Over 130 CBFGA folks gathered at First Baptist Church, Augusta, November 6-7 to fellowship, worship, and seek a way forward as we considered the theme “God’s Story, Your Story, My Story.” Through compelling sermons by Dr. Chuck Poole, and in engaging conversations facilitated by Dr. Dave Odom, we looked hard at some of the difficulties our churches and ministers have faced through the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing on what it means to be a neighbor in these times.

Dr. Poole led in two worship experiences, first on Sunday evening with a message entitled, “God’s Story and Ours,” in which he challenged us to start with the big story —God’s story — and then figure out where we fit into that story, so that God’s story becomes our story. Our job, he said, is to “get in on what God is doing, by drawing our circle wider and wider and wider, as wide as the circle of welcome around God.” On Monday, in “Your Story and Mine,” Dr. Poole reflected on his own story, of his painful process of learning to draw that circle of welcome wider and wider, especially as it relates to encouraging and supporting women in ministry. Challenging us to claim our stories, Dr. Poole urged listeners to let the Holy Spirit help us to reach back and bless the best from our past, while reaching forward to “draw our circle of love wide, as wide as God’s circle of love, in every direction.”

That theme, of drawing the circle wide, segued nicely into enthusiastic table discussions with Dave Odom leading, as participants explored a series of questions prompted by the pandemic. A three-person panel representing different-sized churches in varied contexts helped facilitate the conversation in the first two sessions. The panelists were Suzanne Hooie, Minister of Missions and Spiritual Formation at First Baptist Church, Dalton; Dock Hollingsworth, Senior Pastor of Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta; and Christian Burton, Pastor of The Oaks Baptist Church in Lyons.

Questions considered during the three discussion sessions included:

SESSION ONE: Please describe your congregation’s neighborhood. What age, living conditions, work, and families? How does your congregation learn from and about your neighbors? How does your congregation stay in touch with the neighbors? What is staying the same and what is changing for your neighbors?

SESSION TWO: What ministries with neighbors has the church expanded or started during and beyond the lockdown period of COVID? How does your church determine success or know that you need to adjust? What have you learned about your leadership and the leadership of others during the last few years?

SESSION THREE: What are the questions frequently on the minds of your members?…your neighbors? Where do you start? What is a next most faithful step?

After hearing from the panel, each table continued the conversation, and conversation was lively! Particularly helpful was the discussion of how a church’s definition of “neighbor” may have changed in the past couple of years, and what reaching out to our neighbors means now. The ideas were as varied as the contexts of the churches represented. Suzanne told how her church has become involved more deeply and differently with its neighbors in Dalton by focusing on food insecurity in nearby areas, by taking Vacation Bible School to children in one area, and by moving from “check-writing” to deeply involved hands-on ministry. Christian spoke of his church renewing its 9/11 Mission Day, of doing simple acts as a church, meeting as best they can what people need. Sometimes figuring out what people need is the challenge, he admits. Dock discussed the challenge of “redeeming the space we have,” of finding new and innovative uses for his church’s expansive space. When asked how their churches determine success or know that they need to adjust, all three panelists said they are still trying to figure that out! All agreed that we as churches often are still caught in “the counting world,” but Suzanne said that “COVID gave us permission to break the measuring stick” and to try new ideas and even to fail. That session concluded with helpful discussion of what we have learned about our leadership and the leadership of others during these years.

Other highlights of the gathering included a question-and-answer dialogue with Paul Baxley, Executive Coordinator of CBF Global. He gave positive reports on an increase in this year’s Global Missions Offering and the possibility of naming new field personnel fairly soon, after several years’ pause. He also addressed the recent State of Women in Baptist Life report, noting that while we do well encouraging women to respond to God’s call, we are not calling them often enough to be pastors; he describes this as an integrity problem and called for churches and search committees to rise to the challenge to change the situation. We are living through a time, Baxley says, when all the foundations are shifting, but we have the assurance that God is at work giving boldness, courage, and agility.

The CBFGA Lancaster Scholars were recognized during dinner on Sunday evening, as was BWIM of Georgia’s Sarah Owen Ethridge scholarship recipient, Maggie Parker Andrews.

First Baptist Church, Augusta, provided excellent space and warm hospitality and worship leadership for the meeting, and we thank them for their support and careful planning.

Next year’s State Gathering will happen November 12-13,2023, at Central Baptist Church in Newnan.

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