American Baptists: Bureaucratic and Democratic

by Paul M. Harrison

Dr. Harrison is professor of religion and society at Pennsylvania State University.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 5, 1978, pp. 354-360. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The carefully nurtured fiction that the locus of authority in the ABC resides in 6,300 autonomous’ congregations has become increasingly difficult to maintain. The author gives some “bare bones” suggestions concerning what the local associations of churches should do.

In October 1976, I received a call from a regional executive of the American Baptists. If he were in a church, he would be a bishop’s coadjutor, but the Baptists have never determined whether they are a church, sect, denomination, association or convention. My friend was profoundly choked up over a proposal for the reorganization of the national and regional structures of the denomination.

Now every informant, even one in a friendly religious bureaucracy, must maintain anonymity, so he shall simply be identified as "Deep Choke." After the preliminaries, our conversation ran roughly as follows:

Paul Harrison: I’m not equipped to study the convention now. I dropped analysis of religious organizations years ago for moral reasons. I’m studying theological ethics.

Deep Choke: All the more reason. The ABC is centralizing without a center and rationalizing with insufficient rationale.

P.H.: You might need Woodward and Bernstein.

D.C.: The Washington Post isn’t interested in the northern Baptists.

P.H.: They should be. If they could learn about Baptists, they could reveal the true secrets of Jimmy Carter.

D.C.: Let’s be serious. Listen, I think the situation may be worse in the convention than 20 years ago when your book was published. At least we had some of the liberals and fundamentalists around. Today the people on the reorganization committees wouldn’t acknowledge a theological idea if it were formally introduced to them.

P.H.: That sounds familiar, but I can give you the names of a couple of people who are working on this stuff all the time. They’d do a better job for you.

D.C.: Do they know the Baptists?

P.H.: No, but I think -- .

D.C.: Look, you’re the one who helped us examine ourselves more critically. Now there are several of us who are deeply concerned. Why don’t you check out the situation and tell us what you think? It wouldn’t be a whole lot of work. All you have to do is look at the documents and write a paper or something before the biennial meeting in San Diego in June.

P.H.: That’s all you want!

D.C.: Oh, come off it, Paul, I happen to know you analyzed SCODS in 1972 and gave an underground report at the Pennsylvania Association meeting.

P.H .: SCODS? I don’t even recall your jargon. Anyway, it wasn’t underground. The program committee said they couldn’t find a time for it, so we held a seven o’clock breakfast meeting in an empty church.

D.C.: Sounds underground to me -- SCODS was the "Study Commission on Denominational Structure."

P.H. Oh yes. I recall the title. It was about 200 pages of infinite trivia. That’s another reason I don’t study religious bureaucracy. I can’t unravel infinity. . . . But suppose I did agree to do it, could you provide the material, find others for me to talk to?

D.C.: Definitely. Come to see us. Talk to others. Write what you want. No strings. Who knows? Maybe the Post will publish it.

P.H. OK. I’ll do it, but only if you get me the Rockefeller tapes. What that renegade Baptist had to say about Jimmy Carter could be helpful.

D.C.: I’ll try.

The Bureaucratese of Reorganization

A few days after Deep Choke called, I received some material from him. As I glanced through the newest 265-page reorganizational report (called "SCOW’ for "Study Commission on Relationships"), my eyes lit up at its gripping style. The following example may give the careful reader some useful information:

The National Staff Council upon recommendation of the Executive Ministers Council (a professional organization of the Executive Ministers of the thirty-seven Region/State/City organizations) believed 1974 was the time for addressing a growing number of relational issues among the Affiliated Organizations and the ABC. The National Staff Council in November 1974 recommended this action to the General Board and the Board created the Commission.

The purpose of SCOR is to integrate the 37 Region, State, and City offices and chief administration officers into the new structure which was imaginatively created by the Study Commission on Denominational Structure [SCODS].

The fundamental purposes of the convention have not altered in 70 years. Its chartered intention is "to bear witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. . . .To seek the mind of Christ on moral, spiritual, political, economic, social, denominational and ecumenical matters. . . . To guide, unify, and assist American Baptist churches and. groups within the whole Body of Christ." The autonomy of the local church and the separation of church and state are still vaunted and familiar hallmarks of Baptist identity. But it has not always been that way.

Authority of Local Associations

Spiritual heirs of the Anabaptists -- the religious revolutionaries of 16th century Europe -- the Baptists we know today emerged from the Congregational and Presbyterian churches in the first decade of the 17th century. Baptist congregations in America were initially established in 1638-39 by Roger Williams in Providence and John Clarke in Newport. In 1707 the first (American) Baptist Association of Churches was organized in Philadelphia; by 1776 that association was composed of 42 churches in six colonies: Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey. New York and Connecticut. Other associations were formed throughout the new nation: at an association meeting in Kentucky in 1796, it was decided that the authority of an association derived from the command of God’s word to assemble in his name for worship, counsel and union for mutual edification and assistance, and to cultivate uniformity of sentiment in principles and practice; most important, the association had power to regulate and govern itself as a body and to give advice to its several churches. Any church that agreed with the enunciated principles should be admitted, and those that opposed them should be rejected. Those principles were typical of the associations formed in America. They all possessed advisory and disciplinary authority in relation to the congregations. The idea of congregational autonomy was to appear much later.

The Massachusetts Mission Society, formed in 1802, was the first state convention. A foreign mission agency was organized in Philadelphia in 1813. The Home Mission Society was founded in New York city in 1832. The momentous schism between the "Southern" and "Northern" Baptists occurred in 1845 amid the growing debate over slavery and related issues. Missionary evangelism, educational work and publications continued in both denominations. In the north the various denominational boards and agencies increasingly found themselves in intensive competition for financial support from the churches. The Northern Baptist Convention (NBC) was formed in 1907, in great part to alleviate the fratricidal warfare for funds between the national mission agencies.

The Foreign and Home Mission Societies, the Boards of Education and Publication, the Women’s Home and Foreign Mission agencies, and the Baptist Historical Society were the primary national institutions. Each maintained and jealously guarded its own autonomy; that is, each possessed freedom to govern its own affairs with separate officers, boards and executive secretaries who administered agency affairs in the interim between board meetings and annual conventions.

When the Northern Baptist Convention was formed in 1907, the mission agencies relinquished their fund-raising activities to the officers and executives of the convention. This style of operation survived for about 60 years. During this period, functional cooperation between the agencies was not emphasized, either horizontally (between agencies at the same level) or vertically (between churches, associations and agencies at various levels). The principal force that held the American Baptists together was a commonly declared but variously defined evangelical view of world missions and a pragmatically organized convention designed to further the mission enterprise more efficiently.

Today Baptists consider themselves to be the most radical proponents of congregational polity. The clarion call for "the autonomy of the local church" became a byword in the 19th century. Then it was affirmed that no ecclesiastical officers or agencies would ever govern the affairs of the autonomous congregations. The ironic result is that when such governance and control do occur, Baptists seldom recognize it since, on traditional and ideological grounds, they believe it cannot happen. Another irony is that local associations have sacrificed their own powers to state and national agencies. The local associations appeared to exert the greatest power and threat to congregational autonomy, so the Baptists gradually nullified the power of these groups, and thereby eliminated the most effective instrument for balancing the powers of the state and national conventions in their relations with the congregations.

Among both American and Southern Baptists, congregational independence remains a revered aspect of the inheritance. The emphasis is somewhat muted outside the Sunbelt because today few people in the north believe that the switch to God’s light is found only in the local pew.

American Baptists believe that God’s intention can be sought and followed in local congregations and other gatherings of Christians in associational, regional, national and world bodies as they receive from one another mutual counsel and correction [SCODS].

American Baptist Intentions and Realities

The broader mission of the Baptists, whether evangelizing the world for Christ or reaffirming the basic principles of human rights in every nation, remains firm and openly declared. Inside the conventions it is a different matter. The infighting is dose. The unspoken purpose is to gather together as many uninformed delegates as possible and persuade them with evangelical fervor that one’s causes are just, one’s explicit intentions are righteous and the strategy should be to create a unity of purpose out of a babel of competing interests. If they know anything about the proceedings, the people from local congregations are bewildered by this welter of forces; if they know nothing, they are impressed or overjoyed by the "spirit of the meetings."

At present the American Baptists are the victims of the invisible gulf that exists between their own national and state bureaucracies and the individual congregations. For example, in the Pennsylvania-Delaware Association the executive minister is responsible for 475 churches (rural-metropolitan-suburban). True, within Pennsylvania-Delaware there are "area representatives" in the regional associations. Roughly analogous to district managers in a corporate enterprise, they possess no policymaking powers and have no independent budget. They are troubleshooters, paid to assist churches that have lost a minister, or are experiencing financial difficulty, or are not contributing to the mission programs of the state and national conventions.

If significant crises occur, the executive minister may call for assistance from the Ministers Benefit or the National Missions Boards, the Baptist counterparts of HEW; but when this happens, Baptists have made the inevitable move from local problems to nationalized solutions, and the churches once again taste the bitter medicine of dependency. In certain critical matters, the small and average-size congregations, acting in sincere covenant with the ABC, are hardly more independent of the actions of the ABC "headquarters" at Valley Forge than the communities of our nation are free of the actions of the bureaus of the federal government. The local churches and denominations in this land are clearly analogous to their secular counterparts. They offer, therefore, modest and perhaps unique social laboratories for the testing of programs and solutions that might later be applied to broader social spheres. It is a wonder that some expert in Washington has not called attention to these possibilities. For relatively modest sums the federal government could pretest hundreds of programs.

Pressures for Reorganization

The carefully nurtured fiction that the locus of authority in the ABC resides in 6,300 "autonomous" congregations has become increasingly difficult to maintain. In 1959 it was suggested that "there remain three principles of democratic procedure to which free church polity must give serious thought" -- that is, free discussion, no exclusion from national office except on the basis of creed or ability, and legislation and policy-making executed in accord with methods of representative government (Authority and Power in the Free Church Tradition, by P. M. Harrison [Southern Illinois University Press, 1971], p. 162). These recommendations were acted upon with varying degrees of seriousness by the SCODS committee; but the primary pressure that triggered reorganization of the convention was the ferment of the 960s. Various caucuses, notably the "Black American Baptist Churchmen," were organized, and the grosser forms of discrimination were duly remedied. It was also admitted in the SCODS report that the annual meetings were not representative with respect to the whole body of delegates. The report said that the annual convention could not operate as a legislative body since the delegates "represent everyone and no one at the same time."

The convention has never been a legislative body with delegated lawmakers from the churches. There is a difference between delegates and legislators, but that fact did not become evident to Baptists for some decades. To this day, policy provides for 21,000 delegates from the 6,300 churches. But an average of only 3,249 delegates has attended recent conventions. In 1971 68 per cent of the congregations were not directly represented at all. It is not admitted that the constituency is uninformed concerning convention operations or that the subsidized Baptist publications offer only skimpy reports of denominational actions, well tempered by kudos concerning the beneficence of our leaders. That the bureaucratic leaders are benefic has never been questioned and is not the real issue; good and talented people can make disastrous errors, and the market on self-deception has not been cornered by intentional deceivers.

To remedy the situation at the annual conventions, the delegates in 1974 ruled that the annual American Baptist Convention would be called a "meeting" of "the American Baptist Churches" and the meetings would henceforth be biennial. The annual spring ceremony went the way of other religious rites in our time. The leaders could conduct the business of the churches through the improved instruments of the "General Board" and other agencies at the national level.

That was a good move but possibly in the wrong direction. The annual conventions were crudely conceived and dominated for the most part by a small parade of quasi-charismatic leaders. As a sideshow, each board, agency, commission and committee hawked its wares, like Tetzel selling indulgences at Wittenberg. Dominated by the politics of personality, the conventions had been a recipe for the impotency of the people. Finally, in the era of Watergate the Baptists recognized their condition, but in an era of untenable paradoxes they sought to remedy the past by building new structures of power on the shifting sands of independent churches.

The Mission of the Gathered Congregations

In-depth interviews at the San Diego meetings of the American Baptists in June 1977, conferences with executive ministers, discussions with a score of leading clergy and a few leading laypeople, and the study of a considerable body of official and unofficial materials uncovered an increasing discontent at the grass-roots level that most national leaders appear to ignore. Local clergy were disenfranchised by the reorganization of the American Baptist Convention into a biennial nonorganization called the "American Baptist Churches, USA."

The growing discontent is gradually giving rise to a variety of calls for reorganization at the local level, partially to offset the state and national powers, in part as a means to achieve more effective missions at every level. What follows is a compendium of tentative and prescriptive ideas expressed by several persons.

It is of critical importance to recognize that it is a perverse waste of time to blame the "bureaucrats" for this state of affairs. "We the people" have wittingly or unwittingly handed over the reins of authority, power and responsibility to others. We have done this for a variety of reasons, including ignorance, indifference, hypercompetitiveness at the local level, and a persistent romanticizing of the American version of the laissez-faire dream applied to religious organizations. It is clear that the secular and religious bureaucrats have often achieved their purposes as well as conditions have permitted. That executives and bureaucrats often act in a self-serving manner and with mixed motives needs no further empirical proof, but we in the grass-roots communities and churches do not have to continue to give our national officers the responsibility for solving everything and then condemn them for solving so little.

The prescriptions that follow are based on the assumption that missions, like everything else in the Baptist denominations, should be initiated and organized at the local level. In no other way are the congregations going to relearn what is involved in this aspect of the Christian endeavor. In no other way can the people in the local churches become actively reintegrated into the polity of the denomination. In a word, national and world missions should grow out of and extend the local mission efforts.

The local congregations should be engaged in cooperative missions which involve united efforts to learn about the "secular" and "religious" needs in their own areas. Second, the churches could pool their resources for evangelistic and social action. The principle of missions should never be conceived as "foreign," as it has been for generations in the American churches. "Foreign" connotes "alien" or "different from" and inevitably results in all the misconceptions of paternalism and philanthropy; i.e., aiding those who don’t have what we have and who need it. Missions should be conceived as Christian persons helping their neighbors and, in turn, learning from them and receiving aid from them. Mission work is then cooperative and indigenous and "missionaries" become "ministers," not Christian strangers from a superior culture bringing a message of "truth" to a people steeped in religious, social and moral ignorance. The concept of missions as serving one’s neighbor is particularly significant for the grounding of mission in the local churches and local associations.

So, etiologically perceived, the local churches may not exempt themselves from missions by engaging in them indirectly. When the denominational leaders fail to encourage local missions, they are leaving out the basic component and initiatory stimulus for all mission programs. When the local churches remain predominantly focused on missions as something that specialists do "out there," they are reneging on their basic responsibility to their immediate neighbors. The romanticism and moral irresponsibility of defining missions as service to people in far-away places needs to be critically re-examined by the American Baptists.

This romanticism is dramatically symbolized at the biennial meetings when gold emblems are pinned on the newly appointed foreign missionaries. These are the people perceived as truly going forth into the golden rays of the sun’s light. This is a particularly significant theological distortion in a denomination that emphasizes the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, wherein mediating priests are an anathema, except in mission activities.

Reorganizing the Local Associations

Assuming that reorganization at the national and regional levels through SCODS and SCOR is on the right track, it appears essential to look further -- that is, toward revitalizing and restructuring the local churches and associations. Assuming further that a vital mission program involves the same complex of activities and structures that are now present at the national level, what should the local associations of churches do? What follows are merely "bare bones" suggestions.

First, the local associations should develop liturgical and celebrative activities. These associations should meet at regular intervals as a "council of churches," break bread and drink the cup together as neighbors one to another.

Second, they should elect officers and special boards and appoint a part-time "executive minister" from among the local clergy. There is no reason in principle why local associations should be bereft of staff executives, but such persons should not be appointed by higher judicatories at the state or national level. The first task of the local executive minister should be to serve his or her association.

Third, to enable this to happen, the local churches should be free to allocate their money in its entirety to the local association, if they so desire. Money could then be allocated by the association to the national and for state conventions. Obviously, this would he local control "with a vengeance" and would involve risks of parochialism and the like. But many persons firmly believe that the majority of local congregations, though moribund, are constituted by mission-oriented Baptists; probably the only way to awaken them is to offer them new responsibilities, authorities and powers at the most immediate locus of need.

Fourth, delegates should be sent from each local church to the local association, following formulas that are now operative at the national level. It would be these people, numbering from 50 to 200, meeting quarterly or semiannually, who would determine the general policies and programs for the association. Their elected boards and appointed executives would refine and administer the policies and programs, as is now done at the state and national levels.

Fifth, the existing local associations should be geographically reorganized. In urban areas, the large associations of 100 or more churches should be divided into more manageable groups of about 25 churches. In sparsely settled regions where only a handful of Baptist churches are present, the mission should be ecumenically extended to include other denominations that share congregational practice and polity; e.g., the United Church of Christ, the Brethren, the Disciples, the Quakers. Ideally, these efforts would be applauded by the various denominational headquarters, even though no such programs are now on the drawing boards at Valley Forge.

Sixth, delegates from local associations would be elected to attend the state and national conventions. Thus a delegational process would be established which would enable persons to become familiar with every level of denominational organization and polity. Presumably, most of the state and national delegates, board members, and the higher-level executive officers as well, would be recruited from the ranks of those persons who had demonstrated most interest and competence at the local associational level. Since activity at that level is now insignificant throughout the denomination, recruitment for state and national office necessarily focuses on "successful" local pastors and active laypersons from the larger and more affluent churches.

Seventh, it has been suggested that no more than 400 delegates are necessary at the state and national conventions. With that number of persons, far greater participatory sophistication could be anticipated. The local congregations would no longer send delegates directly to the state and national meetings. The churches would be more effectively, although indirectly, represented by the delegates from their local associations. The 68 per cent of the churches presently represented only by their regional executive minister would gain more immediate representation by local delegates and executives.

Revitalizing the Middle

The 20,000 legally entitled delegates who can now, theoretically, be sent from local churches would then be eliminated. At present only about 3,000 uninformed delegates attend the biennial, ostensibly to represent 6,000 churches. The regional and national conventions would then be delegate-centered and business-focused. Visitors from the churches would be encouraged, but they would sit and participate from "the wings," as is true in every serious deliberative and legislative session in the world, except for meetings of the ABC. At the ABC meetings delegates and visitors may sit anywhere and everywhere, almost as though it were an intentional act of the executive leadership to render the policy-making and voting process as difficult as possible for the delegates, scattered as they are and mingled with the "visitors." who often outnumber them 5 to 1 in a business session.

Meanwhile, back at the local association of churches, the executive minister could cooperate fully with the local churches and their ministers to launch integrated mission programs for the area. There would be less need for regional or national administrators to decide on local budgets and to offer their guidance and program directives to areas they know almost nothing about. The national headquarters, however, could deploy functional specialists for various mission projects, such as building new churches, or organizing a local "war of the churches against poverty."

National and foreign mission programs would most likely be enhanced and strengthened by the new local activities. The local people would be more knowledgeable and perhaps more sympathetic to the problems and opportunities for the more extended missions; that is. to their neighbors in more distant areas of need.

Western technology and industry have had the effect of destroying or seriously wounding all of our primary and secondary institutions. This includes the family, the school, the neighborhood, the city, the local region and even the states and commonwealths. Few effective entities seem to exist between the individual person (who is often frantically reading books on self-help and personal integration) and the national or multinational forces. We need to revitalize the middle, the mediating institutions. The churches are no exception: They could become once again a beacon on the hill, a light to the nation and the world.

An Afterword

Upon reading the foregoing proposals, a person high in the councils of the ABC wrote to me as follows:

Your suggestion that the associations take on new life is a good one, if they were also identical with election districts; and if election districts and associations could be constituted as functionally as well as geographically similar, this might help. The election districts in some areas are not well put together, but this problem can be changed with time and experience. The election district from the point of view of ABC nationally is the first building block beyond the local church.

This topic opens a new can of worms. The election districts are a creation of SCODS, the intention being to create an instrument which would enable every area in the denomination to elect members to the General Board, 150 in all. Delegates to the biennial elect the remaining 50 members of the board.

People at the national level look to the election districts with fervent hopes, but there are problems. One issue is that in many states election-district members hold no office in local or state associations, so the associational workers are disenfranchised. The problem is that the election districts have gained authority before they have any power, and the associations have lost their power before they have lost their authority. The clear purpose seems to be to establish two centers of authority, the local churches and the national boards, with nothing in between.

As my friendly critic put it:

In many ways the problem was and still is how to provide close representative connections between local churches and national policies: education curriculum, youth work, national ministries, and international ministries, etc, without the insights of the local churches being filtered through states and regions in a typical connectional system.

It is doubtful that the crux of the issue today is how to connect the local congregations directly to national sources of skill and power. The problem is to develop local or regional associations of churches with their own resources for policy and program. With the exception of a tiny minority of vital and mature congregations, the local church standing alone in relation only to national headquarters is a dependent rather than a viable and interdependent entity.

Let my correspondent have the last word, for I could not agree more: "The real issues facing us, as I tried to indicate, are how to keep necessary order from becoming tyranny, how to achieve a sense of unity without the stultifying overtones of sameness so that people are free to be and do what they really believe is important."