FBCX and CBF, Part II: The Illumination Project Report
Last week I began a series of posts on our congregation’s relationship with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. CBF has been our primary partner for missions and identity for close to 20 years.
I also noted that CBF is at a crossroads. This past Friday, the Illumination Project Committee, an initiative commissioned 18 months ago to “explore how Cooperative Baptists can strengthen their unity in the face of different beliefs and practices in matters of human sexuality,” released its report. The response has been charged, to say the least.
(Note, if you’re already familiar with the IP report, feel free to skip down a few paragraphs.)
While the stated propose of the IP was more broad, for all intents and purposes the primary goal was to address CBF’s troubling hiring policy, which was adopted back in 2000 and explicitly barred CBF from hiring LGBTQ people (the actual language is much starker, dated, and cringeworthy, and can be found in the IP report).
All told the report is some 43 pages long and does a commendable job in outlining the committee’s process, findings and rationale. But the heart of it is located on pages 19-22, where the committee outlines its recommended new hiring policy along with an “implementation plan.”
The hiring policy itself speaks earnestly of how CBF will seek candidates “who profess Jesus Christ as Lord, are committed to living out the Great Commandment and Great Commission, and who affirm the principles that have shaped our unique Baptist heritage.”
There is no mention of sexuality at all, only broader markers of Christian character such as “acting with integrity, being a faithful steward of resources, speaking truth in love,” and so forth.
In my view this new hiring policy (it was adopted by the CBF Governing Board this past Friday) is both theologically sound and institutionally commendable. It clearly speaks to the heart of CBF’s mission and values while empowering leadership to hire the best candidates possible—which, after all, is the purpose of a hiring policy in the first place.
But much of the response to this report has, for good reason, centered on the following “implementation plan.”
This plan, which was presented by the IP Committee as part of the report but not formally adopted by the governing board, speaks to what the hiring policy will look like in practice. It reads, in part:
In implementing the new hiring policy, CBF will consider matters of human sexuality as one factor among many in employment for some positions, including field personnel, those who supervise field personnel, and ministry/mission leadership at CBF Global in Decatur.
…Among other qualifying factors, CBF will employ persons for leadership positions in ministry who exhibit the ideals set forth in our hiring policy, have gifts appropriate to the particular position and who practice a traditional Christian sexual ethic of celibacy in singleness or faithfulness in marriage between a woman and man.
In other words, LGBTQ people will be considered for certain jobs in CBF, but not others; particularly field personnel and those who supervise them, and the highest levels of CBF leadership—amounting to about 20% of Fellowship jobs.
(Summary of the IP report over.)
In these days since, a multitude of voices have weighed in on the IP Report. All of them impassioned, many of them compelling, and some of them stirring. The ones I found most helpful can be found here. The best of what I offer below was likely influenced by them.
I have the utmost respect for the Illumination Project Committee for accepting the call to lead in this important work. I am grateful for their service over the last 18 months and do not doubt for a second they each fulfilled their duties with a sincere commitment to live out the gospel as best they know how. Our own process toward inclusion here at First Baptist leaves me with immense empathy for the weight they have carried these last 18 months, the challenge of making room for as many voices as possible, and the range of emotions they must be feeling in the aftermath of this report.
And yet our process here also leads me to tremendous empathy for the LGBTQ people who identify with CBF who are processing this report, and for the weight they have carried and continue to carry. I am grateful for their presence among us, and the gospel witness they have shown by participating in a community that is not-yet-welcoming. My heart breaks with them as they again find themselves waiting to be, in the words of our own commitment here at FBCX, “fully included into the life” of CBF.
Last week at the end of my blog I noted that I, along with about 1,000 other “stakeholders” within CBF, had seen the report as submitted to the Governing Board. I noted something to the affect that out of respect to the committee I wouldn’t comment on it yet other than to say I thought it reflects where CBF is on the whole, and represents progress.
A few hours after I published the post, I went back and deleted those couple of sentences. I did this partly because I second-guessed whether even that was saying too much, and partly because I learned the Governing Board might make changes to the report as submitted (which, from what I understand, they did).
But the primary reason I deleted it was because I was still trying to convince myself this was what I believed.
Sitting here a week later, I stand by my initial assessment in part. I accept that this almost-inclusive policy is probably where a majority of CBF congregations find themselves in practice, and moving from a place of full exclusion to partial inclusion is progress.
And yet my overwhelming response to this report is disappointment and frustration.
I’m disappointed that this partially-inclusive state is probably an accurate reflection of where CBF is on the whole. It is almost certainly an accurate reflection of where most CBF congregation are in practice. And yet as others have noted, I believe it’s a leap to say this is what all these congregations would expect in a hiring policy for the national network.
Ultimately baptist life is congregational, and we in CBF clearly have a lot of work to do on the congregational level to engage these questions of sexuality and inclusion. One of the committee's findings was that a vast majority of CBF congregations had not openly or formally discussed sexuality and inclusion at all. We know such work is hard and painful and risky, and yet we also know it can be life-giving, transformative, and beautiful. Perhaps this report will encourage other congregations to take up this holy work.
I’m frustrated that in the committee’s determination to create an implementation plan that accurately reflects where we as a Fellowship are right now, we have risked what we as a Fellowship will be.
I fear in staking out this “compromise,” however true to our current (deeply flawed) state it may be, we have missed an opportunity to embrace who we hope to be as Fellowship Baptists. The policy itself seems to point toward, even long for, full inclusion, and yet in practice the report couldn't quite get there. This is lamentable.
Also, similar to our process here at First Baptist, the younger voices within CBF I know fall squarely in the camp seeking full inclusion. They are deeply troubled by what they feel is a betrayal. They were raised in CBF and while they objected to the old hiring policy, had faith that when the time came for it to be addressed, CBF would do right. Now they’re wondering what their future in CBF can be.
I'm also frustrated that on a very basic level, this implementation plan has undercut a commendable new policy, and made the task of hiring the best person possible for the job harder, not easier. This is, after all, the purpose of a hiring policy.
And yet I’m also left with the conviction that just as sure as Easter morning is some 40 days away, the story is not yet over.
For its shortcomings, there is much to build on in this report. For one, the old hiring policy had been used as CBF’s guiding statement on all things sexuality—dictating, for instance, which seminary students it would support, and which churches might receive certain types of funding.
All of that is gone. I also understand that new resources to help congregations engage these issues are forthcoming. These resources are clearly lacking, and I know we would have benefited from them in our process. Perhaps we can be of service in their creation.
When she was with us two Sundays ago, Suzii Paynter also shared that this change in policy will have an immediate impact on the current office. There are some already employed by CBF who will find themselves free to be more completely themselves in their work. As much as we grieve this was ever necessary, it is surely progress that a new day has come.
There's also the simple fact that "plan" is not "policy." The problematic implementation plan can be changed without the labor required for a change in policy.
This is all good news. And I pray it will hold us over until we reach the Good News.
And I want you to know it’s left me recommitted to seeing this baptist experiment we call CBF through. CBF remains my home, and while I know there are others within our congregation who are grieving this this report as I do, I believe CBF remains our best partner to carry out our mission and ministry as a congregation.
It's also my deep conviction that our process here has given us a much-needed testimony within CBF, and while it is still fresh and we are in many ways still learning to articulate it, I pray the Illumination Project Report will open more opportunities to share it.
More next week…