Richmond association seeks to clarify values, member criteria to bridge divide over homosexuality

The Richmond Baptist Association has authorized a study committee to clarify the association’s values and restructure its membership model in an attempt to resolve deep division among its churches over a decision last spring not to dismiss an affiliated congregation which ordained an openly gay man.

RICHMOND —

An overhaul of RBA structures is necessary because the “principles and values that speak of who we are remain uncertain,” the association’s chief administrative officer said in a written report at the RBA’s regular fall meeting Oct. 20.

“Our distress is found in an associational structure that requires little or no accountability from members and in an identity that is so unclear that an outsider might be totally mystified regarding the values and guiding principles that govern our work together,” wrote director of missions Michael Robinson.

The association must “address the underlying systems and structure that have made us vulnerable to the kinds of crises which come to all organizations,” Robinson wrote.

A majority of RBA voting representatives at the fall meeting approved the study committee, which will be named by moderator Pat Hallinan and must present a recommendation no later than the RBA’s spring meeting in April 2014.

At a called meeting last March, the association voted by a razor-thin margin to retain the affiliation of Ginter Park Baptist Church in Richmond, which the year before had ordained a member of the church who is gay. The Baptist General Association of Virginia had ended its affiliation with Ginter Park the previous November.

Since then at least 10 of the RBA’s 70 congregations, representing about $100,000 in annual contributions, have left the association, said Bob Bass, who chairs the budget committee. Another eight or nine churches, which annually contribute about $150,000, are considering leaving, Bass said. The RBA’s 2013 budget is about $626,000.

In May, the association retained the Center for Congregational Health to serve as a “third-party, impartial mediator.” The Winston-Salem-based Center provides training and consultation to faith communities, including mediation in church conflict.

Beginning in August, the Center facilitated a series of meetings with congregational leaders which resulted in the recommendation to study the association’s structure and identity.

During discussion at the Oct. 20 meeting, a motion to “expel” Ginter Park was ruled out of order as “improperly phrased.”

Another motion to rescind the action taken last March failed on a vote of 74-104. Hallinan, the moderator, said rescinsion would not in itself end Ginter Park’s relationship with the RBA, since the prior action only called on the association to “continue to embrace Ginter Park Baptist Church as a sister church.” The earlier action also affirmed the RBA’s mission and Baptist principles of soul competency, congregational autonomy and voluntary cooperation, and acknowledged that “many RBA congregations would not choose to ordain a person who is homosexual.”

Robinson told representatives dismissal would deal only with the “symptomatic problem” which might appear again in the near future, and not underlying structural deficiencies which he expected the study committee to address.

Bass said a 2014 budget proposal which his committee presented, and was later adopted, reflected the association’s financial uncertainties. The $594,121 total for next year is about $32,000 less than this year’s and eliminates funding for most church resourcing and the RBA’s portion of shared funding for collegiate ministries at the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University.

The budget anticipates about $170,000 less in general program receipts from churches. The shortfall will be made up with about $157,000 from two reserve funds, leaving about $62,000 in reserves, and from an insurance dividend of $45,000. That will allow funding next year for the RBA’s three inner-city centers and summer camp for impoverished children — the heart of the association’s ministries — to remain largely unchanged.

A total of 219 voting representatives from 33 churches attended the Oct. 20 meeting, reported registrar Ann Kitchens.

Robert Dilday (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ) is managing editor of the Religious Herald.