The GCR Task force has been prayerfully at work. As we have asked it to do, the task force has presented a preliminary report of recommendations it will bring to the Southern Baptist Convention when it gathers in Orlando a few short months from now. In this post, I will focus my intention on component #2 concerning the refocus and restructuring of the North American Mission Board. While I am in general agreement with the intent of the proposal, I have some questions and concerns about the net effect of voting for it.
I share these thoughts to inform our discussion as together we prepare to make a decision that will have lasting impact on the way Southern Baptists do missions. Of course, I am just one man, with a limited frame of reference and my own set of biases. My opinions and questions have been shaped by several factors: First, I come as one who has, from the beginning, supported the Great Commission Resurgence and actively campaigned and then voted for the task force. Second, I am a strong advocate for church planting. Third, I pastor in a “new work” state in a semi-urban area and working to encourage church planting both in my church and association. Fourth, I serve on the mission committee of our state’s executive board. Finally, I am a former NAMB appointed church planter and was funded through the cooperative agreements as they are today.
What I like about the GCR Task Force Proposal
When I first heard that the GCR Task force was addressing the current funding system, I was enthusiastic. For quite some time, I have been frustrated with the inability of the current system to plant churches where they are needed most. As I see it, there are two significant problems with the system as it currently exists:
First, not enough money is allocated for church planting missionaries. Our current funding partnerships seem to well support administrative and strategy roles while leaving little money for actual planters. At times, this has resulted in the funding of more personnel whose job it is to strategize for church planting than persons doing the church planting itself. Further, church planter salaries are in most cases inadequate. While missionaries in administrative and strategist roles are adequately compensated, church planters are asked to give a full-time effort at wage levels that are unreasonably low and often insufficient to meet basic needs. Quality, experienced persons are thus discouraged from church planting because there is not enough funding to pay planters a livable wage.
Second, too few funds are available for church planting in new work areas. Part of the problem is that current cooperative agreements require a level of matching funds in order to receive NAMB assistance. In state conventions that are few in number and have limited resources, church planting is hindered by a lack of funds because there is not enough money to provide the required matching funds through the current cooperative agreement structure. Admittedly, the ratio for matching funds is adjusted for smaller conventions. Still, for conventions with few churches and limited resources, even that smaller amount of matching funds may be difficult to procure. Thus, a metropolitan area in a new work state may have a need and strategy for thirty church plants, yet have the matching funds available for only three or four.
My first inclination has been to be in favor of the change in emphasis outlined in component #2 including the phasing out of current partnership agreements. I am encouraged that a new NAMB would emphasize church planting as a priority for funding. I am also encouraged that the proposal intends to release more funding for those areas which represent the largest mission fields in North America: the North, Canada, and Urban/Metropolitan population centers. I speculate that the task force proposal would result in more money and, more importantly, more evangelism and new church starts in these areas. Further, allowing NAMB to directly fund church planting in areas where matching funds are limited may well result in a great increase in church planting for those areas where churches are needed most. Consequently, based on the limited information provided thus far, my general inclination is to be in favor of GCR task force component #2. Several unanswered questions and concerns remain, however, and will need to be addressed before I will be comfortable casting my ballot in favor of the proposal when we gather in Orlando.
Questions and Concerns about Component #2
1. One of the primary rationales given for component #2 was a regional inequity of funding. The data which formed the basis for the proposal has now shown to have been inadvertently misreported by NAMB, thus the inequity in funding is not as great as was initially reported. While I don’t see this as a deal breaker, the task force would do well to explain why their rationale is still valid in light of the corrected data.
2. Given all the information I have, the proposal gives the appearance of a general distrust of state conventions and local associations. The end of partnership agreements affects not only where the money goes, but, significantly, who controls the money. I can certainly support a plan to adjust current partnership agreements with states so that church planting is emphasized and more money goes to new work areas and urban population centers. I am not yet convinced that eliminating those partnership agreements is the best plan. If we vote to eliminate partnership agreements, and thus give direct control to NAMB, I believe we send the message that local and state leaders cannot be trusted with mission funds. I am not inclined to send that message.
Additionally, the language in the report about lack of accountability for partnership funds is good rhetoric but, in my opinion, does not reflect what I have observed. On the contrary, accountability for NAMB funds is extremely high and the procedures for such accountability are often tedious. In my opinion, if there is a question about how NAMB monies are being spent, the fault is with funding priority guidelines not with any lack on the part of state leaders to account for funds.
Finally, current leadership in my state and association have proven themselves trustworthy and are moving in the right direction with both an increase in the number of church plants and a dramatic increase in the effectiveness of those plants. Ending partnership agreements with the states seems unnecessarily punitive. Thus, from my admittedly limited perspective, pulling the plug on state leadership in favor of national leadership would be unfair and would send the wrong message.
3. The report speaks of both working with churches to do ministry and plant churches and at the same time appointing church planting missionaries directly without the partnership of states and associations. The plan speaks of decentralization, yet at the same time calls for centralization of the mission force. For me, the wording of the proposal presents more questions than it answers. What will be the role of churches in shaping strategy and prioritizing for church planting? Will local churches and associations have input in determining strategy for their own areas? While I have expressed concern above about the inequity of funding between planters and strategists, I still see a need and role for strategists. Since the majority of strategists now serving in new work areas are funded through partnership agreements, what will happen to strategists currently on the field? Will local missionaries be picked up and directly supported by NAMB, or will experienced and effective strategists be replaced by new national missionaries? Will local field workers be by-passed altogether in favor six regional strategists? The task of saturating unreached areas with the gospel through new churches requires both planters and strategists; both local church involvement and denominational support.
One significant issue for me is lack of detail concerning what would replace the current model. If and when those details come, I will be in a better position to decide how to vote. For now, scrapping one system without clearly defining one that would replace it is problematic for me. I do favor a refocusing of priority and funding. I do not, however, favor centralizing the decision making to a national agency at the expense of local influence and involvement. Admittedly, I don’t know that such would be the result of adopting the proposal. On the other hand, without any details, I don’t know that it won’t either.
4. Finally, will the plan backfire and result in states keeping larger percentages of the CP pie to offset the loss in revenue from the current partnership agreements? State conventions have their own ministry and church planting priorities. If partnership agreements are ended and these priorities go unaddressed in the new system, state conventions may very well adjust their CP allotments to fund those priorities. The overall rationale for component #2 is more money for missions where it is needed most. If as a result of component #2, however, state conventions choose to forward less CP money to the Convention or even slow down the rate of progress toward reaching the 50/50 target, the net result would be less money for missions not more. Such a change would mean less money for not only North American missions but international missions as well. If the net result is a decrease in missions dollars, the primary goal for the GCR task force would be lost.
In summary, I appreciate the intent of component #2 and am generally inclined to support it. I support a refocusing of NAMB priorities toward church planting and new work areas. I agree that the current funding structure must change in order focus on these mission priorities. However, I have questions and concerns that prevent me from being ready to cast a “yes” vote. I am not yet convinced that scrapping the current partnership agreements is the best plan. Further, I need more details to assure that decision-making will not be centralized to the national agency to the exclusion of local churches and associations, that current effective leaders will not be unfairly penalized, and that the net result will not be less resources for missions.
This post represents where I stand now and is a reflection of my current thoughts based on available information. I am more than willing to be persuaded by reasonable arguments, new information, or ideas I may have overlooked. Ultimately, I want what is best for our Convention and will help us best fulfill the Great Commission. I look forward to the dialogue in the coming months as together we pursue His Kingdom mission.