Names Do Matter

William Shakespeare, author of “Romeo and Juliet” didn’t think that names should matter very much. He had Juliet say: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”  I would disagree with old Shakespeare on how much a name matters.  What we call something describes its function and helps give meaning to its purpose.  

The role of the local Baptist association has changed throughout history and must continue to do so in order to be relevant and of value to its member churches.  Likewise, the role of the associational leader is ever changing as well. It was in recognition of the changing association that served as a catalyst in 2017 for SBC Associational Leaders to establish a study committee to meet, pray, research and engage in meaningful dialog around the language describing the title and the role of those serving as leaders within local associations.  

The study committee presented their report in Dallas, Texas during the 2018 annual meeting of SBC Associational Leaders.  While there are many perspec­tives on this topic, all can agree that many changes over the past few decades have impacted the function and focus of the local Baptist association. The commission signaled, and I agree, it was time for a fresh look at associational leadership.  

The study report addressed several key items, but the one creating the most discussion, was the recommended use of “Associational Mission Strategist” when referring to associational leaders in the future. The decision to use this terminology is more than just a name change. It describes very well what the role of the associational leader is to be.  Ray Gentry, Executive Director, Southern Baptist Conference of Associational Leaders, shared that “this was the first time in more than 40 years that the title was updated. But having just three or four names spread over three centuries is not all that bad.”  

Most every title used to describe the associational leader has advantages and disadvantages. A frequent complaint about “Associational Missionary” is that when the word “missionary” is employed in common usage it refers to someone commissioned to work on behalf of a group – clearly not to the role of someone guiding a coalition of churches doing the work themselves. “Director of Missions” likewise connotes an image of someone with authority over churches, which is simply untrue. “Executive Director” sounds corporate or secular to others.

The term “Associational Mission Strategist” however, or “AMS” as an abbreviated version, speaks to the singular focus associational leaders have of serving churches to engage with one Great Commission, while skillfully selecting intentional ways to engage and energize local churches to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

If you’re familiar with Southern Baptists polity, you know that it is up to each autonomous association to determine what term they will use to describe their association’s leader.  But for clarity and consistency, the Kentucky Baptist Convention will begin referring to associational leaders as AMS or Associational Mission Strategists.  I’m excited about the term and pray that it will serve as a reminder to each of us of the responsibility entrusted to the person in the role to be strategically focused and intentionally missional in everything that he leads the association to do.   

I hope now, that you will agree with me that Shakespeare was wrong in thinking that a name doesn’t really matter. The names we give positions and people do matter and what we call something has importance. 

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