Monday, March 21, 2011

Dropping like a rock: The Cooperative Program

A 2007 survey yielded the unlikely statistic that 87% of SBC pastors were "generally satisfied" with the Cooperative Program.

Come on, 87% of SBC pastors will not agree that the sun rises in the east...but there you have it - SBC pastors happy with the CP.

So, why is it dropping like a rock, a trend over three decades long?

We may have more mental angst over baptism statistics but Ed Stetzer says that the trend line for baptisms over the past 60 years shows no “discernable pattern.” While baptisms may be the figure we love to tout or, lately, the one that is the subject of our jeremiads, it isn't the most serious trend.

What’s dropping like a rock is the percentage of undesignated church offerings that is given through our venerable Cooperative Program. Check these figures (source):

Cooperative Program as a Percentage of Undesignated Church Offerings

1997-98..... 8.13
2007-08..... 6.082
2008-09..... 5.868

From the lusty 11.13% the year I was called in to the Christian ministry to the 5.868% for the last year for which I have statistics there is a staggering 47.3% decline. Here in 2011 we may already be at or past the 50% point.

Any way you slice this churches are sending about half of what they did thirty years ago through the Cooperative Program. If the CP were cereal, a corporation would declare it to be a dying brand and manage it accordingly, maybe putting the boxes on a lower shelf and moving on to newer and fresher products that catch the buying public’s interest.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a better plan or product than the Cooperative Program. Even though it has declined, it is still a huge funding engine and will surely continue to be the major denominational funding plan. No other plan makes as much sense.

So, how low can it go? I dunno. While I am certain that there has to be a floor to this drop, I don't know what it is.

Two salient questions:

1. Why the steep drop?
2. What can be done to arrest or reverse it?

I'd guess, I'd hope, that Frank Page, every state convention CEO, all the seminary presidents, Kevin Ezell and Tom Elliff arrive at work thinking about the Cooperative Program decline and what they can do about it. They cannot afford not to.

I read that Frank Page and the Executive Committee have retained an image consultant to see if the CP can be "rebranded." I can't pin it down but the idea of "rebranding" makes me recoil a bit. Regardless (alas, they didn't check with me about this), we've now got this consultant and also a "consortium" of state convention stewardship specialists aggregated into something called the Stewardship Development Association (and I have a blog article on that).

The image consultant is a funky-haired, goateed forty-something hot shot who may have some new ideas that will help but I'd bet good Georgia dollars that every one of the state convention CP people are over fifty with most over sixty who probably don't have many new ideas beyond, "Hey, how about you churches sending us more money." Sorry to be so blunt but I've paid attention over the past 30 years to this stuff.

I do think that it is important that the SBC arrive at some equilibrium on churches giving to the Cooperative Program and hope some fresh, new thoughts come to the surface.

What is behind the steep drop and what will arrest and reverse it, I don't know but will speculate in subsequent blog articles.

By way of full disclosure my first two churches gave around 7 to 10 percent to the CP, though in my present church we have some rather serious financial challenges and will do well to give 1% this year. After evaluating what we can do, the church made a decision to give sacrificially to the IMB (we will end up with a Lottie Moon offering of about 3-4% of our budget) and maintain support as best we can to the association, state convention, NAMB and several local ministries. Plodder recognizes that he will not be in line for any denominational jobs or appointments with that low percentage but has accommodated himself to that reality.


David Montoya said...


There was a time (Pre-Resurgence/takeover) that young ministers were mentored to give lead their churches to give to the cooperative program. Pulpit/Pastor search committees would look at how much a potential candidate's church gave. That when out the window early in the political struggle.

When I was on the Committee on Committees, if anyone brought this up, they were told this was not important. This about killed Harold Bennett when they said this.

Sadly, it seems that if something will not help many of the younger "up and coming" pastors get a bigger, "better" church, they are not interested.

We are reaping what has been sown.

John Notestein said...

I don't know about other churches, but the last 2 churches I was a member of, starting in 1987, had a declining emphasis on mission programs in general. Things like WMU, Brotherhood, RAs, GAs, etc., slowly went down with the new emphasis on us doing missions (trips, local, etc). When we taught what missionaries in the field were doing, we generally gave more to the CP.

William Thornton said...

Both of you make good points.

Jonathan said...

I have casual interest in knowing Highview Baptist's CP and Annie Armstrong giving will be over the next 3-4 years.

Jonathan said...

In 2011, it is a settled truth that the SBC is a convention of mega churches where the remaining ~40,000 churches are seen as troops to silently follow their bigger brothers. There will be the occasional exception pointed to from time to time...but these will clearly be the exceptions.

Given the above, small to medium churches have learned or soon will learn that if they want any real involvement aside from sending checks and applauding what others get to do, they're going to have to create it. Hence the explosion of short term trips, partnering with other small churches, adopting IMB personnel, etc... Small churches, having seen the megas do this increasing % of annual budgets, are merely following a lead.

I don't really see a problem with this. What I do have a problem with is the thinking that way to improve CP giving is to ask in ever more creative ways.

The only chance that CP has to improve is if the mega move quickly to begin designating significantly large %'s to the CP. Then, when the SBC leadership (nearly all members or pastors of these same mega churches) proclaim the virtues of increasing CP support, they can actually point to where it is happening.

Adrian Rogers' famous line about how dollars, not percentages, are spent has been taken to heart by the small and medium little brothers. This is not an insignificant driver in CP totals.

Anonymous said...

Johnny Hunt has to be noted as leading his megachurch in the most significant return to the Cooperative Program among all of the megapastors. His church budgeted $900k for this year. I don't know what percentage that is of his budget.