Daniel Vestal (left) and Walter Shurden address a press conference announcing the formation of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Atlanta in 1991. Vestal, then a pastor, would become CBF’s second executive coordinator following the retirement of Cecil Sherman in 1996. Shurden, a church historian at Mercer University, helped write the Fellowship’s founding document. Current executive coordinator is Suzii Paynter. Photo by Fred S. Prouser.

Daniel Vestal (left) and Walter Shurden address a press conference announcing the formation of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Atlanta in 1991. Vestal, then a pastor, would become CBF’s second executive coordinator following the retirement of Cecil Sherman in 1996. Shurden, a church historian at Mercer University, helped write the Fellowship’s founding document. Current executive coordinator is Suzii Paynter. Photo by Fred S. Prouser.

Evolving generational engagement marks Baptist group’s brief history

What is not a denomination but kind of acts like one? What has Baptist as its middle name but plays well with others?

What began 25 years ago not from a strategic plan but out of a protest meeting? What denomination-defying group owns no buildings, schools or publishing houses but plays a strategic role in educating scores of ministers, training lay leadership and producing wide-ranging resources for Christian growth?

The answer is the ever-evolving Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) — a network of Baptist congregations and individuals with a bent toward collaboration around issues of mission, education and justice.

BEGINNINGS

Helen Moore-Montgomery of McKinney, Texas, was in Atlanta for the formative gatherings in the early ’90s — though admitting, “I had little hope.” She was weary from “the infighting, the bullying, friendships being disrupted, bearing the grief and pain of loss” that had marked the Southern Baptist Convention struggles.

She wondered if those called to lay ministry might have a voice.

“I found comfort in the counsel of my mentors John and Eula Mae Baugh,” she said of the Texas Baptist lay leaders who stood boldly against the rise of fundamentalism in the SBC.

So she jumped into the early process of forming a governing counsel and committees — and found a home.

“We moved beyond the territorial bickering and learned to work together to honor our name: Cooperative,” she said. “The Fellowship was inclusive in its planning; clergy and laity served together.”

Catherine Allen of Birmingham, Ala., a former leader of Woman’s Missionary Union, an auxiliary to the SBC, recalls the formative years as well.

“I can never forget the thrill and expectation of the meetings in Atlanta in ’90 and ’91, leading up to the official founding of CBF,” she said. “It was a great uniting of dynamic friends committed to missions and change. There were risks and costs, but people courageously moved ahead.”

Lay leader Judy Battles, a member of First Baptist Church of Arlington, Texas, was there too — helping with logistics at the informal gathering in August 1990 and the May 1991 assembly at which the Fellowship was officially formed.

“I knew CBF from day one,” she said. “I had been involved with Baptist life and understood what was happening.”

She recalled the fears, scars and sadness present. But she also remembers “the call for ‘free and faithful Baptists’ to live and go forward.”

“In those early days, people had as many expectations of what this entity ought to look like as there were individuals visualizing,” said Battles. “Almost every decision required discussion and often revision — even with the organizational name choice!”

‘A NEW WAY’

Despite some distrust rooted in earlier Baptist infighting, Battles said the Fellowship was built on a foundation of inclusion.

“Inclusivity meant first and foremost that no one would be more important than another,” she said. “There must be balance in gender, geographic representation, clergy/laity, titles.”

She recalled asking the hotel to arrange a meeting room with tables forming a hollow square — so there would be no head table or front row. But getting past the past was the biggest challenge, said Battles.

“Did we want to be responsive rather than just reactionary?”

She described “a mix of excitement about birthing something new but also concern for how and what to do and who would do it.”

“While people came from different places and backgrounds, CBF was birthed with huge passion, time and energy by busy people who cared and prayed and sought God’s guidance and felt it was the Baptist Christian thing to do,” said Battles.

With her former denominational home “severely wounded,” Catherine Allen said she was looking for a “better and higher way to bring more people to a full understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

“The love of Christ compelled us to make a new way,” she added.

President Jimmy Carter, a Baptist layman, speaks to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Birmingham, Ala., in May 1993, saying he and his wife, Rosalynn, “found a home” in CBF. Photo by Fred S. Prouser.

President Jimmy Carter, a Baptist layman, speaks to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Birmingham, Ala., in May 1993, saying he and his wife, Rosalynn, “found a home” in CBF. Photo by Fred S. Prouser.

MOVING AHEAD

Priorities have often been a topic of discussion for the Fellowship with advocates pushing or begging for resources to support missions, theological education, communications, religious liberty or other causes.

Though in middle school, Tony Vincent remembers his pastor-father Dan returning from the 1991 gathering in Atlanta after years of attending the annual meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“I remember the energy and excitement and hope that Dad had,” said Tony, now associate minister at Trinity Baptist Church in Seneca, S.C. “There was a noticeable difference in his voice.”

Sensing his own call to ministry, Tony attended divinity school at Gardner-Webb University, one of more than a dozen schools to partner with the CBF to provide theological education as alternatives to the fundamentalist-controlled SBC seminaries.

“It was there, particularly through relationships with faculty like Doug Dickens and Sheri Adams, and enduring relationships with several classmates, that my passion for CBF grew,” said Vincent, “and my desire to be actively involved in the Fellowship merged with my passion to serve God through the church.”

Vincent sees CBF as “a significantly different organization” than when he began ministry 13 years ago.

“We’re changing and yet it still feels like home,” he said. “That’s not to say we’ve abandoned any core identity or passion, but as we honor and welcome those who seek to partner with us, we draw the circle wider and we are changed beautifully for it.”

Vincent encourages such change.

“I hope that continues on, even if the evolution is challenging to my comfort or expectations,” he said. “We’re closer to the kingdom of God for it.”

NEXT GENERATION

Kristen Pope, a student at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology, a CBF partner, was one of several young Baptists interviewed for a video series being produced by the Baptist History and Heritage Society.

She confessed that her generation is known to be slightly, but not always, negative, “quick to doubt,” and “very critical.” Also, they tend to be suspicious of organized religion. And that’s not all bad, she added.

“That is beneficial in that you know we really want to know about something before we commit ourselves to it,” she said. “But it’s not beneficial in that a lot of us let stereotypes about what the church is and what the church is trying to accomplish in the world dictate whether or not we go to church or engage in any kind of faith community.”

Therefore, Pope finds it helpful as a young, female Baptist minister to express why she embraces that calling and identity — as a Christian, a Baptist and a CBF Baptist.

“Some people think that those things are self-evident and they are not,” she said. “They weren’t for me. For a long time I was a Baptist fish swimming in Baptist water and I wasn’t aware of it… People sharing with me why that identity was important to them helped me to recognize in my own ways why claiming that identity was and should be important to me.”

Information is not enough, however, for an experiential generation, she said.

“We want to hear, not so much about what’s in your head as what’s in your heart,” she said. “That’s what is going to move us to come to church on a Sunday or to a social justice group that might be a part of your church.”

Karen Zimmerman, who also interviewed for the video series, was a toddler when CBF was formed. Today she is associate pastor for missions and community engagement at Atlanta’s Peachtree Baptist Church.

With both parents as ordained Baptist ministers, she grew up in “a CBF family” and “CBF was my mother tongue.” Now she claims that heritage as her own.

“As a millennial Baptist I can appreciate the struggles of the generations that came before me and have brought us to this place,” she said. “I am grateful for an organization like the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship that remains a moderate voice in a very polarized world. I am happy to identify as a CBF Baptist, and I’m looking forward to being a part of this organization for many years to come.”

Zimmerman is pleased that she is welcomed into leadership within the Fellowship where her voice is heard and respected. “I can’t think of a better place to call home.”

LOOKING AHEAD

“While I’ve had my frustrations with CBF — more my own idealistic notions are to fault there, I suppose — I’m amazed and grateful at what God has done through the movement,” said Robert Guffey, pastor of First Baptist Church of Conway, S.C.

“When you think about missions initiatives, the broad partnerships with institutions of theological education, and the growing involvement of younger adults, for a movement this young — and 25 years is young — it is truly, amazing.”

He expressed gratitude for “robust leaders with great faith” who have led the Fellowship to be “more Christian, more early Baptist, more respectful of differences, more inclusive (for Baptists), more willing to do what made for peace and wholeness rather than spend time creating conflict over doctrinal, socioeconomic and regional differences.”

Guffey appreciates the “sense of humor and willingness to try something new that is always in the air when CBF people gather,” and he hopes CBF will long be the “equipper and encourager par excellence of the churches, enabling each to do effective mission and ministry in its unique setting.”

Phill Martin of Dallas, who works with The Church Network, served as CBF moderator in 2002-03. He was attracted to CBF in its beginning by “those in the movement who were committed to the core Baptist values I had learned as a child and confirmed in seminary.”

“Although we had differences, there was a spirit of dialogue that truly demonstrated soul competency and autonomy of local congregations,” he added.

A quarter of a century later, Martin is hopeful that CBF will “remain true to its core values” and continue to affirm congregational autonomy — and “not allow individual congregations’ scriptural understanding and policies on diversity and ministry to be a divider.”

Martin sees the Fellowship as filling an important role in connecting congregations for mission and ministry and empowering individuals to do ministry. He hopes CBF will always be active in building partnerships with other faith groups beyond any Baptist enclave.

CHALLENGES

David Turner, pastor of Central Baptist Church in Richmond, Va., was drawn to CBF during his seminary days by “the passion of Cecil Sherman and later, by the spirituality of Daniel Vestal and the teaching of Bo Prosser,” he said of movement leaders.

“And I was drawn in by the focus on Baptist distinctives and support for women in ministry.”

Fears that CBF would become “a one- generation movement” have been allayed. Today, young leaders mingle with the gray-haired founders of the Fellowship at annual gatherings.

Turner is hopeful that new leaders will continue to be nurtured “to step into the shoes of those who have led so ably for so long.”

Related but autonomous seminaries and theology schools train ministers who engage in congregational life and other ministries often in partnership with the not-easily-defined network of churches that begins a yearlong celebration of its history in June.

Collaboration is the model by which CBF carries out many ministry functions rather than owning and operating numerous agencies and institutions. That intentional approach keeps control out of the hands of a few — a lesson learned well by those who founded this new Baptist venture.

Yet challenges remain as Fellowship Baptists seek to avoid duplication of services and scramble for limited funding. Being this kind of Baptist is often messy, leaders confess — messy, but free. NFJ

By John D. Pierce