Navigating the latest rocky waters of denominational life

Josh Wilks, minister to children at NorthPark Baptist Church, Trussville, baptizes 7-year-old Grant Stuman during the early service June 6. (Photo by Margaret Smith/NorthPark photography team)

The glow on the little guy’s face as the minister to children surfaced him from the portable baptismal pool triggered a sprinkling of water down several cheeks in the sanctuary.

A handful of us sat at the perfect distance and angle to see the crinkle in his nose emerge above a beaming smile as he was “raised in newness of life.”

We had the unusual opportunity to see these details because the church’s official baptismal pool was covered with decorations for Vacation Bible School.

VBS starts today at many churches across the nation; some even kicked off the week last night with a hot dog supper or other fun event.

As my husband and I sat in the service yesterday at NorthPark Baptist Church in Trussville, Alabama, we found opportunities to worship at every point — experiencing the baptism of a 7-year-old excited about giving his heart to Jesus, singing along with all the other voices, participating in the moments of prayer, giving of our tithe and learning from the pastor’s teachings.

‘Look again’

Preaching from Judges 6:1–16, Pastor Bill Wilks shared how “the Israelites thought they were brought low because of the Midianites, but God said to look again.”

“We see the surface problem, but God sees the root problem. Appearances can be deceiving; and we should never overlook the God factor,” Wilks explained.

“We can be too big for God to use us but never too small,” he said. “God sees all the potential in us and wants to draw it out.

“But we — the people of God — may need to look at our own hearts to see where we are rebelling against Him as individuals and as churches. When people do what is right in their own eyes, they often miss what is right in the eyes of God.”

#ThisIsTheSBC

A fairly routine Lord’s Day at any Southern Baptist church, yesterday’s service might have even been a good example for the recent social media posts connected to the #ThisIsTheSBC hashtag.

And church leaders made only one brief mention of the upcoming SBC Annual Meeting in Nashville — a congregational vote to approve the list of messengers who will be attending on behalf of NorthPark.

We chuckled as our executive pastor Stephen Hall accidentally called those of us on the messenger list “missionaries” to the annual meeting before he realized what he said and got tickled himself as he corrected the reference.

It truly was a slip of the tongue, but my mind clung to what he said. Maybe all of us going as messengers should become missionaries of sort and consider the business sessions, hallway talk and panel discussions a missions field.

Exploring divisive terrain

After all, the leaders of our convention entities, Executive Committee, seminaries and other groups are in the roles they are in to serve the churches of the denomination, not the other way around.

Several of them need our help as guides back to calm waters of unity and cooperation and away from the divisive, difficult terrain they decided to explore.

Intimidation and bullying tactics among denominational leaders are not new, neither are manipulative actions to gain or keep control of whatever area or funding — or maybe secret — he or she is attempting to control. Remember, they are human too. The reason it seems worse now is because we all get to watch it play out in real time through social media.

A steady diet of the ugliness eats at our soul, and there’s a point we sense a need to respond, but instead of choosing sides and casting blame, what if the masses of us who don’t like what we see stand together in prayer and a unified voice?

What if we refuse to take the bait and instead of getting caught up in the drama swirling around us, we commit to purifying our denomination?

Starting point for purification

As the true leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention — the churches — we should start with our individual congregations and that means first focusing on our own hearts. It means surrounding our pastors with prayer and support and helping them focus strictly on God to lead.

Healthy churches can then work together to sift issues at the associational level and then the state convention level. From there, the members of the boards of trustees of the roughly dozen SBC entities, Executive Committee, seminaries and auxiliaries should be strong enough to guide those employed as directors of the groups.

We as members of the churches across this denomination fund all the work taking place, and we trust the process put in place to manage the work, but if our hearts are not pure then that will trickle down to those who are called and thus hired to manage the work being done — such as entity leaders and seminary presidents.

They need us. What that means we should do next week in Nashville, I can’t tell you, but I do know that without prayer, accountability and clear expectations, we all are susceptible to the ugliness and deception of life.

We already have the strength and power needed to navigate these latest rocky waters of denominational life — His name is Jesus.

What if all of us — every one of us, not just those we might want to put on a list, but all of us — get over ourselves and look back to Him?

—Jennifer Davis Rash

Tribute to Rash family patriarch — hard worker, deep thinker

Photo by Jennifer Davis Rash

Known for his kindness and quiet demeanor, Cecil Rash was a dedicated family man with an impeccable work ethic and calm presence.

That’s the way we wrapped the biography section of my father-in-law’s obituary in late January.

During the graveside service, we also shared about his longtime and ever-growing relationship with Christ and years of faithful service to his church — First Baptist Church, Cairo, Georgia, for the past 25-plus years and Sheridan Hills Baptist Church, Hollywood, Florida, for more than 20 years prior to that.

Cecil and Sue Rash’s commitment to Christ and involvement in church for their entire married life rubbed off on their three children — and eventually served as a model for me too.

Sheridan Hills Baptist Church is where I met Jason during my two-year missions term serving the Caribbean through the International Mission Board.

When I met Jason in the mid-1990s, his parents had already made the move to south Georgia, but Jason always had stories to share. So when I did meet them, I felt as if I had always known them.

‘A great dad’

In telling me about his dad during those early days, Jason always described him simply as a great dad. 

And in delivering the eulogy for his dad a few days ago, Jason said, “I wish you could see the exclamation points I put on my paper after this sentence: He was a GREAT dad.”

A somewhat generic term in many cases, but Jason’s emotional emphasis of “great” for his dad revealed layers and layers of reasons and experiences — something we all deeply understood without needing extra words.

And while his presence is piercingly absent in the family home, Cecil also will be missed by many in the city of Cairo. He loved Cairo — which happened to be where he spent his formative years prior to college, as well as where he retired — and worked hard to keep it moving forward. 

The 85-year-old, single-screen Zebulon theater in town was one of Cecil’s favorite projects, so it only seemed fitting that the marquee pay tribute to him the same day immediate family gathered at the graveside.

Surrounded and supported

And just like all of you have most likely experienced at some point in your journey, the church family stepped in to do what it does best during times of grief — provided prayer, food, phone calls, notes, flowers, plants and listening ears. 

COVID-19 restrictions prevented visits from friends like we were used to in the past, but our combined church families from four states surrounded and embraced the family. 

The Rash family’s current pastor and former pastor in Cairo, both dear friends, also ministered to the family consistently — and continue to do so — even while balancing so many other needs in their church families.

As we work on all that comes following the death of a family member, I am reminded of the various gifts and skill sets each family member brings and am encouraged to watch us work together as a team. 

Cecil would undoubtedly love the group effort taking place. And while he likely wouldn’t actually say much out loud, he would be proud of Sue and his children and grandchildren. He would think they were all pretty great themselves.

—Jennifer Davis Rash

Will Southern Baptists exist in 50 years?

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A straight-line decline in membership for more than 50 years should sound an alarm for Southern Baptists, something several ardent researchers and ministry leaders in the convention have attempted to do in various ways for many years.

What could be the reason for the consistent decline?

Did we get so caught up in growing the numbers for numbers’ sake that we forgot to focus on making disciples?

Have we spent most of our energy recruiting church members rather than sharing Christ with those who don’t know Him and helping individual believers grow in their faith?

Do we use the church statistical data to judge each other unfairly and thus push people away?

Have we overcomplicated and overextended what it means to be part of a church family?

The Church and politics

In his 1997 book “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” author Philip Yancey noted, “In the 1950s and 1960s, mainline denominations moved away from proclaiming the gospel toward a more political agenda, and the pews began to empty, cutting membership by half.

“Many of these disaffected churchgoers sought out evangelical churches, where they heard messages more directed to their spiritual needs. It would be ironic indeed if evangelical churches repeated the error.”

To read the full editorial, which first appeared in the Aug. 20 issue of The Alabama Baptist, click here.

—Jennifer Davis Rash

Commencement address to Judson College’s 2020 graduates

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Jennifer Davis Rash

Graduates, the nugget I want to leave with you today is the importance of holding on to the capability to learn.

As the Class of 2020, you are being touted as the class above all classes because of what you experienced during your final semester. You know, that little pandemic thing.

You’ve proven you’ve got what it takes.

You learned in only a few months what most of us had the luxury of a few decades to learn — how to adapt and still flourish when life doesn’t work out like we planned.

But with this praise comes a great deal of pressure and responsibility, which can be managed with success if you maintain a spirit of teachability.

The ability to continue learning at every step of your journey will always serve you well.

Some days, good enough truly is good enough, but most days should be about excellence, no matter how insignificant the tasks of the day may seem.

Part of being excellent is owning up to mistakes.

Mistakes are part of the journey so being mature enough to own yours will lighten the load for everyone involved, including yourself.

It’s also important to learn from them — yours and others.

One mistake we all make at some point is to believe the world revolves around us.

And while today is rightfully all about each of you — most days are not.

In fact, the more we focus on helping others instead of ourselves, the more at peace we will be.

Being a graduate of a religious institution of higher learning means you know a bit about the Bible, so you already know Scripture teaches our greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul and strength.

And the second greatest is to love our neighbor as ourselves.

As you leave the college nest and prepare to tackle the world, clinch tightly to those commandments.

And recognize that to achieve both, you must also love yourself.

Scripture is clear that each one of us is created in the image of our Father, the almighty God, so humbly loving ourselves reflects our love for Him and teaches us how to love others.

You only have one life to live here on earth, and you’ve started well.

I urge you to commit today to also finish well — with confidence in who you are and assurance of Whose you are.

The fact is, we need you.

We need your light. We need your kindness. We need your smarts. We need your energy. And we need your teachability.

A few ABCs for the road …

A — Always be honest but be kind in the process, and always give people the benefit of the doubt as your first response.

B — Be forgiving and able to let go of past hurts.

C — Calm the chaos around you by giving more than you take and being part of the solution.

Congratulations, Class of 2020. You are beautiful. You are valued. You are loved. You are strong.

And remember, we need you — the very best version of you God has in store.

Editor’s Note — Commencement address delivered by Jennifer Davis Rash at Judson College in Marion, Alabama, on June 27, 2020.

Use global halting of events as opportunity to rest in Him

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Photo by Jennifer Davis Rash

By the time we realized March Madness for the year 2020 would not describe basketball brackets, rivalries and surreal roundball moments, the normal activities of life as we know it had practically shut down.

COVID-19 became a household term, and our homes, offices, schools, churches and devices might just be the cleanest they’ve ever been.

Online screenings and drive-thru testing centers emerged seemingly overnight.

Many conferences, classes and church services were canceled, rescheduled or moved online.

Airlines and hotels removed all rescheduling and cancellation fees. They even made it super easy to go online and click through the necessary items in a matter of seconds.

Making assessments

Leaders at all levels assessed, reassessed and worked hard to make the best decisions they could for the people for which they were responsible, as well as for the businesses and organizations they lead.

And when Alabama’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 was announced this morning (March 13), the assessments narrowed to an even more laser-focused stance.

While our team at TAB Media is working to stay up on all the latest reports and announcements, we also are performing appropriate assessments related to our staff and office as well.

Crisis management plan

Past experiences of unforeseen difficult events, such as the Snowpocalypse winter storm of 2014, the April 2011 tornado devastation in Alabama, the H1N1 flu pandemic of 2009 and other experiences through the years, provided opportunities to develop crisis management plans we still use today.

As crises emerge along the way, we always try to dust off our existing plans and put those into play while also adapting as needed to the current situation and accounting for new techonology and resources available to us.

Learning from each experience makes us better and more prepared for the next event sure to come our way. Having a crisis management and communications plan prevents panic and uncertainty because team members trust the leadership and are informed early, consistently and with clarity about what to expect and how to prepare.

Even a basic plan such as knowing who is in charge during a crisis and naming one person to handle all outgoing and incoming communications gives an advantage in focusing quickly on determining priorities.

Opportunity to shine for Jesus

As we find our way through the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m confident history will report amazing stories of people of faith shining for Jesus. 

Volunteers trained in medical missions and Southern Baptist Disaster Relief will undoubtedly be on the front lines. 

Believers with a chaplain’s heart will work to calm the masses, and people of prayer will unite across the globe to call on God to lead us through this journey.

And I believe the best of each of us will surface as we come together.

Take this opportunity to calm your heart and mind and sling some Jesus all around.

—Jennifer Davis Rash

Interesting exercise to draw a line down the middle of your story

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Stepping into this new year and new decade brought a significant milestone for me personally. 

I’ve now spent half my life serving Alabama Baptists through The Alabama Baptist/TAB Media — and I can’t think of anywhere else I would have rather been.

I joined the TAB team on Jan. 1, 1996, at 24 years old, and on Jan. 1, 2020, I celebrated 24 years with TAB.

Countless people have poured into me through the years, and many continue investing in my growth, something I truly treasure as a big believer in mentoring and cross training. 

A quick look back over the years shows clearly how God was working all along the way.

What I thought was a short-term position while completing my studies at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University quickly became home and the obvious place where God had called me to serve.

‘If God called me …’

While I had no idea how the calling would work itself out nor what all would appear along the path, I trusted that if God called me to do it, He would guide me step by step —
and He has been faithful.

He has provided continuous opportunities to learn and grow, and He has put many amazing mentors and co-workers in my life to teach me along the way.

The deep friendships formed through the years fill my heart and make me even more grateful to be part of the broader Alabama Baptist family.

But how did I get here?

Drawing a line down the middle of your story can be an interesting exercise. For me, there are two sets of 24 years.

Early years

In the first set, you will find my growing up years on a farm in Phil Campbell, Alabama — a rural community in the northwest corner of the state.

During those years I thought the norm for all children was to grow up in a safe, loving environment with plenty of food and parents who taught life skills and a strong work ethic.

Experiencing life outside those early years has taught me many people didn’t have that opportunity and what a privileged upbringing I had.

 Also in my first set of 24 years, you will find two years spent studying at Northwest Community College and another two years spent studying at the University of Alabama.

And while I grew up in church and part of a large extended family of believers, it wasn’t until my sophomore year of college that I truly gave my heart and life to Christ.

It also was during college that I surrendered to a call to full-time Christian service, which led to a search for what that meant. 

After college graduation, I spent two years serving with the International Mission Board as an editorial assistant with Caribbean Christian Publications focused on the English-speaking Caribbean.

God provided intense opportunities for me to grow spiritually, professionally and relationally during those two years. When the term ended, I found my 24-year-old self at TAB with no idea where that would lead.

Reflecting on my current mid-point marker and these past 24 years at TAB helped me realize just how many strides have been made by a variety of different team members who were under the direction of Bob Terry for most of those years. What a gift to get to tag along for the ride.

Second half

Since 1996, the TAB team has moved from focusing on one product — a weekly newspaper — to becoming a full media group with multiple daily deadlines in 2020.

The first webpage came along in 2000 and a fully functioning website in 2004. TAB found its way onto social media platforms  in 2007–2008 and then launched the digital version of the print publication in 2010.

Augmented Reality was added to the mix in 2015 and lasted for a few years, along with several attempts at live streaming and video newscasting.

A robust new multilevel website was developed in 2016 along with the debut of a new logo and rebranding effort.

In 2018, the TAB News radio show and podcast hit the airwaves, and in 2019 a visually impaired cartridge and new glossy magazine were added.

Granted, technology advancements allowed for much of the expansion to take place, but it also took vision, courage and training to make the moves.

With the various new elements in the picture, it could be easy to let the print product slide away, but the focus on the newspaper continues to be an important part of the team’s work.

We plan to continually polish the 177-year-old weekly newspaper currently entrusted to our care. It has won more than 250 national awards in less than 25 years, and we are determined to keep it among the best available.

We also are excited to introduce a trickle of new glossy magazines being produced by TAB for special events and specific emphases.

Coming to the airwaves will be more podcasts available on the TAB Media channel as well as more growth in the audio digest version of TAB for the visually impaired.

Going forward

And our online presence through social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube), web resources and the digital version of the paper will no doubt continue to adapt to that constantly changing realm.

What changes will we see in the next 24 years? I’m not sure, but I’m confident we are ready to figure it out step by step.

—Jennifer Davis Rash

What will history write about our version of the 20s?

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We are at the front end of a pristine new 20s. Whether we refer to our new decade as the “twenties” or the “twenty-twenties,” we have been handed the opportunity to blaze a new, yet healthier, path by learning from the past.

What will history write about the 2020s one day? What statement will we make? How will we be branded?

We truly can shake off the past, let go of whatever is holding us back and make this our decade. Why not make it our goal to see and live with the clarity of 20/20 vision in the decade of the 2020s?

Read the full My Rashionale piece here.

—Jennifer Davis Rash

Few moments without mobile devices might be our new ‘apple a day’ remedy

 

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When I sorted through the mail a few weeks ago and discovered a four-color Christmas catalog for toys — Amazon’s Ultimate Wish List — my mind jumped immediately to my childhood when we received the annual Sears Christmas Wish Book.

Everyone received the Wish Book back in the day. It’s how we made our list for what toys and gifts we wanted for Christmas — that and the commercials on Saturday morning of course. The Wish Book had all the latest toys displayed in four color. 

The Sears Wish Book is no longer printed but even if it were I can’t imagine it would have the same impact as it did then — with no internet and no mobile devices with which to compete. 

While it seems ironic that in this high-tech, digital age an online sales company mails out print catalogs, it does make sense as a way to stand out. Children and their parents are bombarded with digital screens in every part of life now so the promotions and ads all kind of run together sometimes.

‘Strength overdone becomes weakness’

Multimedia offers countless positive aspects and we at TAB are excited about ways we will continue growing our digital presence. But the saying “strength overdone becomes weakness” applies in the area of multimedia as much as any other.

Too many hours a day looking at a screen, especially without proper body alignment and rest breaks, will cause physical issues that come with any type of overuse situation. And emotionally and mentally the scars from overuse will no doubt run deep. 

A few moments talking in person rather than texting and silencing the nonstop dings around us might just be our new “apple a day” remedy for the negative side effects of too much screen time built up over years of use. 

—Jennifer Davis Rash

Truly absorbing and retaining what someone says takes work; it’s much more involved than hearing them talk

My granddad used to grab my hands and hold them still when he needed a break from my nonstop chatter.

He would joke with me that I wouldn’t be able to speak if he handcuffed me — and that’s not far from the truth.

Recently I kept a tight grip on my hands during a video shoot to not only stay within the time restrictions but also to slow down my pace. 

The more free my hands, the faster I talk and the more animated I become. It’s as if I need to draw the story for you in the air as it rolls out of my mouth.

And I do talk really fast especially when I’m excited about what I’m sharing.

Active listening takes concentration and intentionality. It requires focus, processing what is being said for understanding and the ability to respond appropriately. And if you are able to actually remember what was said, then you know you succeeded.

To listen for understanding of what is being said and not merely being polite by letting the other person talk may be more rare than we realize.

Try it out this week. You’ll know when you are only hearing the other person rather than truly listening and you’ll start noticing when it happens to you.  

—Jennifer Davis Rash