Personal Thoughts on a Historic Decision
Eric Thomsen is the managing editor of ONE Magazine. Send comments and observations about ONE to firstname.lastname@example.org.
It was a tight squeeze as nearly 6,000 people crowded into the narrow river valley that meanders along the banks of central West Virginia’s Kanawha River. Free Will Baptists filled every available nook and cranny—hotels, bed and breakfasts, RV parks, even campgrounds—in a 20-mile radius surrounding the city of Charleston.
“Bringing the convention to Charleston is like squeezing a size 12 foot into a size nine shoe,” quipped Convention Manager Keith Burden. “We took all of the space that was available and could have used more…but the city bent over backwards to make things work for us.”
This year’s convention, however, won’t be remembered for cramped meeting space, beautiful scenery, fierce competition, or even exhilarating worship services. This year, the convention “buzz” revolved around funding changes proposed by the International Missions department. The proposal was not taken lightly, and a lively debate stretched for well over an hour during the Wednesday business session.
As I listened to passionate delegates pour out their hearts about this issue, I was reminded of three things.
God answers prayer. In 1991, when the convention last visited Charleston, Foreign Missions Director Eugene Waddell closed his annual report by voicing a heart-felt concern to delegates. He said the greatest challenge facing Free Will Baptist missions was finding new personnel. He noted that 25 missionaries would be eligible for retirement in the 90s and others would surely be lost due to illness, resignations, or other causes. Coupled with the requests from field council chairmen for 85 new missionaries to fill urgent needs, the situation seemed grave indeed. Director Waddell just didn’t know where the missionaries would come from. God did.
Seventeen years later, the funding debate is simple proof that God answered our prayers. Not only did missionaries come, they came in waves. Today, the challenge facing International Missions is not finding personnel but getting an army of dedicated men and women to the field more quickly and efficiently.
Photo: 2008 convention delegates listen intently. Photo credit: Travis Penn.
Free Will Baptists care. It’s true that not everyone agreed on the course of action proposed in the funding change. Some delegates expressed concerns about how the proposed changes would impact church autonomy. Others were concerned that the move would adversely affect missionaries they had supported for years. Yet at the base of every viewpoint expressed was the common sentiment: “I want what is best for missionaries and Free Will Baptists.”
I can’t find words to express my pride to be part of a denomination that cares—and cares deeply—about doing the right thing. I hope we will always care enough to speak out about the issues that really matter.
Debate does not equal dissension. As the final business session grew near, more than one convention attendee expressed his or her concern that the afternoon would devolve into a series of personal attacks. Specters of previous business session casualties loomed over the meeting in a dark cloud. To be blunt, you could have cut the tension with a knife.
Yet the heated personal exchanges never began. Sure, concerns were expressed—sometimes bluntly. But in almost every case, those who did not favor the proposed changes couched their opposing arguments between affirmations of brotherhood and statements of respect for those in leadership. The words of Hal Jones, director of missions for Virginia, will echo loudly through the years. “While we [the state of Virginia] disagree with this proposal, if the body chooses to proceed with this course of action, you can be sure we will stand behind it.” I could almost feel the gates of Hell tremble beneath his words.
I left Charleston a proud Free Will Baptist. Did we solve all of our problems? Certainly not. Have we approved a more effective funding system for International Missions? Only time will tell. But in the wake of the convention, one thing is certain. Our denomination made a significant stride forward in the way we handled an issue that had the potential to divide us.