The leader of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship talks about what it means to be a 21st-century organization -- and what she learned about leadership from riding a racehorse in Texas.
Suzii Paynter doesn’t refer to her organization as a denomination. She likes to call it a “denomi-network” -- a flexible network with many of the functions of a traditional denomination.
“I do love systems, and I love this system, this denomi-network system that allows for decision making and friendships and partnerships and flexibility. I love the dynamic nature of it, and I look forward to what it means in the future,” she said.
“This endeavor that we’re a part of has this big, alive future that’s way beyond us, and yet for this moment, it’s our time and God’s called us into this time.”
She took office as the CBF’s executive coordinator in 2013 after serving as the director of the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission and director of the Advocacy Care Center of the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT), where she developed public policy initiatives for state and federal issues and formed relationships with other religious bodies.
She is an ordained deacon at First Baptist Church, Austin, Texas, and a longtime Sunday school teacher.
Paynter has been recognized for her advocacy on ethical issues by organizations including the North American Association of Christians in Social Work, the Sierra Club and AARP.
She spoke to Faith & Leadership about her tenure as the CBF executive coordinator, during which time she has directed the implementation of a reorganization based on a new strategic plan. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: I understand you learned about leadership growing up -- tell us about that.
I grew up with a ranch family in Texas. My dad -- he was a wonderful rancher, but he also had a great love for the perfect horse.
So he got this horse. He went out and got this horse, and she was a racehorse, and she could run as fast as all get-out. Well, we know the last thing you really need in a family with five children is a racehorse running around, right?
So he got this beautiful horse and her name was Babe. And so he went down to this field in our ranch and he removed every rock, every stump, everything from that field so this horse could run really, really fast, and he would get on and ride that horse fast around that field like you would around a racetrack or something.
Of course, we all wanted to ride Babe, and he wouldn’t let us, because it was too dangerous. But then one day he told me that I could ride Babe.
So he taught me this very specific lesson on what it takes to ride a fast horse. He showed me how to hold the reins -- not too tight -- but also how to hold the reins so that there was no doubt from the horse that you were there.
So that lesson of how to ride a fast horse was a lesson to me. It’s almost a parable. It’s almost a metaphor that God is the horse and the power is there, and in denominational work and church work, we are just this little 12-year-old rider on top of this very powerful horse. How we are in partnership, how we hold the reins, is really about weaving together our listening and our ear and letting God take the lead.
So I think that choreography is between the power of the Holy Spirit and living in true humility, understanding that this endeavor that we’re a part of has this big, alive future that’s way beyond us, and yet for this moment, it’s our time and God’s called us into this time. So there’s something that is asked of us at this moment.
I do love systems, and I love this system, this denomi-network system that allows for decision making and friendships and partnerships and flexibility. I love the dynamic nature of it, and I look forward to what it means in the future.
Another thing I would say is that I served as a lobbyist for 12 years for the Baptist General Convention of Texas. When you’re a do-gooder lobbyist and you don’t have money and you don’t really have influence, you learn to work in coalition.
I think religious life today in an organization/denomination like the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is more like coalition work. You have to respect the interests and the focus of everyone at the table, and you have to understand that their focus and their interests are not your interests, but you can still accomplish a lot of things together.
So I’m very grateful to the years I spent working in coalitions without money or influence but just being able to work together with organizations, understanding where their boundaries are and where my boundaries are for us to get something accomplished together. I think that’s another great lesson that is very suitable for the future in faith work.
Q: As the head of a young denomination, in an age where denominations are not very popular, why did you take the job?
When I got this job at CBF, one of my friends called me, a Lutheran, and he said, “Congratulations, and I’m jealous.” I said, “Well, lots of people have said congratulations. Very few people have said they’re jealous.”
He said, “I’m jealous for two reasons. No. 1, you all have young clergy, and No. 2, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship can actually do something in a timely way.”
Then he went on to say, “You all passed a strategic plan and you’re actually implementing it one year later. That would never happen in a traditional denomination. It would take five or six years.”
I think there was truth in both things he said.
It’s kind of hard to come up with the right nomenclature, so I talk about the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship being a “denomi-network.” We function in some ways like a denomination, but we are organized [like] and we have the facility of a network.
One of the reasons I said yes to CBF was because it is a denomi-network, and it’s not a denomination in a traditional sense. It’s a 21st-century organization. CBF was originally envisioned to be a loosely affiliated, completely volunteer endeavor. So it is truly a network that way.
We don’t own anyone’s property. We don’t determine the ordination of clergy or deacons or anything like that. That’s all left to the individual congregation.
So one of the reasons I said yes is because of the flexibility and the ability of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to live into a 21st-century vision of what a religious affiliation can be.
One of the qualities of this network is that we maintain multiple relationships, and a good example is theological education. Unlike many other denominations -- every other denomination, actually -- we relate to 15 seminaries and divinity schools, and we’re able to do that because we don’t have our proprietary schools, so to speak.
So my Lutheran friend was right. Because we relate to so many seminaries, we have a lot of young clergy in our network. That’s not something that you typically see in the traditional trends in denominational life.
Q: What excites you about this opportunity, and what worries you?
What excites me is the vitality of the individual congregations. Most of our churches have at some point made a decision about who they’re going to be. They’ve asked an identity question sometime in the last 20 years.
So where many churches are just now asking the identity question -- “What’s our future going to be like?” -- because of the origins of our organization, they had to ask that question 20 years ago. So they’ve made an exploration. They’ve done an exploration of their own identity. They’ve claimed the gift of their congregation, and they’re living into those gifts.
Q: And what about the other part of that question? What worries you?
What worries me are two things. One is that Christians have not claimed the beauty and the impact and the power of their own community. I think sometimes we don’t recognize our assets and we don’t claim the power of transformation that rests within our congregation. We take these words of the world to heart instead of countering them with the vitality of the Spirit.
So part of my goal has been to take a mirror into different congregations and to remind them who they are. I think the most powerful things in our world -- the spiritual things -- are invisible. And we live in a very material world.
What concerns me is that we’ve not become experts at making the invisible visible. We need to reclaim that and make visible the things that are important: love, joy, peace, kindness, faithfulness, perseverance -- seeing the fruits of the Spirit.
I also think the challenge of global Christianity is … not a worry. That’s more like a challenge, because I think we are -- the U.S. church -- being called to more active global engagement. I think that’s a challenge that we’ve been prepared for in some ways, but we’ve not been focused on it.
We know how to go and do a global missions trip, but do we really know how to be globally engaged as brothers and sisters in Christ in supportive ways that honor the churches around the world? We have to put our focus on it and really make some intentional preparation.
Q: What are some of the things that denominations are uniquely positioned to contribute to the world?
I’ll talk about the traditional part, and then I’ll talk about the innovative part.
Traditionally, denominations have done a couple of things in a very strong way, and these things are still very central to who we are. One is theological education, coming together for theological education and theological formation.
A second thing that we’ve done well together is missions, that no single congregation could provide on their own. So those are two aspects from our traditional background that are still very much what we consider important today.
In terms of innovation, I feel that denominations are in a very good place to come together as the compassionate voice. For instance, participating in ecumenical and interfaith circles to work together across religious traditions and expressions.
So I think a part of a denominational structure is it provides a strong center of a relationship that can be leveraged. This is whether it’s in the U.S. for mission and compassion work or whether it’s internationally in the church development, church-starting area or in the area of compassion ministries.
Q: Earlier, you had mentioned that your clergy are young, and I understand that you also have a vision of making a strong investment in the young people of your denomination. What does that look like?
The culture of call over a lifetime is a journey that’s going to have many expressions.
First of all, we need to covenant to be in partnership with people from the time of their exploration, and whether that exploration ends up in an ordained clergy position or expresses itself in secular employment, our commitment is to the personal development of the young explorers in our network.
In order to do that, one thing that we’re doing is putting all of our young Baptist programs in what we’re calling an ecosystem, in one cost center, in one area of administration. Whether it’s a high school program or college program or seminary program or a residency program for their first two years in ministry or retreats and support, all of that goes into one administrative place.
So first of all, we are focusing on that and saying it’s important living into that, and then staffing it with people who are under 40. As I said when I talked to the search committee, I’m old, but I hire young.
Part of it is giving the opportunity for leadership and giving resources to young leaders. I’m a big believer in giving resources. It’s very important to me, especially in Baptist life, to support women in ministry, to support the organization of Baptist Women in Ministry financially from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
So that’s there to support chaplaincy, where women in ministry can express their call and flourish, and to really intentionally support the mechanisms that are going to help promote the advancement of young leaders.
Q: By grouping those administratively, does that improve the pipeline?
Right. Part of it is to provide a pipeline, but not just for a job or a place or a placement in a church, but a pipeline with an opportunity for expression and engagement for public witness all along that pipeline.
It’s not like you have to wait until a certain point and then you get to do that, but all along the pipeline you have opportunities.
One of the really interesting things we’re doing across denominational lines is what we’re calling covenants of action. These are African-American and Anglo churches and Hispanic churches in cities in the United States coming together to do a covenant of action for some meaningful ministry in that city.
It’s an opportunity for advocacy. Another part is hands-on ministry, where you’re actually doing it, not just in your own church, but you’re doing it with another congregation across those lines of race and culture and expression. Those covenants of action are being facilitated in CBF churches through something that we call the New Baptist Covenant.
Q: A lot of people struggle with setting priorities when there is so much to do. How do you decide your own priorities, and how do you help your staff decide their priorities?
There are three main areas right now that are guiding my priorities. They’ve come from a strategic plan that was passed in 2012 and that we call the 2012 Task Force.
The first is identity, that we lift up the identity of our congregations. Our congregations are compassionate, they’re loving, they’re joyful, they’re enlightened, educated congregations, so raising the identity, the visibility of identity, the vitality of our identity and the expression of our identity in outreach is one of our priorities.
A second priority is missions, and framing and implementing a 21st-century vision of missions. Really building a collaborative mission enterprise is something that is a priority for us.
A third priority is the support of the local congregation. That expresses itself in a discernment process for a congregation to ask itself its own questions about its mission in the world and its identity and its future expression where it is -- in what city, in what context.
Q: So you’ve got the broad categories of priorities, but when you walk in your office and you’ve got 1,000 phone messages and 200 emails and three people who want something from you, how do you and your staff sort that out?
I think you have to know your priorities and you have to evaluate your processes. I have a leadership team of 10, and they represent every major facet of our organization. This is instead of having just an executive team of two or three. It’s important to me to have a leadership team that is accountable around a table every other week.
I do 30-minute one-on-one meetings with each of those leaders once a month, so we have those every-other-week meetings and then a one-on-one meeting. That’s how we begin to make sure we’re really setting goals and moving toward goals.
Personally, how do I handle emails, stuff like that? If I have a day where there’s only three people that want something from me, I consider that a vacation day!
I try to organize my own communication around a quick response and an efficient delegation, also to know what I’m not going to do. Just get clear about what’s not going to be on my plate so that I can get it off my plate quickly. I think that’s been a very good thing for me.
For email, I have an action file, and my assistant has access to that action file. Any email I put in there, she can begin to take action on it or she can ask me about the action for it, and so we have that working space. When we’ve taken enough action, it moves out to another place. So that keeps us posted on managing what’s urgent.
Then, I think it’s important to really use your own governance structure. We have a brand-new governance structure which we’re building, which -- oh, by the way -- that took a little effort.
Q: Right. Well, I thought about starting the interview with the question of asking you to talk about your structural reorganization, and then I realized that would be a mistake, because I would never get to anything else.
Really, truly. We had this plan in 2012, and we have implemented a new constitution, new bylaws, new ministry council, new missions council, new nominating committee, new governing board.
For our organization right now, creating healthy organs of governance and then using them well is a very important part of maintaining priorities and function and relevance in the organization. So that’s really something I’m working on.
Another kind of innovation for us is looking beyond the traditional forms of offering, giving to structures that are more like an annual fund.
How do we help support our work and the work of our churches through a strategic review of how we raise money and how we grow money and how we grant money? How are we good stewards of that process? That’s another area of attention that has come along with that reorganization.
Q: What do you mean by using your systems of governance?
I just mentioned global missions and how we’re looking to 21st-century missions. We have a missions council. We’ve got academic people on there that are missiologists, leading scholars in the area of missiology. We have people that have been in practice overseas in long-term service. We’ve got local missions folks that mobilize mission efforts in local congregations or in states and regions.
Having that council of people, it’s just like having a little think tank or brain trust right there. So we need to make sure that their work is not just listening to reports but actually using their gifts to help shape our vision for the future.
You can get into the habit of passive governance operations, where all your governance bodies are passively listening to somebody’s report of what happened back when. So that’s what I mean by using your governance bodies. Use them toward the future, not to review the past.
I think the other thing about using our governance structures is leadership development. People want a place to serve, they want a place to lead, and again with young clergy and with young rising leaders, [we want to use] those governance structures as opportunities for them to have some meaningful leadership.