A denomi-network has all of the benefits of a denomination, while also the innovation-sparking possibilities of a network.

“Denomi-network” is Suzii Paynter’s one-word introduction to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

The Fellowship was born in the early 1990s, when denominations were feeling the impact of years of decline and many doubted their relevancy for the future. The Fellowship resisted calling itself a denomination, even as it established offices, sent missionaries, commissioned chaplains and joined ecumenical groups. Following her 2013 election as the CEO, Paynter coined the term “denomi-network” as a way of pointing to the importance of being a denomination while translating the work into the 21st century.

Denominations are often thought of as cumbersome, political and expensive, exercising regulatory control over clergy, institutions and property. Back in the 1960s, the work of congregations was often regarded as supporting the work of denominations, even in the systems in which the congregations were legally autonomous. Who wants to go back to that understanding of denominations? Not me.

Yet, denominations at their best have provided critical elements to forming congregational identity and mission that last for generations.

In almost every setting, a senior pastor has an outsized impact on a congregation’s vision for ministry. In some traditions, the identity of the pastor is so closely aligned with the identity of the church that the congregation is known as “T.D. Jakes’ church” rather than as The Potter’s House.

However, when a congregation endures across two or three generations of pastors, the identity and mission are most often grounded in elements provided by the denomination. This grounding allows for pastors to come and go, making a mark but not having to start from scratch.

The means by which this grounding takes place is multifaceted and in some cases under threat. Denominations most often control the entry points for pastors. Through exams, required classes and interviews, candidates for ministry are required to practice the language of the denomination until it becomes their own.

Denominations frequently sponsor seminaries that both educate students, inviting them into networks with each other to form a community of leaders that persists long after graduation. Denominations sponsor meetings for laypeople to attend, publish statements of faith that are recited in worship, and designate the forms and methods of congregational governance.

With all of higher education, seminaries are struggling to stay in business. In every sector, event-based organizations are struggling to register attendees. Denominational presses that once produced books, hymnals and curriculum now struggle because of the new business models in publishing. Denominations are now struggling to do identity-forming and mission-clarifying work in the midst of these changes. Often the larger congregations are taking on part of the responsibility.

With “denomi-network,” Paynter is urging her folks to consider how to gain the advantages of a denomination and the innovation-sparking possibilities of a network, while minimizing the challenges. She does not want to replicate the bureaucracy that has often surrounded identity-forming activities. Admittedly, holding these ideas together might come more easily to Baptists, the disorganized branch of the church.

Paynter’s brand of Baptist (of which I belong) has never relied on its denomination to license or ordain clergy. All contributions to the denomination are voluntary. The denomination offers help in finding a pastor, but no permission is required to approve the selection.

The key identity and mission work that the Fellowship does is to encourage clergy and laypeople to study similar literature that is produced by self-supporting partners. The clergy gather in hundreds of self-organizing peer groups. Recent seminary graduates are invited into a “fellows” program for education and support.

Scholarships are provided to ease the cost of education and to network those in school. Annual meetings with practical workshops, inspiring worship and generous fellowship times are held within regions and nationally. Missionaries are sponsored by networks of congregations and work as social entrepreneurs in various settings.

In recounting the history of innovation in “Where Good Ideas Come From,” Steven Johnson describes the importance of environments for generating creativity. He argues that the networks in which we participate are one of the keys to such environments. Johnson says that we need places in which our really good “half-hunch” collides with another person’s “half-hunch” to make a great idea.

Paynter leads a network that includes congregational leaders, chaplains in every kind of institution, theological school professionals, social entrepreneurs and missionaries. They, and their ideas, bump into each other. The denomination element provides a common language and mission. The network dimension allows for multiple collisions and the resulting collaborations.

In the old days, denominational leaders thought of their institutions as a unified force working together to accomplish missions, influence policy-makers and more. A denomi-network pays as much attention to what nodes in the network are doing. Leaders have to think about fostering conditions for the networking and the ‘denominating” to both thrive.

On the final evening of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly, one of Paynter’s deputies and I were at dinner. He asked what I was hearing. I realized that no one had said anything to me about what was happening on the platform or in the workshops. I had been a part of a half-dozen intense conversations. Each one focused on the life and ministry of the person and how to connect that person to others so that his or her work could flourish.

Everything was going well in the meeting, which created the space for these conversations. It seemed like denomi-networking to me.