Friday, March 27, 2015

The $43.5 million GBC buliding as an icon

Our Georgia Baptist Convention headquarters building is, best I can tell, the nicest state convention administrative office building in the entire Southern Baptist Convention. It is superior in quality and setting to any of the others. 

It is now debt free, the GBC being given a grant of $25 million or so from the Georgia Baptist Health Care Ministry Foundation to retire the debt. Some called the gift a "miracle" though it was not unexpected. The GBHCMF director explained that the Foundation was waiting for the right time to make the gift. We don't manufacture miracles, much less schedule a trigger date for them. 

In addition to being appropriately ecstatic GBC leaders were careful to note that retiring debt is a biblical concept and that the GBC used to give a lot of money to the hospital before it was sold and the proceeds put in the GBCHCMF to be the source of grants for health care needs. In fact, the GBC leader, Robert White, even had a figure, adjusted for inflation, of how much the GBC had given to the hospital over time, $70 million. Toss in the explanation that GBC messengers approved the building and spending a bunch of times by votes and you've got some pretty sophisticated message management by GBC leaders and insiders.

But, why does a mammoth debt retirement bailout become something that needed to be cast with explanations, justifications, and message management? Can't we all just be happy about it?

Here's the answer: Somewhere along the way, the Georgia Baptist Convention headquarters building became an icon representing what many ordinary GBC pastors and laypeople are less than enthusiastic in supporting. 

Did the ground shift under the GBC to cause this? Did we get carried away with ourselves? Did we get caught in the vise grip of declining church metrics and economic travails? Probably some of all of these.

But now we're going to reassess ourselves, so I read.

Let's see how serious we are about that.


Monday, March 16, 2015

$25 million Georgia Baptist Convention debt bailout

Georgia Baptists got out of the hospital business some while back, sold the assets to one of the big hospital corporations, and put the money in a foundation which gives grants that support health care needs in Georgia. The initial amount was $125 million. The fund was severely depleted by the economic meltdown in 2008 but total assets were back to about $160 million, meaning that there was a mountain of money that insiders gazed longingly upon and that a few Georgia Baptists were going make decisions about.

It's easily the biggest pot of money around connected to Georgia Baptists. Various significant grants have been made annually to a variety of causes including pregnancy care centers, medical and dental clinics, counseling services and others. This year's grants totaled $3,256,924.

Last week it the Georgia Baptist Health Care Ministry Foundation announced their largest grant ever when they said the Foundation would pay off the $25 million building debt for the Georgia Baptist Convention headquarters building in Duluth. That single item is larger than the sum of all the grants given by the Foundation for the past seven years.

The Christian Index report on the grant is here.

The Foundation has offices in the building and, presumably, Foundation officers and trustees would pass grim-faced GBC leaders and employees in the hallways who understand the burden of a large debt.

Smiling and happy faces abound these days.

I understand money and debt. On a very small scale my last church had a debt wiped out through the sale of a donated property that brought considerably more than expected. I smiled more in church hallways after that.

The $43 million GBC building is a sparkling monument to the halcyon days and optimistic late 20th Century Southern Baptist thinking. It has been a burden. It could not be 'unbuilt' and the large debt loomed over every budget discussion. Even though the GBC had a plan to pay off the massive debt in a time of declining Cooperative Program support, the future looked arduous. The Foundation was the only entity with the sums to fix this. They fixed it. I rejoice with my GBC colleagues in their relief.

It's above my pay grade (actually, my Georgia Baptist pay grade is zero at the moment) to plumb the depths of this massive bailout, but I'll make a few observations:

  • The grant was made and praised as a route to revival in the state. I appreciate the well-intentioned reading of such things but I doubt the route to revival is through retiring building debt. The GBC will be able to devote more funds to matters that actually reach souls and start churches with the money saved from debt service. This year's budget shows $2.15 million in debt service. We have budgeted more money to pay debt than to plant churches. 
  • How will the GBC spend the money now budgeted and spent on debt service? Will we increase our support of the SBC portion of the Cooperative Program? The GBC keeps sixty cents of every CP dollar in state. Will it be considered that the seminaries and our two mission boards deserve more of the CP dollar?
  • Will the GBC create some staff positions put more people on the payroll with the extra money? I appreciate my Georgia Baptist colleagues, but it's tough for this Georgia Baptist to see much of a connection between how many people occupy the Georgia Baptist Building and church health and growth.  
  • Earlier offers by GBC leaders to sell the building and move to more modest office accommodations are, presumably, off the table. In a time when a vision for the future is not centralized staff and programming, where should be be spending our money for maximum return? We have a nice centralized HQ building, a testament to the turn of the century vision of baby boomer GBC leadership. What now?
  • It is a considerable stretch to explain paying off debt for an administrative building as support for health care needs. I get the indirect connection. Presumably, lawyers have already signed off on using Foundation assets for this purpose. 
  • Praise be to the Federal Reserve System whose easy money policy enable the stock market to soar and funds like the GBHCM Foundation to profit with considerable unearned growth. Dare I say that President Obama is indirectly responsible for paying off our building debt?
  • Make no mistake about it. The $25 million that goes to lenders to pay off the GBC debt is $25 million that will never be available to earn income to be spent on health clinics, pregnancy centers, or other causes. We all make opportunity cost decisions. This is the Georgia Baptist Health Care Ministry Foundation's decision. 
  • We sold our hospitals where patients were healed and put a good chunk of the proceeds in a building where staff has offices. You make the call on the propriety of that.
Opinions from Baptists are free and they are ubiquitous. I'll offer my opinion on how the GBC should spend the millions that they don't have to spend on debt service. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Best Cooperative Program article in decades

I have followed the Cooperative Program for almost forty years - thirty years as a pastor, a few years on both ends of that as a seminarian and retiree, respectively.

The article below by Roger S. Oldham, SBC Executive Committee Vice President for Convention Communications and Relations, is the best I have seen in all these years in its reporting on and explanation of our venerable Cooperative Program.

National CP Shows Signs of Rebounding

The article is the headline for the most recent SBCLife: Journal of the Southern Baptist Convention that the Executive Committee of the SBC publishes five times each year.

The SBC Executive Committee is one of the most forthright of our SBC entities. There hasn't been much good news in a long time on the CP but the Executive Committee has monthly press releases that accurately tell Southern Baptists what is transpiring in regard to CP receipts from the state conventions.

"Big deal," you say?

It is a big deal to have accurate reporting. Declining metrics are like poison to SBC pastors, churches, state conventions, and entities. All of these commonly and routinely finesse or spin bad news. I once knew of a church that, after years of stellar growth in their Sunday School, saw attendance figures level off and then begin declining. Solution to that? Stop reporting attendance numbers in the church bulletin and newsletter. Problem solved. Other churches in similar situations start rationalizing padding the numbers so that the decline is not readily noticed by members.

One thing every SBC pastor and layperson learns to understand is that at times it has been extremely difficult to get straightforward numbers and straight talk from state convention executives and entity leaders. I am not asserting that any individual is dishonest, but rather that executives regularly and routinely spin their numbers to the point where reality is disguised to the average SBC pastor or layperson.

The reason this piece by Sing Oldham is a great article is that it is honest, straightforward, and educational. In the article one finds,

  • The latest encouraging news on CP giving, receipts are slightly but notably up for this fiscal year, is offered with the accurate backdrop of the last five years of declining membership, per capita CP giving, total CP giving, national CP receipts, and national per capita CP gifts.
  • More important than the last five years of numbers is the splendid explanation of CP history. Seldom do state conventions take time to explain some of the arcana regarding state/national CP splits much less the history of how the states came to gobble up well beyond half of CP receipts.
  • Recent important decisions by the various state conventions are noted, tabulated, and explained. More about this in a subsequent.
I was one ignorant pastor for about the first half of my pastoral ministry. I knew the basics about the CP but I knew little about the intricacies of  the state/national relationships and nothing about how the states handled the accounting. As a result, when I would attend forums where state executives talked about how the CP was such a great shared revenue program, I didn't know enough to recognize when state leaders would deflect or finesse questions by pastors about the state/national division of the monies.  

Ten minutes of reading this is worth ten years of press releases, cheerleading, and the relentless CP spin that pastors usually hear.

Future articles:
  • How state conventions managed to avoid the goal of an ideal 50/50 state/national CP split for the entire life of the Cooperative Program
  • How many state conventions are dispensing with the fuzzy accounting presentation techniques and moving to the ideal goal with straight up accounting.