I think we are past all the hagiographic language about the Cooperative Program, how our primary channel is the stuff of genius, God-breathed, and without which the church of Christ would be irreparably handicapped. Although few among us would say that it is no longer relevant or valuable to Southern Baptists, as we are approch the CP centennial in 2025 a heaviness has settled on the CP discussions. We will almost assuredly enter whatever centennial celebrations planned for that year with over forty years of steady church percentage decline, decades in which churches said with their giving patterns and amounts that the venerable CP is tired, hide-bound, misused, sclerotic and unexciting, and in which it has been clearly expressed that other giving choices, opportunity cost decisions, have supplanted or diminished CP giving in vast numbers of SBC churches.
We still talk about the CP as our primary giving channel, as one of the two rails that support our cooperation (doctrine is the other) but many church CP decisions loudly declare that it is not.
So here we are with a number of vacancies in key denominational positions both at the SBC level and the state convention level. Several younger generation leaders have already taken their place in leadership. In the state conventions the CP looms above all as the number one and almost exclusive source of revenue for all those staff jobs. Here in Georgia we just laid off a bunch of employees and saw a bunch retire because of leadership changeover, that and a deficit of over one million dollars.
Whatever the present difficulties, the CP is critical to our cooperative work and still provides a huge stream of income to the mission boards and seminaries. The percentage of budgets funded by the CP varies but is in the neighborhood of one-third for these.
It might help things if denominational leaders and staff remember that a healthy CP percentage for churches is not something that can be presumed. No church has to give to the CP. To be considered “in friendly cooperation” a church need give only a token gift. Unless the pastor is running for office or wants to be an insider with key trustee appointments in his future, the CP percentage just doesn’t count for much these days. I’d ask my long-in-the-tooth colleagues if they agree with me that the CP isn’t a driver of church decisions in the way it was in the 20th century.
The Executive Committee needs a leader. Even if they find a new man who is stellar in all respects and is universally respected and appreciated, I doubt he can do much of anything to move the CP percentage needle. We are now under 5% of average undesignated church offerings and dropping rapidly. Arriving at an average church percentage of four is a reasonable expectation for the short term future. Can the most charismatic XComm leader change this? I rather think not and the best leadership for the future might bring stability but not growth.
My state convention has a new leader as do other key states. A generational transfer of these jobs is underway. My leader’s first action was this raft of layoffs in response to the reality of declining receipts. The money is not there to fund these positions. Also, his first assurance to pastors and others who gathered in a small group (mine was around 35 in attendance) was to state that “we’re going to sell the building,” our very expensive and valuable centralized headquarters. Those steps are necessary but are probably not enough to inspire churches, none of whom has to give much to the CP out of which my state keeps about 60%.
What can one pastor do? The energy and difficulty required of any single church or pastor changing the system is such that the simple route is for the church to just to give less. Cut the percentage and give more direct to NAMB or to IMB, places where the church sees value for their dollar. If a church doesn’t like the CP split between his state and the national entities (average of all the states is around 60% for the state and 40% for the XComm CP allocation), too high in my view. It is an open question in my mind if any state convention leader can change the attitudes here, not to mention the entrenched funding destinations who are accustomed to being on the payroll from the CP. Tough tasks ahead. The task of the church, deciding where to spend their money, is much simpler.
Every SBC church should consider and use the CP as their primary funding channel. It expresses cooperation and in a large way ties us together. While not having a program of cooperative giving and spending is unthinkable, the SBC would not be recognizable without it, it is no longer sacrosanct in our churche and among our pastors.
Perhaps leaders could zero out their thinking and wake up every day thinking, “No church in my state has to give to the CP. How can we serve them and add value to their work such that they will believe the CP is money well spent and their primary channel for cooperative giving?”
I suppose we will get to see the thinking of leaders in their actions. Let’s see what happens.