Fifty years ago this month the former Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention published a book based on the doctoral dissertation of F. Russell Bennett Jr.
As of the last time I checked, a used copy of “The Fellowship of Kindred Minds” is still available for sale on Amazon.
Bennett was born the same year as Martin Luther King Jr. and lived during that era of world chaos. He also lived through major seasons of change for Baptist associations within the Southern Baptist Convention.
On the last day of 2023 Bennett transitioned to his heavenly home, leaving behind three daughters and six grandchildren.
Progress and regression
During his lifetime Baptist associations went from conforming to SBC guidelines to competing with them to a period of collaboration. Now in many places associations are regressing to competing and conforming.
In some places they are disappearing in favor of organizational and programmatic strategies by state conventions and national agencies. In many places they are weaker, but in other places they are stronger.
To his ministry colleagues, friends and others, Russell expressed his concern about the regression of associations.
He reaffirmed the historic principles he documented in his book regarding the depth of fellowship and kindred spirit that is characteristic of a family of churches.
“There are churches and associations, and then the ungodly are not so, and those are the state conventions and national agencies,” I heard Russell say.
This statement requires interpretation. Russell was speaking hyperbolically. He meant that churches and associations are organisms. They are living, breathing, moving and ever changing in their character and nature. Family relationships are of high value.
State conventions and national agencies are organizations. They are based more on structures, processes, policies and products. Programs and promotions are of high value.
Both organisms and organizations are essential for a denomination that is effectively fulfilling the Great Commission in the spirit of the great commandment.
Therefore, associations have a unique role that state conventions and national agencies cannot fulfill. When associations are weaker, something is lost that cannot be replaced by any other entity.
An urban strategist
Russell was also an urban strategist. He blessed my life as an associational expert. He also did so as an urban strategist.
In 1981 I began a role in the metropolitan missions office of the former Home Mission Board. It was part of the associational missions division.
My ministry focus was to develop and help resource effective strategies for the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the contiguous United States.
Russell was part of a think tank we pulled together to brainstorm what ultimately became known as Mega Focus Cities.
He had been part of developing and implementing a strategy during his years at the Home Mission Board that also focused on large metropolitan areas. He had a lot to contribute to this dialogue.
That is why I add Russell to the list of people who not only mentored me about Baptist associations, but who also mentored me about urban strategies using Baptist associations as the organizing unit for greatest effectiveness.
Our lives intertwined
Not only did Russell and I serve with the former Home Mission Board — yet at different times — but we also overlapped at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
I was a graduate student and an inner-city pastor in the west end of Louisville. Although I first met Russell through my father’s ministry with Baptist associations when I was a teenager, it was great to get to know Russell as a ministry colleague.
Russell later moved on to become the director of Long Run Baptist Association, now Louisville Regional Baptist Association.
His life was blessed by his wife, Jennye. Visiting in their home in Louisville was a delightful experience.
His family celebrates him
His daughters recently wrote the following about their father:
“Beyond his professional accomplishments, Dr. Bennett found fulfillment in the simple pleasures of his life. He had a deep appreciation for gardening and hiking, finding solace and inspiration in nature and travel. Throughout it all, he remained a faithful servant, dedicating his life to service and spreading the message of love and compassion and inclusion.”
A celebration of his life was held at St. Matthews Baptist Church in Louisville on January 27.