NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) -- When a Vermont pastor's father became deathly ill, the pastor called the Green Mountain Baptist Association. Like many pastors in the state, he works another job to make ends meet. Unable to pay for the long trip home to be near his father, he needed compassionate counsel from a trusted colleague in ministry.
"Within minutes of his phone call, I was able to send out a plea to all our pastors," Terry Dorsett, director of missions and church planting catalyst with the association, recounted in an email.
"In less than two hours I was able to call him back and tell him that we had collected all that he needed to make the trip home."
For many pastors, Baptist associations serve as the primary support system for their work and ministry. But that's just one facet of the groups of churches that join together for fellowship, for ministry and service and for cooperative evangelism and missions.
The Baptist association is the oldest cooperative unit in Baptist life, tracing its existence back more than 300 years.
Each year, the Southern Baptist Conference of Associational Directors of Missions (SBCADOM) promotes a week of Associational Missions Emphasis. This year's emphasis, slated for May 20-26, is themed "Igniting Passion." A small-group study resource developed in cooperation with the North American Mission Board is available as a free download at http://bit.ly/L7HWOA
Johnny Rumbough, SBCADOM president and director of missions for the Lexington Baptist Association in South Carolina, noted, "I think that historically it's just sort of been proven that our Southern Baptist Convention needs associations, because there's a role that associations have that is very unique."
Associations represent the most local level of Southern Baptist cooperation, serving churches through resources, consultations and ministry/missions coordination. Dorsett, for example, leads the Green Mountain Baptist Association to assist in fundraising for churches, while Rumbough meets frequently with church staff and has trained 100-plus pastor search committees.
Rumbough also serves churches in a more personal way, writing letters to thank church leaders for the support they give to their pastors and church staff.
"There's not enough denominational staff to be able to do that, but the associational leadership can do that because we're small enough to be able to know 100 percent of our churches but large enough to be able to have a significant impact," Rumbough said.
As associations connect churches with opportunities to help other churches and engage in cooperative local ministry, a large church sometimes may be paired with a smaller, struggling church.
Jeff Crabtree, director of missions for Warren Association of Baptists in south-central Kentucky, for example, paired 10 of the more evangelistic churches in the association with 10 churches that had not baptized anyone the previous year. He asked the stronger churches to pray specifically that the other churches would experience evangelistic effectiveness in the coming year. At its 2009 annual meeting, the association reported that eight churches with no baptisms in 2008 had baptized 29 new believers in 2009, tapping video footage of actual baptisms in those churches in its report.
The evangelistic impact begun that year has continued. "Our pastors celebrate one another's baptisms at every associational meeting," Crabtree said. In 2010, a total of 23 churches in the association reported an increase in baptisms and the association began to pray for 1,000 souls to be baptized in the 2010-11 associational year.
"Our associational churches baptized 1,068 in 2011 and we are now praying for 1,150 baptisms in 2012," Crabtree said. "One of our churches that baptized none in 2010, White Stone Quarry Baptist Church, recently reported it has baptized four people so far this year, the most recent on Easter Sunday morning."
Reflecting how associations often help church members find avenues of service in their communities, Rumbough said one small-group leader's inquiry from a church led to the association showing them ways to assist local police officers and their families.
"When a church surfaces and says, 'Hey, we'd like to do something,' we not only know but we already have a relationship with those community entities," Rumbough said.
Beyond helping churches, Baptist associations are heavily involved in evangelism and ministry. That can include financial support of church plants and training for church planters; evangelism at a county fair; prison ministries; or training churches how to host block parties. Lexington Baptist Association has partnerships for church planting in Atlanta and Canada, and it has adopted an area of London for evangelistic outreach.
The missions involvement of local associations is reaching new heights through their partnership with NAMB's Send North America church planting initiative. Send North America relies heavily on associations to serve as catalysts for new church plants. As part of the initiative, directors of missions who receive funding from NAMB take on the title of church planting catalyst (CPC) and are expected to set church planting as a major priority. NAMB has set a goal for each CPC to help start four new church plants in his area every year.
NAMB has long provided a variety of services to help associations, including training and consultations. Stan Albright, NAMB's national director for associations, said directors of missions have relationships at the local level that NAMB does not, relationships that can aid evangelistic efforts.
"In other words, if you want to talk to someone [who knows] something about a particular city or town or rural setting, the first person you probably want to talk to is the DOM," Albright said, "because ... he has worked among those people."
SBCADOM will hold its annual meeting June 17-18 in New Orleans in conjunction with the SBC annual meeting. Among the featured speakers are SBC First Vice President Fred Luter, International Mission Board President Tom Elliff and NAMB President Kevin Ezell. (To read the Baptist Press story about the meeting, go to http://bit.ly/J8etCy
Rumbough hopes pastors who are unsure about joining their local Baptist associations will consider the ways their churches can join together to reach the world for Christ.
"This is about being able to reach people that are beyond their one church's ability to be able to reach," he said, "because no one church can do what multiple churches can do together."
John Evans is a freelance journalist in Houston. This article first appeared in SBC LIFE (www.sbclife.org), journal of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee.