Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Dollars pay bills, not percentages

How hard is this?

Take your wife out to the finest restaurant in town. Run up a three-figure tab, sans alcohol of course. When the server presents the bill, just say,

"I'm paying this with my percentage."


"Yeah, I'd like to pay by percentage."

"We prefer dollars, please."

Ah, brother, you are embarrassing your wife in public with your behavior. You lose credit for the expensive meal you just bought her.

I first heard the title phrase from Adrian Rogers back in the 1980s. Moderates were criticizing him for his church's low Cooperative Program giving percentage. Moderates often sported a lapel button that said "10%" as a way of promoting that percentage of undesignated church receipts to be given to the CP. Bellevue, Adrian's church, was under 4%. When the issue was raised, Adrian said, "Dollar pay bills, not percentages." Bellevue paid a lot of SBC and Tennessee state convention bills with their CP giving.

Since then the axiomatic phrase is always good for a discussion. While I understand the point of those who focus on the percentages, it is one measure of the importance of our denominational funding plan to that church and pastor, I think the logic behind the dollars/percentages statement is unassailable.

No one ever paid a bill with a percentage.

Why does it matter?

It matters to many because they see megachurches giving very low percentages to the CP, yet megachurch pastors are almost never rejected for denominational office because of that (Check my article, SBC presidents and the CP, for a rundown of this).

With CP percentages sliding downward, now under six percent for the average church, some point to megachurches as the cause. Perhaps in a small way they are. We operate on the star system in the SBC and megapastors are the stars. Lowly average church pastors imitate them in many ways.

In my local association the CP average is in the five to six percent range, about the same as the convention as a whole. There are five churches that give over ten percent. Their gifts total around $100k. The single leading CP church in dollars gives a much lower percentage but more than doubles the number of dollars.

Which total would you rather have to pay your bills? The five churches who give over 10% or the one church that gives far less than 10%?


Churches of any and all sizes exercise their autonomy in giving to the CP and pointing fingers at a church's "low" percentage may make some feel good but I doubt many churches will be shamed into increasing their CP percentage. Neither do I think that we will ever get back to anywhere near a 10% average CP percentage convention-wide.

There is, however, an area where I think percentages should be considered. I'll write of that in a few days.

For now, I'm headed to my favorite Third Place to drink tea and read the paper and I'm taking some dollars along to pay the bills.


Anonymous said...

Of course the same people who are always touting percentages never talk about the percentage of church members who never tithe or the percentage who give nothing. Give me the dollars any day.

I was around when they tried to malign Adrian but he sure knew how to answer them! Sure wish he was still with us.

Anonymous said...

"I'm paying this with my percentage."

Sure. We’ll take n% of your salary.

“There are five churches that give over ten percent. Their gifts total around $100k. The single leading CP church in dollars gives a much lower percentage but more than doubles the number of dollars.”

Let’s say triples. Leading CP giver and 15 churches like the aforementioned 5? Yet the ratio will increasingly become smaller as the CP dollar amount drops for the dollars over percentage churches. Looks like SBC is going to need more “non-percentage but dollars giving megas” than it currently has. In the end, it is the percentages that are largely funding the SBC. Dollars not percentages is becoming increasingly problematic as evidenced by regular calls for more money. More simply, dollars over percentages is not working; it is not a sustainable financial or human resource strategy for underwriting the mission of SBC. Along the way smart people figured out that the thing is more than its parts, important as the parts are and the necessity of each functioning as it is able in relation to the whole. Some call the result a gestalt, perhaps others prefer synergy, and still others appreciatively and reverently refer to it as the body.

Important, too, for SBC, is influence, ministry, and human beings and churches from different parts of the country, the world, acting in some dynamic, coordinated fashion, in which each person, each congregation, is valued by others and are perceived to be valued by others for the contributions they make enacting the mission of the institution, thereby bringing more into being the vision of SBC. An emphasis of a dollars over percentages approach (which is conceptually distinct from the giving philosophy behind CP, but conceptually consistent with more independently-oriented larger churches) will, in time, attenuate the effective reach of SBC by alienating smaller congregations.

Moreover, as the one struggles and toils in an area in which gains of any type are difficult (i.e., flat or declining rates of congregational input) and the goal that is most visibly achieved is the presence of ministry, the one in low moments of discouragement needs the encouragement and assurance that the manifested faithfulness is valued and deemed crucial for the identity of the whole. Dollars not percentages undermines community (and that which it creates and sustains) by weakening social ties and sense of shared mission.

Dollars not percentages. Given the diversity of SBC churches, which will best sustain the institution? If the former, why the current conversation?

William said...

The current conversation is driven by wistful laments about past percentages. No one agressively promotes dollars over percentages but some autonomous churches choose fixed amounts as their giving plan while the majority choose percentages of their receipts. In the case of the latter, they are choosing lower percentages for many reasons.

The question is not just what will best sustain the denomination for the future but also what do churches wish to sustain?

As the economy improves and church budgets are less stressed churches are choosing to designate more to the two mission boards and less so restore earlier levels of CP percentages or dollars.

I know of no data that does not show that SBC churches of all sizes are giving less in percentages that 10, 20 or 30 years ago. Some of the cause for this is likely megachurch/pastor leadership by example but not the primary cause, I would speculate.

Anonymous said...

"The question is not just what will best sustain the denomination for the future but also what do churches wish to sustain?"

The two are related, that is, churches have multiple identities, each identity having a certain or varying level of responsibility, and periodically churches will assess, affirm, or change its organizational associations and the degree to which it wishes to commit to such. At the very least, SBC does not want to enact practices that will facilitate broken ties or lower levels of commitment among its congregations. Given a system is a set of interrelated subsystems, its functioning is also contingent on the integration of its subsystems. Due to differentiation needs and equifinality, systems can incorporate a wide degree of diversity, but when some subsystems undermine the deep assumptions on which the system operates, integration becomes more difficult, thus compromising sustainability absent some level of adaption. In any event, financial issues that threaten an institution will usually more clearly reveal the real and espoused values of the institution. Assume conflict around such.

William said...

We just went through two value recalibrations. At the SBC level no substantial allocation change was volunteered. At the state level declining revenues forced many changes and concomitant value decisions were made as well, leading to decisions to incrementally decrease state shares of the CP.

You may be unaware here, although reading here is educational even if my conclusions are disputed.

Thanks for the comments. I almost always look forward to, and have come to expect such on certain topics.

Anonymous said...

"We just went through two value recalibrations."

Yes, you did, but the strategy is inconsistent with the underlying philosophy of the Cooperative Program. The convention would like to (rightfully) reduce uncertainty and more tightly integrate administrative and planning decisions, which CP was initially designed to foster, but the "GC societal giving as CP cooperative giving" does not allow as much for such. That, compounded with dollars rather than percentages (and the resulting social and giving issues which are derived from such), further removes the ability of the convention to attain its desired goals.

A question to ask: What is the best one can expect when independently-minded congregations act against type by trying to act cooperatively?

Lee said...

The year that Jack Graham was elected President of the SBC, his church, Prestonwood Baptist in Metro Dallas, gave a total of $65,000 in undesignated gifts through the CP, and about $50,000 through the two missions offerings. I'd say that's not the kind of giving, dollars or not, that we want to encourage.

There is a note back in the 80's that when Charles Stanley was elected SBC prez the first time, his church actually gave one dollar, $1, through the CP in order to qualify as having contributed to the work of the convention during the previous year, so they could send messengers and elect their pastor. I'm sure that dollar counted, but I would bet that every other church in the SBC, including the 85% that are smaller than FBC Atlanta, gave more.

Percentages become examples. If the leaders come from churches that are tipping the CP with a very small amount of the dollars they receive, then why should my church of 85 active members determine that we can better spend 6% of what we give to the CP, and cut our giving to 4% which is perfectly fine because that's what {fill in the name of the nearest SBC megachurch) gives. And so, there are less dollars.