tales of civic triumph. Social capital develops networks that serve as conduits to help us achieve our goals.

Conventions certainly are not the institutions they were fifty years ago. I would be the first to support a new vision for the way state and national Baptist conventions carry out their mission. But I do hope that my colleagues will take a second look.

I’m still hanging around because I showed up once and made a few friends who always remind me that “two are better than one…for if they fall, one will lift up his companion.”

Prince Raney Rivers is pastor of United Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.