Stanly Baptist Association in Albemarle, N.C., has been living out what it means to “love your neighbor” over the past three years. When Montgomery Baptist Association, 22.5 miles away in Troy, N.C., found themselves examining two different options for their future, Stanly helped them realize a third.
Low funds led Montgomery leaders to examine the feasibility of continuing as an association. They wondered if it was better to break apart and have churches join other associations. Hal Bilbo, associational missionary of Stanly, described Montgomery as being trapped in a cycle of having only enough funds to maintain a missionary for short amounts of time. Montgomery was not in financial shape to hire a new full-time missionary.
“It was clear for them the last couple [missionaries] could only stay as long as the funding was there,” Bilbo said. “When the bank balance got low, it was time to retire, or it was time to move on. They needed a model that was sustainable.”
In July 2013, Montgomery called Bilbo as interim missionary. With guidance from Lester Evans, Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSC) team leader for associational partnerships, he and the search committee recognized the most value in exploring an alternative: partnering with Stanly by hiring the same missionary. One day per week, Bilbo worked in the Montgomery office, helping the association reorganize and focus on assisting churches with prayer, outreach and discipleship. While that was his set weekly schedule, he had the flexibility to work for either association from any place at any time.
Bilbo said technology has allowed for greater networking. “You don’t have to be physically present somewhere to assist folks. Back in the day, county-by-county, that was as much territory as most folks could network. Today, not so.”
Personnel and property consume most of a small association’s budget, leaving little for ministry and missions. When associations are able to collaborate on some of these responsibilities, they can devote more time to reshaping their purpose and refocusing their resources toward supporting churches.
Stanly and Montgomery operate as separate associations within a multi-staff organization, with joint leadership regularly meeting to coordinate strategies and plan for events.
Stanly’s ability to share the task of promoting events makes it possible for the smaller association, Montgomery, to host gatherings – a resource they were not able to offer in previous years. Both locations offer events like deacon training and prayer conferences. For example, a two-day event featuring the same guest speakers may take place at Stanly on Monday night and Montgomery on Tuesday. While they remain financially autonomous and receive monthly contributions from their respective churches, the two also share the cost of quarterly meetings when appropriate.
“That allows us to really do more and to have high quality conference leaders. The relationships that are built through these things, we’ve found, are very helpful for both associations,” Bilbo said.
Thanks to their partnership, Stanly and Montgomery have been able to expand their staff. Each association now has an administrative assistant, and earlier this year, Montgomery called Rick Miller as a second missionary.
Miller, who previously served in Japan for 18 years, began his ministry with Montgomery on April 1. Although he focuses on and devotes more time to Montgomery and Bilbo concentrates primarily on Stanly, they assist each other with ministry development and implementation for both associations. They meet once a week to plan, strategize and pray together.
“I have the freedom to provide pastoral care to the 23 MBA [Montgomery] churches and their pastors and richly benefit from the experience and wisdom of a seasoned associational missionary who is willing to mentor and provide direction, strategic insight and encouragement,” said Miller.
“We’re wired differently, have different gifts, we can provide different support for churches and pastors. … We can provide a whole lot more to both associations,” Bilbo said. “[Stanly] sees this as being a good neighbor. When you’re good to your neighbors, the whole neighborhood benefits. Stanly benefited as well.”
The future of associational networking
Through his work with Stanly and Montgomery, Bilbo has seen the fruit of partnering together. Since 2013, he has started the Network of Collaborating Associations to help other associations navigate the process of cooperating with each other while maintaining their unique identities.
“What I’m seeing is that weaker associations were just closing out,” he said. “They would merge, and in losing identity and historic standing, with some existing from the 1880s, we lose a lot of autonomy because strategies in each county might need to be a little different.”
The Network takes advantage of missionaries’ unique areas of passion, experience and expertise, which they may not be utilizing to their full potential in their respective associations. Individuals’ specialized skills can more effectively address the various challenges churches face.
Bilbo works with former associational missionaries Keith Dixon and Rick Astle on helping associations recognize the value of the Network. Astle said he is confident that if missionaries take intentional steps toward partnering with other associations, “we will move closer toward unity, be more effective in His glorious work and demonstrate to the world that God sent His son.”
Astle, Bilbo and Dixon see the alliance as much more than a survival plan but a tool that is shaping the new face of associations.