African American Fellowship gains seat on Executive Committee

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The Georgia Baptist Convention voted in its annual meeting in November in Savannah to grant the African American Fellowship a seat on the Executive Committee of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. Jean Ward, as president of the group, now represents the Fellowship on the policy-making body. JOE WESTBURY/Index

Jean Ward is looking for more ethnic diversity within the governing body of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board and he believes the seat on the Executive Committee – which was recently awarded to the African American Fellowship – is just the beginning.

Ward, church planter and pastor of East Atlanta Church and ministering with young adults and Millennials at New Morning Light Church in Conley, is the current president of the group. And as of the recent Georgia Baptist Convention meeting in November in Savannah, he now represents the estimated 350 African American churches which affiliate with the state convention.

The Fellowship was founded in November 1995 by Pastor Bernard Miller at a meeting held at Fellowship Baptist Church in Warner Robins, where the late Rev. Dr. Willie Reid, Sr. was pastor. It was formed to unite the African American  churches affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Convention (now known as the Georgia Baptist Mission Board).

That historic meeting took place during the Convention’s annual session at a nearby church.

Today Ward (find him on Twitter here) is building on those foundational concepts of fellowship and education. He recently detailed two goals which the Fellowship is championing to build visibility of African Americans within the Convention.

Two goals: fellowship and education

“Our first goal is fellowship. It is very important because it is only when you meet with someone, share fellowship with them, that you fully understand them. Both sides grow in appreciation for the other,” Ward explained.

“For example, I know some African American pastors who believed that to become a Georgia Baptist meant having to change their worship style. They just assumed it and, just as incorrectly, believed that all Anglo churches worshipped the same way.

“In the same way, there are Anglos who share the same stereotype, just in opposite … believing that African Americans worship in just one style.

“Through fellowship we have been able to explain away some of those misconceptions and build a better bridge of understanding. In many ways African Americans are like Anglos with very similar values. We just express ourselves differently.

Jean Ward is a church planter and founder of East Atlanta Church and president of the African American Fellowship. JOE WESTBURY/Index

“A second goal is educating our churches about the resources that the Georgia Baptist Mission Board offers to participating churches. Many of our pastors and laity have no idea of the depth of materials that are available to help them nurture and grow their congregations.

“We are also increasing the communication with our churches through our Facebook page at African American Fellowship of GBC, and through our website at www.aafofgbc.org.

“We are using these internet connections to build a greater sense of family, he said.

For example, Ward added that African American churches appreciate when Anglo congregations want to help with block parties and ministry in their communities. But sometimes, due to historic precedent, some African Americans feel that Anglos “are coming to minister to the poor people.”

“That is not true all of the time but the sentiment is there and we need to be sensitive to it,” he explained.

The increased networking will allow churches to solicit for ministry teams from other African American congregations who are more comfortable in those situations and can interact a little better in a one-on-one witnessing context.

Ward highlighted two upcoming annual events which will be important for the African American congregations.

Another avenue of communication in the Fellowship is a monthly conference call. Members simply call (515) 604-9964, enter access code 1163883#, and join the conversation.

Increased Cooperative Program support

Ward believes such networking and building a stronger sense of identity will bring more African American congregations into the Georgia Baptist network and will help grow Cooperative Program support.

Two upcoming events this Spring and Fall will build a stronger bond between those churches through conferences at the Georgia Baptist Conference Center at Toccoa. The popular “I’m The Man” retreat will be held May 19-20. Formerly a national gathering, the event is now being held on the state level.

The conference will focus on fellowship and networking among African American pastors and feature classes and workshops on fatherhood, leadership, discipleship, and developing parenting skills. That networking will provide avenues where the pastors will learn about what the GBC offers African American churches and how to become more involved.

Registration, which must be completed by May 12, can be secured here. The retreat center is located at 462 Sonrise Way, Toccoa, GA 30577. The phone number is (706) 886-3133. The cost includes the program fee, lodging, and three meals.

Cost is $99 double occupancy and $119 for single occupancy

A second event, the “I Am Woman” retreat will also be held at the north Georgia conference center August 4-5. Cost will be $109 for double occupancy and $134 for single occupancy. The cost includes the program fee, lodging, and three meals.

The annual African American Day at the Georgia Baptist Missions and Ministry Center is held each March at the Duluth headquarters building. It is a time for senior ministers and their staff to tour the facility, meet state missionaries, and learn about the varied resources available to congregations already affiliated or considering joining the state convention.

Ward also wants to give a greater emphasis to racial reconciliation between African Americans and Anglos.

“I don’t want us to just talk but to actually understand our differences and cultural diversity in each of our worlds. There are a lot of stereotypes between us that need to be set aside so we can more effectively reach our state for Christ.”

More voices at the Georgia Baptist table

“For there to be change in the Georgia Baptist Convention there needs to be more voices at the Georgia  Baptist Mission Board table. Many African Americans do not feel that they have a voice and the awarding of this Executive Committee seat will give them that voice … the voice to know they are part of the larger Baptist family in Georgia.

“It’s one thing to sit on the porch, it’s another to set at the table,” he added.

Ward noted that African American churches “are not as one-dimensional” as many Anglos (Caucasians) believe. They are multi-dimensional just like Anglo churches … and are not cookie-cutter churches just like Anglo churches are not cookie-cutter churches. Each has its own distinct identity.

“By having a voice on the Executive Committee we will be able to show how Georgia Baptists can do a better job of reaching different African-American communities. And, just as important, other ethnic groups will see this as opening doors for greater inclusiveness and participation,” he noted.

Ward and his wife, Latoya, have one daughter, Jael.

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