The title of the post is actually a line from an old Dolly Parton song, Coat of Many Colors, that I believe she originally recorded back in the 70’s. To me, being “way down in the fall” means that we’re pretty well separated from both summer and winter, and in the middle of a very distinguishable season, complete with its own set of color, temperatures, smells, and everything else. Having lived most of my life in places where fall was just an interlude, with little change from either the previous season, or into the next one, I am definitely enjoying my second one in the Northeast.
Recently, the fall weather and the passing of my birthday a few weeks back (my 54th, but who’s counting?) reminded me that, for a number of years, late October, early November was, for many people who serve in Southern Baptist churches in different parts of the country, state convention time. Now if you are not completely familiar with Southern Baptists and the way the denomination is organized, there are a lot of levels at which the denomination’s ministries operate. The national body, the SBC, operates six seminaries, a publishing house, two mission boards, and a few “commissions.” The state conventions operate mission boards that take care of in-state projects, colleges and universities, and some have nursing homes, hospitals, children’s homes and other service ministries.
The national body gathers in June. The state conventions generally meet in October and November. And it is the state conventions where the proverbial “grass roots” of denominational life takes place. The “convention” forms when “messengers” (not delegates) elected by local churches who are affiliated with the state body gather at a pre-determined time and place. Depending on the number of Southern Baptist churches and members in a given state, and whatever hot button issues are occurring at the time, the number of messengers can range from as many as 12,000 to as few as 50.
Now, unless you are involved in denominational life at this level, it is hard to appreciate everything that happens, or the way that things happen. The first state convention I attended, as a college freshman in Arizona back in 1978, was its 50th anniversary. The long serving executive director/treasurer was retiring as well. There are some parts of a state convention meeting that are traditional, and carry with them a measure of prestige and influence, among them, the choice of the individual who gets to deliver the “annual sermon.” This is usually a reward for some kind of lengthy service, or, in some cases, a means of recognizing what some people think is “success” in ministry. There were several individuals still around in 1978 who had some kind of connection to those early Arizona Baptists who organized the convention in 1928, but the exec chose W. A. Criswell to deliver the annual sermon at what he seemed to consider to be his own personal retirement party. It took a lot of behind the scenes manipulations and influence to accomplish this, with a lot of the convention’s committed leaders left sitting on the sidelines, but that’s what they pulled off. I did not realize it at the time, but over the years would come to see just about every state convention meeting I’ve ever participated in bearing some kind of resemblance to that very first one.
In fact, the phrase “I could write a book…” would aptly describe what I have observed about Baptists in the conduct of their business over the years. I’ve attended state convention meetings in Arizona, Missouri, Kentucky, and Texas as a messenger. I’ve made motions from the floor, spoken up for or against particular actions being taken, submitted a motion to the committee on order of business, submitted a proposed resolution to the resolutions committee, and though I’ve generally maintained a low profile and blended into the crowd, I did allow my name to be entered in nomination for First VP of the Baptist General Convention of Texas in 2007. By then, I knew enough, and had observed enough about how Baptist conventions operated, to know that I didn’t have a chance to win, but I ran on the principle that I did not think someone should run without opposition, leaving those who were genuinely opposed without a choice. I picked up about 25% of the vote, which, with the denominational political climate in Texas being what it was at the time, was far more than I had expected.
“Provincial” and “backward” are the terms I would use to describe my observations of Baptist convention life. The idea that the offices and positions of a convention are built around Christian ministry, and are not some kind of separate personal kingdom or a pseudo-religious domain, is almost lost in the fanfare. The first Baptist General Convention of Texas that I attended, in the old Sam Houston Coliseum in Houston just a year and a half after the 1979 “conservative resurgence” in the same city, I observed several “prominent” Baptist leaders walking the hallways with their “entourage.” Yep, they sure were. Coming back into the hotel that evening, there was a crowd gathered in one of the lobbies. When I asked a messenger standing nearby what was going on, he said that a certain “prominent personage” had let it be known he would be hanging out there around 8:00 p.m. What for? Just to share his presence, of course.
Though I made a real effort not to allow these things to create disillusionment or disappointment in the way things were done, knowing that there are no perfect people involved and that even in a Christian denomination, rising to a position of power and influence can be quite intoxicating, I must admit to a certain amount of cynicism and to being perhaps just a bit jaded. Attending a Southern Baptist college for four years and a seminary for three put me in contact with many of the sons, and for that matter, daughters, of individuals who were considered “prominent” personages in Baptist life. For most, the temptation to use their influence and their name to get something for their kid was just too much to resist, whether it was a job somewhere on campus or a student pulpit at one of the better paying, larger churches.
It was not until stepping away from Baptist denominational life more than a year ago, and out of the deep South as well, that I observed not all Christian denominations experience this kind of backward provincialism as far as its leadership goes. Perhaps it is the size of the SBC that creates the vacuum, or perhaps it is the culture that has steeped itself into the life of those who are active at the denominational level. Perhaps getting caught up in the details of a busy job make it easy to think of things in terms of business, career and retirement. I don’t really know. But this fall is much different in more ways than one. Not having a state convention meeting to attend has turned out to be something I really don’t miss.