Recently, Dr. Rick Patrick (FBC Sylacauga, AL) asked some difficult questions over at SBC Today. I’d like to address his queries, even if only as part of a thought exercise. I’ll quote and summarize as best I can, but in fairness to Dr. Patrick readers would be better equipped if they read his article in its entirety.
Dr. Patrick’s article, “Evaluating Missions Support Tricky” starts by acknowledging dual tracks in financial support for SBC missions. The Cooperative Program (CP) model still exists as a valued giving tool, but the Great Commission Giving Plan (GCG) has risen as another viable option.
Dr. Patrick struggles when attempting to compare and measure these two programs; more specifically, he wonders about the overall impact of the GCG Plan as applied by large, multi-campus churches. He posits a mega/multi church giving generously via the GCG, and asks:
“Suppose they [the church] also give massive dollars directly through NAMB and IMB, creating connections and building relationships within the denomination that can be helpful when candidates from one’s church apply for the church planting school or the church planting program through NAMB or missionary appointments through IMB.”
While we know sometimes large gifts lead to good relationships, we cringe at admitting that good, proper, financially-initiated relationships often lead to advantages others might not have. As Dr. Patrick pointed out:
“Does it stand to reason that a church that gives big bucks directly to various organizations might be on the receiving end of some preferential treatment when it comes to appointment decisions? In other walks of life, large financial contributions by organizations tend to purchase strong levels of influence.”
Dr. Patrick presents some hard questions: are certain candidates for appointment with IMB/NAMB receiving preferential treatment due to the relationships built through direct giving? Are candidate acceptance rates higher for mega/multi churches as result of their combined financial support power that smaller churches lack? He believes, “...until we can get more information from our mission boards enabling us to compare the acceptance rate of each individual church with the acceptance rate for all churches, we cannot rule out the existence of the kind of appointment bias…“
Let’s Get Nerdy
Dr. Patrick asks some legitimate questions. I dislike his requiring proof to rule out something improper, but logically he’s correct. I’d rather assume all is well in SBC Land, but human nature being what it is perhaps I’m displaying a bit of naiveté.
Suppose we gather a list of mega/multi SBC churches who follow the GCG Plan. For reasons that make sense to the voices inside my head, I have defined a mega/multi church as one with at least three campuses. This loose definition provides us a large pool, which will tend to even out the extreme data points. We could look at how many applicants our mega/multi churches sent through the application process over the last 18 months and how many are approved. We’ll call this the MM acceptance rate.
Eighteen months covers almost all of Dr. David Platt’s presidency at IMB. While Dr. Patrick does not say as much, I get a vibe that the change in giving patterns and the rise of mega/multi churches directly giving/relating to our mission agencies roughly coincides with Platt’s tenure. I hope that’s a fair assessment.
Now let’s create a larger pool of all SBC churches, excluding mega/multis, who send candidates through the application process. We’ll refer to this as the GC (general convention) acceptance rate.
Therefore, we can easily examine whether the MM exceeds the GC.
If MM = GC, then we can lay Dr. Patrick’s concerns to rest; likewise, if MM<GC, Dr. Patrick’s legitimate questions are answered. In these cases, large financial gifts from mega/multi churches do not result in relationships that can be observed via altered candidate acceptance rates.
However, if MM>GC by a large measure, then we’ve got a new round of questions. Financially-driven relationships form only a part of the picture.
- Is the ratio being skewed by one or two large churches whose numbers are statistical outliers? If the MM for most multi-campus churches is in line with the GC rate, but the overall ratio is altered by one or two highly active churches then a fair analysis (1) requires us to set the outliers aside before comparing MM and GC while (2) later examining the outliers to understand what makes them unique.
- Are these churches located near large, long-standing training centers (seminaries, strong Christian/Bible colleges)? I would imagine such a church might have a different sort of member than churches far from seminaries and training centers.
- Prior to our 18 month window, were these large churches already moving towards massive missional involvement that would have changed the character of their people sufficiently to make them better potential candidates? Were they sending missions teams around the world while establishing themselves as mission-oriented churches within their local communities?
- How multi-ethnic are these churches? Multi-campuses offer the chance for different flavors and styles, which can be attractive to immigrants and expats looking for exactly the right fit. Non-white applicants are uniquely gifted, and might stand out as exceptional candidates. Do these churches provide spaces for Deaf, Korean, Hispanic, and other language/cultural groups? Having sensitivity to the needs of other Christian groups both reflects and influences a missional mindset.
- Are members at large churches with elaborate facilities more financially stable? Can they attend special mission events, training sessions, and opportunities? Do their pew-mates have more education, making appointment easier than more blue-collar churches?
We can go on and on. What sort of leadership do they have? Does the church offer missions training? Do they regularly invite international and domestic missionaries to live on church grounds or speak at church events? Has the church partnered with missionaries of various stripes long before the advent of their giving relationship? Do they send SBC missionaries directly to the field with 100% financial support, setting them up to partner alongside IMB/NAMB workers?
So while MM>GC might indicate a financially-initiated relationship that leads to a greater acceptance rate for specific candidates, the issue contains too many variables to place the responsibility at the feet of relationships between churches and mission agencies. Algorithms sufficient for analysis of every realistic variable lie beyond my ability even to guess. Math Nerds, here’s your chance.
What’s Wrong with That?
While Dr. Patrick does not examine this possibility, I would want to know why MM=GC or MM<GC. If these churches are pooling their resources, training their people, and sending mission teams, we could realistically expect them to have a few more well-qualified applicants than smaller churches. I don’t mean more spiritual candidates; training, experience, doctrinal understanding can all flow out of the quality of church leadership, both as represented by a pastor and by the entire body. If campuses are merging and megachurches are forming in order to better expand His kingdom, why aren’t we seeing some sort of raising of the bar amongst its missionary candidates?
What about single-campus churches in close proximity to mega/multi churches? Are their members able to access the resources of the entire Christian community in their area, or are the large churches tending exclusively to their own flocks? Potentially, we could see nearby churches sending candidates with better preparation thanks to the local multi-campus church opening their training sessions to all comers.
And if we’re going to be absolutely fair, what about churches who send candidates through the process at a lower than normal acceptance rate? What dooms their candidate so often, and what duty do our mission-sending agencies have to help those churches improve their candidate grooming process?
I appreciate Dr. Patrick’s providing an initial framework in which to examine the issue. However, it’s an extremely complex question that requires so much information I don’t know how we could possibly begin to answer it.