What does it say about the future of Southern Baptist state conventions that the movement among them is to voluntarily reduce their revenues by cutting the percentage of Cooperative Program offerings that are kept and spent within a particular state’s borders thereby reducing their ability to hire staff and do ministry?
What it says is that the work done within a state (and I’d add to that especially within the legacy southern states where most Southern Baptists live and which receive the great majority of CP revenues) is less important than that which is done through our two mission boards and six seminaries. It says that pastors and churches, the constituents that have pushed for these reductions, believe that their state convention is more worthy of their Cooperative Program support when the state convention is smaller, has a smaller budget, employs less staff, and attempts less ministry.
It was of state conventions, mainly, that the unfortunate Great Commission Resurgence battle cry “bloated bureaucracies” was sounded in a moment of alliterative over-exuberance. With the arrival of the Great Recession states saw the Cooperative Program revenue stream shrink considerably and found it necessary to rapidly shed staff. Numbers of cuts ranging from one-third to one-half have been used.
There’s no question that much of the energy in state convention life in the past decade has been spent on managing that shrinking revenue stream and attempting to maintain or possibly increase relevance to churches. In my state and some others, considerable material and emotional resources have been expended on struggling institutions or shepherding them through self-made crises.
One thing I liked about Ronnie Floyd’s time as SBC president was that he addressed such issues in a general sense in his blog. He said,
“Weighty, needless structure prohibits immediate response to the churches,” he said. “We need to rid anything in our state conventions, anything in our associations and even our national entities that slows down our responsiveness to the churches.”
Would that he had influence along the same lines now that he is CEO of the Executive Committee.
While the remark was not specific to state conventions, clearly the SBC entities that consume most of the Cooperative Program dollars would receive most of the scrutiny.
State conventions as a group have about $300,000,000 in Cooperative Program revenues. Almost all of this flows to the legacy Deep South states and their state organizations which fund a variety of institutions, programs and staff. While some pastors point to traditional causes such as children’s homes, disaster relief, and assistance to churches as important work their state convention does, closer scrutiny often shows that relative smaller resources are put into these with the greater proportion of budgeted items being for staff, legacy institutions, and programs that show limited results in church planting, church revitalization, and evangelism.
The solution proposed for state conventions is that we put less and less resources in their work, and that at the time when churches have never been weaker and evangelistic needs have never been greater even in Bible Belt states with the greatest concentrations of SBC churches.
The most radical reinventions of state conventions have involved changes in names and job titles, further reductions of staff, offers to sell centralized headquarters structures, and commitments to send the SBC Executive Committee slightly greater proportion of CP receipts for allocation to our entities. While many of these changes are positive, is it a misguided or uninformed opinion to say that these look like attempts to manage well a slow, steady, inevitable decline.
It is an indication of the value of state conventions in the SBC as a whole that we have almost always elected presidents whose support of their own state conventions were below average (percentages) and that when our trustees chose new leaders of our two most significant institution, the International and North American Mission Boards, they chose leaders whose support of their state Baptist structures was quite meager.
I sympathize with the state executives – good people, committed and stellar followers of Christ, and adept administrators. They don’t get much sympathy and not enough respect. Most of the problems they have are inherited, accretions of difficulties piled up over the decades.
But is there a visionary state convention leader who has a plan to actually make that level of SBC life relevant and demonstrably successful in seeing churches planted and people baptized?
If anything is obvious about the CP over the past couple of decades it is that churches are already aware of how to utilize an alternative route to giving money directly to IMB and NAMB and not the CP. I’m not sure how much enthusiasm is generated if they are told that an additional 3 to 5, or even 10 percent of their Cooperative Program gifts will now be sent to North American and international missions.
The glaring exception to this is observed in the two “new” Deep South state conventions in Texas and Virginia – new convention, fresh start, genuine constituent church enthusiasm. But this route would likely generate far too much rancor and division.
My money, would I to be a betting Baptist, would be on things rocking along more or less as they are now. That makes the future just more of the present. So, prove me wrong.
I worked on this about 16 months ago and let it sit. Looking at it today, I don’t see that much has happened to change anything.
And if I could come up with another state convention article, I’d go for the daily trifecta.