Working together: Birmingham and Bessemer associations partnering for expanded gospel ministry

Barry Cosper remembers the first time someone pointed out to him that Jefferson County had five Baptist associations.

It was nearly six years ago, and the late Mike McLemore — then executive director of missions for Birmingham Baptist Association (BBA) — asked the question, “Do we really need five?”

“My immediate response was no,” said Cosper, associational mission strategist for Bessemer Baptist Association, which is one of those five.

That got the wheels turning. The two associations began to talk about whether they could do more for the Great Commission if they worked together.

And starting in September 2018, the two associations decided to dedicate two years toward seeing what it would be like to work together. It’s not a merger, Cosper said — both associations are maintaining their identity and autonomy. But to reflect the partnership’s greater reach, Chris Crain — BBA’s current executive director — led BBA to begin using the name Birmingham Metro Baptist Association (BMBA) at the beginning of 2019.

‘Sharing life’

Michael Ethridge, BMBA director of operations, said the arrangement — which they’re calling a “missions partnership” — is designed to provide both associations the opportunity to determine if a permanent arrangement is needed.

As part of the partnership, Cosper has an office at BMBA and is a part of Tuesday staff meetings. He also has an office at The Baptist Church at McAdory, McCalla, so he can be onsite in the Bessemer area the rest of the week.

Another way the arrangement is saving resources is to consolidate some of the administrative overhead, Ethridge said. Though both associations’ finances remain separate and Bessemer Association still controls its own money, BMBA employees are now taking care of Bessemer Association’s financial administration and record keeping.

“We are keeping the two associations separate in governance and leadership, but we’re sharing life together,” Ethridge said. “We offer to the Bessemer churches whatever we’re doing, and they offer our churches what they’re doing.”

That means not only are they sharing some practical cost-cutting strategies, they’re also planning shared ministries, like disaster relief, leader coaching and Vacation Bible School training.

As the two associations have worked toward a possible permanent arrangement, Ethridge and Chris Crain, now BMBA executive director, have been meeting up with small groups of Bessemer pastors to get to know them and hear their needs and ideas.

Crain and Cosper have also been visiting different Bessemer Association churches on Sunday nights to deliver a presentation about the possible change, introduce them to the ministries BMBA offers, have a conversation with them and get to know “the great churches in the Bessemer area,” Crain said.

Addressing challenges

Ethridge said that from the beginning, they’ve been working on the partnership with the guidance of Rick Barnhart, director of the office of associational missions and church planting for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions. Barnhart has been able to help the leaders identify and address challenges as they’ve moved through the process.

Their goal after getting input from church leaders and consultants during the trial period is to vote on a more permanent arrangement at the associations’ meetings in October. If the move is approved, both associations will work together to create and adopt new governing documents and policies. The current thinking is both associations will share equally in any identity give-and-take in order to form an effective model designed to meet current and future challenges.

Crain said he is aware that discussions with associational leaders are openly taking place in other parts of the state, and he believes effective partnerships could mean much for Kingdom work.

“Strategic partnerships are not for mere survival,” he said. “Partnerships that work best are for the purpose of advancing the gospel better. If we cannot make a bigger impact and do things more efficiently together, we should forget about the partnership. I believe we can and will do better together.”

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