Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Why church Cooperative Program percentages will never go up

I rather tend to stay away from categorical statements but saying that the percentage of undesignated offering plate dollars given in churches to the Cooperative Program will never go up is, well, categorical. I would qualify that to say never go up by at least one percentage point.

This important metric has increased the past two years, as shown below:

Percentage of undesignated offerings given to Cooperative Program

2011                     5.407
2012                     5.414
2013                     5.500

These are encouraging figures, especially in the context of the decades long slide of percentages. When I entered the pastoral ministry in 1982 the average percentage for a church was over ten percent.

So, if the percentages are up, even slightly, why the prediction that they will never go up to six, seven, eight percent or greater? Here are several reasons why.

1. The Cooperative Program is static, fixed and no substantial changes will make it more attractive.

States now keep about 60% of the CP dollar. There is a movement towards a "50/50" split of funds between state conventions and the Executive Committee. This movement has shown some success. Baptist Press reported that 23 states strengthened global missions last year and were "moving toward a goal of a "50/50 allocation between in-state causes and SBC causes."

The state conventions depend almost exclusively on CP dollars to fund their staff, buildings, and ministries. As a result, their main incentive is to preserve their funds, jobs, ministries, and entities. In doing this they are accustomed to carving out ten percent of the CP dollar off the top and applying a label of "shared" ministries or other label. This accounting technique (standard for decades and not nefarious, just not well known) allows them to keep the first ten percent and then move towards a 50/50 split of the remaining 90%. Not all states do this but most of the CP dollars go through this fuzzy process making 50/50 almost a meaningless figure. The upshot of it all is that the states are making incremental changes that are unlikely to alter the behavior of individual churches, in my view.

Additionally, the SBC allocation formula is pretty well set in concrete. No one expects the seminaries to ever say they need less than 21.92%. No one I know believes that the IMB should be cut from their 50.41%. NAMB has some critics but they are not calling for a reduction of its 22.79%. The Executive Committee cut their percentage to 2.99% a few years ago. The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is generously funded at 1.65% and better watch out because their $3.1 million looks awfully generous for what we receive in return, but there's no big money there, just tiny percentages.

No one. No one, is making any grand vision statements about the CP that will motivate churches to change their behavior and give considerably more and I see no signs that selling the program we have will suddenly have greater success.

2. Large and megachurches will never give at average and above average percentages. 

Our 175 or so megachurches fuel the trends in SBC life to a certain extent. They supply our most visible leaders. Smaller churches seek to emulate their success.

Ronnie Floyd, megachurch pastor and our current president, is a vocal CP supporter and his church is a heavy CP giver, but I haven't seen anyone claim that his church is at or above the SBC average of 5.5%. That's not a problem for me (I'll take the dollars that always pay bills rather than the percentages that never pay bills) but the string of megapastors we elect are influential and they are not going to motivate many churches to give above average CP percentages. They don't practice this in their own churches.

3. Very high CP percentage giving churches have correspondingly higher pressure to reduce that percentage. 

I was pleased to see BP's article about our SBCV colleague whose church is a 30% CP giver. That's almost six times the average, very impressive and altogether commendable. Awesome, really. I commend him and them for it. I'm a long way from the flatlands of Arkansas but I would guess that when discussions occur in his church, or in any other church giving 15%, 20% and more, they center on CP reduction, not increase. Sooner or later someone in these churches will make a proposal to cut the CP percentage by five or ten points and the church will think it to be a good idea. This is a battle that only has to be won once by those who would redirect some of that CP money, whereas CP supporters have to win year-after-year-after year.

Consequently, it is likely that a very high percentage church will eventually be reeled back towards the pack because there are considerable pressures in every local church for local ministry, staff needs, programmatic initiatives, and building plans. A high CP percentage is a big, big target for all of these. It always gets shot at and sometimes hit.

4. Churches will inch the CP percentage upward in fractions but move downward in large numbers.

I am familiar with a church that cut their CP percentage from over 15% to 10% to free up funds for local ministry. A 5% cut. Show me churches that increase their CP percentage by 5% from 5 to 10% or 7 to 12%. Seldom happens. This is why Frank Page's Great Commission Challenge which asked for one percentage point increase by churches, can be widely successful with thousands of churches accepting it but the CP can still decline. A church that goes up by 0.5% or by 1% is more than offset by churches that drop by 1%, 3%, or 5%.

The CP was undoubtedly helped by Page's initiative but the math is such that it isn't showing in any considerable increase in revenues or lifting of percentages.

5. It's official, we are mostly a societal giving convention anyway.

OK, my erudite SBC colleagues. What is trending upwards in SBC life? Lottie Moon is, record offering in 2013. Annie Armstrong is, SEND North America is thriving, offerings are up. Churches doing direct missions both here and overseas are up. Churches partnering directly with IMB (and thereby bypassing both their state convention and the Executive Committee) are up. None of these are CP driven. All of them are CP unfriendly.

And it's old news now but for two years straight the Executive Committee has received more in designated dollars than in undesignated, Cooperative Program dollars. At the SBC level we are mostly societal, brethren.

6. The Cooperative Program is a dying brand. 

I asked a thirtysomething, solidly Southern Baptist pastor what he thought of the Cooperative Program. He looked at me and replied, "Oh, that's a state convention thing." Not said was, "That's a state convention thing and we aren't all that interested in funding central staff and expensive buildings. We are much more attuned to local ministry and supporting North American and international missions. The CP is a tough sell. In fact, the CP does much better the less pastors and laypeople know about it, since the less people know them more they believe that the CP is mostly IMB and NAMB. The brand is not dead but it is slowly dying.

But let's be positive here. The CP still puts hundreds of millions of dollars into ministry all over the US and the world. It is a huge funding engine. We should thank God for it and support it. But it will never recover from where it was.

I have several hats and will be glad to eat any one of them if the CP goes northward of 6%.

1 comment:

dr. james willingham said...

The cost to Southern Baptists and, indeed, to biblical Christianity for the future of the attitude that the Cooperative Program and the associated institutions are dying institutions will be the end of the Christian witness for the most part in the world. What most people do not realize is that the State Convention staffs represent a visible presence in state capitals which influences legislators and others involved in state governments. The same goes for local associations and for the Southern Baptist Convention. The latter does need an office in D.C. where representation of our causes can be made to the members of Congress and other branches of the national government, including agencies which implement laws. Perhaps, biblical justification can be provided for the local association, but, while the other organizations lack such justification, they are the chosen means for taking action. We can scarcely afford to lose them at this point. The idea of doing away with these institutions shows either a remarkable lack of knowledge of Baptist and national history or a deliberate and hostile opposition that has no place in Baptist life.