Associations have existed in America since 1707 when five churches joined together to form the Philadelphia Baptist Association. Partnership among churches is in our DNA as Baptists. In the New Testament we see churches working together to advance the Gospel, maintain doctrinal integrity, train leaders, and encourage one another.
The leader of the local association may go by different titles: Associational Mission Strategist, Associational Missionary, Director of Missions, Executive Director, to name a few. Regardless of the title, the role is the same. Associational Leaders serve the kingdom of God by facilitating cooperation among local churches.
Associations are autonomous like the local church. They cooperate with state and national entities voluntarily for the sake of ministry and mission. The Associational Leader is usually called and employed by the local churches of the association. Although many serve in a full-time capacity, there is a trend toward more bi-vocational Associational Leaders who may also serve as a pastor within the association.
The role of an Associational Leader is multifaceted. Because he serves the churches, he must be a resource for them in many areas of ministry. To say he must be an expert in all things church related is a little beyond the scope of this position; however, he does need to know who the experts are and how to connect churches to them.
Responsibilities also include encouraging pastors, fostering a culture of partnership among local churches, promoting mission causes, equipping leaders, organizing ministry opportunities, supporting churches during times of transition, and representing the churches in the local community.
Associational Leaders are often the first person called when a church has a need. He must be resourceful and well-informed. Having the gift of administration is extremely helpful. Being kingdom-minded is a must.
The Southern Baptist Conference of Associational Leaders (sbcal.org) conducted a study regarding the proficiencies needed to become an effective Associational Leader. A study was produced which was expanded into a book entitled The Baptist Association. Anyone interested in becoming an Associational Leader should start with these two resources. They can both be found on the SBCAL website.
Becoming involved in your local association is the best hands-on preparation. Associational Leaders have often served as pastors or staff members of a local church, but this is not always the case, nor is it necessary. The calling to be an Associational Leader comes from God just like the calling to other vocational ministries.
The SBCAL annual conference is held each year in the two days leading up to the Southern Baptist Convention. This conference provides an opportunity to network with other Associational Leaders and to attend sessions designed to equip new and potential leaders. The North American Mission Board also holds training each year for new and potential Associational Leaders in conjunction with their AMS Excellence Lab.
Wherever there are local churches, there are local associations. The need is great for new Associational Leaders with a heart for the Gospel and a love for the Church. Lists of open Associational positions are maintained by SBCAL (sbcal.org) and many state conventions. Contact your local association to ask what positions may be available in your area.
Because associations are autonomous, the search process is similar to what you would find in a local church. Many state conventions have someone responsible for supporting local associations. They do not have the authority to appoint anyone to an Associational position, but they probably have some influence with search committees.
It is no accident that for many years Associational Leaders had the title of Associational Missionary. Much of the job is missional in nature and requires the same skills needed to serve in a missional context. Other denominational leadership positions with state and national entities share some of the same responsibilities as Associational Leaders. Each state convention or mission board is organized differently, but similar positions exist within them.