Sunday, July 20, 2014

You cannot afford to trust your church secretary

If you are the pastor or a church leader and your church secretary handles the church's money, makes deposits, pays bills, has some degree of control over invoices, payments, or church credit cards you cannot trust him or her. Better put, you should not act as if you trust him or her and would be foolish and negligent to do so.

Former church secretary indicted for theft.

This is a sad story on several levels. The lifelong member of an Alabama Baptist church who was the church secretary and who had control over the church's credit card is alleged to have stolen $129,000 from the church over the past 33 months. The amount of theft might be greater, since the statute of limitations on such crimes only goes back to 2011. Authorities are reported to have said that the fraudulent charges may go back another four years to 2007. From July 2011 through April 2014 the secretary made 2,200 transactions on the credit card many of which were determined to be fraudulent. That number of transactions is about three every single working day. The secretary, a mother, grandmother, and widow apparently used the card to pay her personal bills - utilities, gas, travel, etc.

There's no mystery about trusted people stealing - happens all the time. If the opportunity is present Christians who are otherwise perfectly respectable followers of Christ, beloved friends and family, valuable church members and servants of the Lord will shamelessly steal from the church. Apparently, the woman had absolutely no accountability for the credit card. The pastor, deacons, finance committee all of whom are to be held secondarily responsible for the loss, failed the church by not having sufficient financial controls in place. The woman merely shifted around some budget figures to cover herself but every credit card transaction has a record and appears on some statement. Evidently, no one checked the statement, ever, to verify the transactions were for church business. A handful of questionable transactions might be buried in a statement that wasn't checked too closely, but thousands? Utter failure on the part of church leadership.

To its credit, the pastor and leaders of the church decided to press charges. The woman was stealing from every church member who worked hard to earn money part of which they gave to the Lord's work through the church. Whatever sympathy one might have for the alleged thief should be tempered with the sober thought that hardly a day passed when she didn't deliberately steal from her friends, family, and neighbors.

Most SBC churches probably do not have a business credit card for the church. Those that do should have regular audits no matter how trusted the church financial secretary is or how long they have been around. A sensible financial secretary would insist on regular audits of some sort. This isn't brain surgery.

Money is important. There are around 46,000 SBC churches which handle tens of billions of contributions. In the great majority of these churches employ only one clergy staff, the pastor. It is his job to see to it that there are sufficient and proper money handling policies and procedures. The church involved in this case, depressingly similar to many others, was a large, multiple staff church. It is shocking that such a church failed to have control over its finances.

There are this very Lord's Day probably dozens if not hundreds of SBC churches where some trusted individual is stealing from the church. This sort of thing is so common I don't even look to blog about a case of such theft unless it gets into six figures.

Hey you, Spurgeon! You might spend less time preaching on stealing from God, the standard approach to preaching on tithing, and more time ensuring that proper financial controls are in place. It's your responsibility.

Need more?

Woman steals $130,000 from Baptist association (Nice round figure, $130,000, and in Alabama also.)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Will one in four SBC churches be closed by 2030?

Occasionally, I run across an assertion or a statistic that stops me cold. Here is one that did just that:
"Fear of change is one of the reasons one in four congregations will close during the next 15 years..."
Let me digest this: Twenty-five percent of American congregations will not be present fifteen years hence?

Jeff Brumley of Associated Baptist Press has an interesting article on the future of churches, Experts seek balance between optimism and pessimism in future of congregations, in which he quotes Bill Wilson, founder of The Center for Healthy Churches, as making the assertion above. I have found Wilson's material to be quite insightful and helpful generally but do not know where he got this figure. In the same piece Thom Ranier says that 20% of American Protestant churches will close in the next two decades. George Bullard, who was a South Carolina Baptist Convention executive when I served in that state, is featured in the article. I have read a good bit of his material and find that he has some astute observations about churches and denominations. You can find links in the ABP piece for all of these people.

There are about 46,000 SBC churches. If Wilson is correct then we can expect to see 11,500 SBC churches disappear by 2030. I suspect that the 25% figure was for all US congregations and rates of closing would differ among the different groups. Almost certainly, we will not be seeing two SBC churches per day closing their doors; however, I suspect that we will see increasing numbers in the years ahead. (Note here that we are not talking about net growth or loss. We are starting churches so no one expects the total number to decline by one-fourth.)

Which brings me to the concept of church revitalization, a perennial topic and thrust in SBC life and one that everyone favors. The various SBC and state convention organizations have church revitalization programs and personnel and have for decades. Alas, I am unaware of any effective top-down revitalization program. There is no national or even state convention program for revitalization of congregations that I see as holding much promise. If your state has one, and has a track record of success, I'd like to know about it. It makes sense to me that the most effective program for church revitalization would be found at the level closest to churches - the association. My local association has a program that is very attractive. It is also very new and without any history, so there are no results to evaluate, but I like what I know about it.

I've preached in a few very small churches whose future is extremely precarious. I'd not be surprised if some of these go defunct but, who knows? With our recipe of local church autonomy (and the fact that churches have no tax bill to pay every year) it is not difficult for a couple of dozen people to hang on to their building and church for years and years. You can always get a supply preacher cheaply.

The question is do these churches desire to be healthy, effective, ministering churches?

Some do. Some don't.

We should put some resources in those that do and let those that don't die a natural death. Things change. Demographics change. Geographic population distributions change. Churches should change as well. Some should close.

If we have sums of money to spend it is more likely that our best results will come from starting new churches rather than trying to resuscitate old ones. One of the points that all the experts agree upon is that it is extremely difficult to revitalize a church and few are successful at it.

I see nothing that dissuades me from agreeing with that.

Monday, June 30, 2014

In the next 20 years the SBC will be smaller

I do think that we're going to see a winnowing. We're going to see a clarification of who we are and I do believe in twenty years we're going to be a smaller denomination, maybe less number of churches but I think that we're going to be more focused. I think we're going to be more serious about joining together and reaching the world for Christ.

Frank Page, CEO, SBC Executive Committee, Fault Lines Within the SBC Panel, June, 2014 (go to the 24 minute mark at the end).

If we look down the road at what the SBC will be like two decades hence, what do we see?

Frank Page sees a smaller denomination but one more focused on reaching the world for Christ.

I don't think any of us can see clearly what we will look like, what we will be like twenty years down the road, but it is somewhat remarkable that Frank Page, our day-to-day SBC leader is honest and forthright enough to state candidly that we are going to be smaller. Give a tip of the hat to demographics, cultural and religious trends, and old fashioned realism.

As for being more focused on reaching the world for Christ...perhaps. The jury is out on that but I see churches less interested in denominational structures, less interested in creating and maintaining the denominational infrastructure, particularly buildings, staff, and budgets than in placing and supporting church planters here in North America, and enhancing authentic Christian witness overseas.

It is noteworthy in this regard that in his address to trustees last month Tom Elliff, lame duck CEO of our International Mission Board, signaled his belief in "new avenues" for sending and supporting missionaries. More on this later, but if there is a vision for the SBC future, it likely will be led with something in this form. Make note here that our grand denominational funding program, The Cooperative Program, which is responsible as much as any  factor for the SBC that we have today is singularly uncaptivating to a new generation of ministers. Our goal with the CP at this stage is to find an acceptable floor for giving; hence, Elliff's exploratory remarks about "new avenues."

Any optimists among us who see a larger denomination?

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Is there a realistic "Third Way" Cooperative Program alternative?

Here are the two main choices SBC churches have in regard to the Cooperative Program: Give to it through the regular state convention channel or not give to it.

Almost all churches give to the Cooperative Program. In fact, and despite the incessant lamentation over the declining percentages given to the CP, the average church gives 5.5% of its undesignated offerings to the CP. While this may be about half of the percentage of a generation ago, it still is a mammoth common funding plan that generates almost half a billion dollars to our ministries. If we stop griping about what it used to be thirty years ago and consider that any church that chooses not to give to the CP is a very rare Baptist bird, we might have a better perspective for the future.

Churches have always had the option of designated giving and almost all churches give in this manner, chiefly through the two mission offerings, Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong. Many churches are diverting dollars formerly given through the CP to either or both of these offerings or to other SBC and non-SBC mission causes. By the end of the decade the two mission offerings will total more than the SBC part of the CP.

But, suppose for example that a church wants to keep their 5% Cooperative Program amount and that they don't want to designate any of that percentage. Is there an alternative? Jon Akin at B21 says that there is and offers one in a recent article, CP: Another Way.

Akin rehearses the difficulty and slowness of state conventions moving to forward more of the CP dollar to the two mission boards and seminaries and smaller SBC entities. The fact is and the fact will remain that most of a CP dollar is kept within the state conventions, meaning that the legacy southern states that are so heavily populated by Southern Baptist churches also keep most of the mission money, about 61%. This is nothing new. State conventions have always kept most of the money. That's the system.

The Great Commission Resurgence created a lot of noise and a little movement towards adjusting this 61% downwards toward a 50/50 Cooperative Program split. This has had incremental results partly because state convention insiders and executives consider that 50/50 really means 55/45 or even 60/40 (nothing much has changed since 2011 when I wrote the piece linked).

Here's where Akin sees another way,
But, what if there was an alternative? What if a church genuinely values what the state convention is doing, wants to be a part of the process, wants to support its missions and ministries, but wants to move more quickly to 50/50 so more money gets to the nations? Is there an option for them? What if churches could give their CP dollars straight to the national convention and tell them to send 50% of my dollars to my state convention to help fund their mission efforts?  
This alternative is possible and some churches already do this. The Executive Committee receives some funds directly from individuals and churches (in the low single digit percentages) and, presumably, they are able to direct these funds as the donor wishes.

I don't think this to be a realistic alternative.

Forgive my pessimism but this, (a) it requires too much of an irregular process, and (b) there are more comfortable and less demanding alternatives. There's nothing wrong with Akin's suggestion but churches, I speculate, would feel a bit hesitant to send their checks around their state convention even if the state convention ended up with half of the church's giving after it was first routed through Nashville. Add to that the ease and long habit of churches taking the two mission offerings. The easier alternative, one that has been practiced for decades and one that churches are inherently more comfortable with is for a church to decrease their CP percentage or amount by an amount that then is budgeted to Annie Armstrong, Lottie Moon, or other causes. The state convention will still keep their 60% or 65% but the church has effectively reduced the percentage by giving less.

What the Akin proposal clearly shows, though, is that there are many Southern Baptists who are loyal, who love the Cooperative Program, who love and support their state convention, but who feel that the CP process and allocation formulas do not reflect their priorities, nor the reality of the world's Gospel needs in the 21st Century.

I get this general conclusion when I ask younger pastors about the Cooperative Program and their mission priorities. I've never had a thirtysomething pastor who said they believe that our state, Georgia, has a greater need for CP dollars that places in North America and the world beyond the Chattahoochee and Savannah rivers. Not once. Maybe I'm talking to the wrong thirtysomethings.

We could do the same thing Akin suggests in an easier fashion if state conventions would offer churches alternative giving plans. My state could offer two alternatives, a "traditional" plan that maintained the current split (about 60/40, the state keeping the 60%) but also a straight "50/50" plan where that CP dollar is divided equally between the Georgia Baptist Convention and SBC causes (and the 50/50 would be straight, without any accounting funny business where money kept in Georgia is called "shared" ministries or other fuzzy labels). I think that this alternative would have an immediate market among churches and pastors and that many churches would adopt the 50/50 plan, thereby fully supporting the official CP while giving in better accord with their mission priorities.

I wouldn't look for this, though, since the only result would be a decrease in state convention revenues. State convention decision makers would prefer to have the ability to dangle tiny, fractional percentage movements towards 50/50, since they are better in control of those decisions. The idea of giving a church a straight choice removes the state convention from being in control and is therefore an idea that is DOA...

...Unless there is a grassroots movement to storm the Baptist Bastille and demand liberte from the legacy keepers of the Cooperative Program.