Friday, February 28, 2014

The Cooperative Program we have...not the one we had or dream about.

The SBC as we know it would not exist without our venerable and beloved Cooperative Program. Without it, there would certainly be a Southern Baptist Convention. It just wouldn't look like what we see today.

Alas, our flagship denominational giving program is in this slow, steady, relentless decline. As a percentage of offering plate dollars, it has declined from over ten percent 35 years ago to about 5.4%. There is no SBC statistic that is as consistent as this one. Even annual baptisms show an uptick occasionally but not the Cooperative Program percentage.

Frank Page is hopeful for a Cooperative Program uptick.

A couple of things about our Executive Committee leader. First, he is brutally honest, a virtue not found in all SBC leaders most of whom know how to finesse or ignore unpleasant news in hopes that no one will notice or that it will go away. Page noted candidly that charitable giving has increased, most of our churches report increased revenues; however, the Cooperative Program continues to decline. I would add that the stock market is at a record level as well. There is more money around to be given. It's just not being put in the CP.

Second, Frank Page is relentlessly and unashamedly aspirational about the CP. The one percent increase plan shows some success. He promises to continue to work at it saying, "I supported [the CP] before I was paid to support this. As a pastor, I strongly supported over 10 percent of our church's undesignated receipts to the Cooperative Program." God bless him.

I am venturing here some rank conjecture about the future of the Cooperative Program. Take it for what it is worth.

Forget the ten percent days. They are gone forever and are not going to return. 

I hear state convention folks and denominational leaders and staff speak with wistful nostalgia about those days. "Ah, they say, what could we do if churches gave 10 percent rather than 5 percent. Brethren, wait until you are safely settled in a retirement home to let yourself get carried on by such memories. They are gone. Kaput. Life has changed. Churches have changed. We have changed. Better to work at maintaining a threshold percentage, say five percent.

Aspirational SBC leaders like Frank Page and SBC Voices contributor Rick Patrick (whose "Pick a Number" article advocates adopting a 10% CP figure to suggest to churches) are the kinds of people I want to cooperate with in the SBC. We always do a little better when challenged. I just don't see the least chance of rolling back the clock and rolling up the percentages to double digits.

The Cooperative Program will not be revived by any attempt to cajole churches or shame churches into giving larger percentages.

We have demonstrated over the past 35 years that we seldom find a mega church pastor whose congregation gives in the low single digits whom we are unwilling to elevate to our highest denominational elective office. Check the percentages of SBC presidents over this period.

I get it, brethren. Smaller church pastors resent the fact that their church gives CP percentages that are double or triple the SBC average and often many multiples of some megachurches. Some speak of the "fair share" that should be expected of churches. There is no such thing and if I know Southern Baptist churches and pastors, there aren't many who will sit still and be lectured on what they owe the convention.

Wise convention leaders express appreciation for whatever level of support the CP gets from churches. This is right and proper, since the convention serves the churches and not vice versa. There is no reason, however, that we cannot find some threshold figure of CP support before we elect officers and trustees. This has to be done informally in a grassroots fashion. No one can pick the number and dictate it.

There is nothing present, nor anything on the SBC radar that promises to increase CP percentages.

We should elect leaders whose percentages are exemplary but I would not be optimistic that the giving example of any leader shows itself in any overall increase. There are too many factors working against it.

State conventions, many of them, have heard their churches call for a greater proportion of CP revenues to be forwarded to the Executive Committee and then to the mission boards and seminaries. We're talking about fractions of percents annually on this. We're looking at five and ten year plans that, if implemented, will move state conventions from 60 or 65 percent to 55 percent or so. This is good. It is positive. But it isn't a substantial enough change to translate into changing church behavior. This will not stop state executives from saying, "We did our part. How about you churches doing yours" but it doesn't matter. They work for the churches, not the churches for the various levels of convention life.

The pressures in the convention work against the Cooperative Program.

Calvinism/Traditionalism or any of the assorted other issues that swirl around the convention all have a price. At the moment we have some prominent pastors who designate around certain seminaries who are seen to be too Calvinistic. We have others who are displeased with NAMB for their church planting policies which are also seen as too Calvinistic. We have state Baptist colleges who are plainly not comfortable places for Calvinistic students and faculty. All this mitigates against any unity in expanding and increasing the CP.

Think of it on a local church level. All that has to happen for a church to decrease their CP giving is for one of any number of gripes to bubble up in the pastor's or church leadership's thinking. Perhaps my fellow pastors would tell me if I am wrong, generally, that decreasing the CP percentage in a local church budget meets with much less resistance that it did thirty years ago. Contrast that to what might happen for a church to increase their CP giving. While possible and while many churches have responded positively to Frank Page's One Percent CP increase plan, churches will make opportunity cost decisions with their funds and many will conclude that there are other, better uses for their missions giving. The CP simply isn't presenting an attractive enough appeal to score high on that comparison for most churches. 

More churches, and even state conventions, are taking a more direct funding route.

Check the figures. The Executive Committee received more last fiscal year in designated funds from the states than they did in Cooperative Program funds. That old, archaic term societal giving, well it are us these days. We never left it and now it looks more popular than ever. At the SBC level we are a mostly societally funded orgainzation.

Not much has been said about it but one state convention (South Carolina, perhaps others also) is sending some funding directly to the IMB. Their thinking is that they can get to the level of support they wish to give international missions by taking a portion of CP gifts from the churches and bypassing Nashville than they can by submitting their national portion of CP revenues to the SBC Executive Committee's allocation plan. The math works for them by this method; whereas, it works against them through the traditional route. 

The two major mission offerings, Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong, have fared much better than the Cooperative Program recently. In fact, unless trends change, within a decade the Lottie Moon offering will be greater than the portion of the CP received by the Executive Committee. 

The Cooperative Program desperately needs a makeover.

Oh, we tried that with the Great Commission Resurgence, one of those grand eruptions where we clamor for change and recommitment to our main purposes of missions and ministry. Here's the result of that: NAMB came out better, IMB got a tiny increase, the seminaries successfully protected their slice of the CP pie, and state conventions were expected to shoulder all the costs. 

Nothing much about that makes the CP look better than it did before.

We might keep doing the same things and just manage the CP as a declining but still substantial funding mechanism, a legacy brand that has seen its best days. Not a bad idea. Be positive about it, recognizing the realities, adjust to leaner state conventions, try and consolidate some seminary expenses, while keeping NAMB and IMB our main entities robust and vigorous in their work.

Anyone have a better idea?

There are days where I do pessimism quite well. And there are days where I do realism extremely well. You choose which you prefer. I'm thinking there is a convergence on this subject.


Anonymous said...

How many once, large churches become large again?

Very, very, very few. And pastors usually don't hang around as decline increases in intensity.

SBC is in decline, as are others, and until it and they move forward and develop strategies and structures for a new environment, it will be the same old words by different people and the words will generate less and less support. There will be a positive bump or two along the way, but such will not alter the general downward trend.

Perhaps SBC could explore developing a parallel organization, that in time will develop the energy and resources to be as effective for a new day as the SBC once was in the past? Perhaps it is time for the SBC to begin grooming its successor?

Tom Parker said...


You said:"Alas, our flagship denominational giving program is in this slow, steady, relentless decline. As a percentage of offering plate dollars, it has declined from over ten percent 35 years ago to about 5.4%."

Let's see 2014- 35 years = 1979. There is something really significant about that year in SBC life.

Surely, at the upcoming SBC convention there should be a recognition of this anniversary-- of how far the TAKEOVER has progressed the SBC such as the major decline in CP giving.

William Thornton said...

It's part of it but there are other factors as well.

Anonymous said...

One blogger called NAMB's approach "kicking people off the bus." I would say not only have NAMB and my state convention kicked us off the bus, then they turn around and look down their noses and ask why we've decided to pay less of the fair...??.?