Churches have reduced their level of giving, and, many have moved to a method of giving that is neo-societal: They give a small percentage through the traditional Cooperative Program option and then give the remainder of their mission dollars through designated giving, some to Southern Baptist entities and some through other mission agencies.
– Ken Hemphill, in an article on his Louisiana Baptist Convention hosted campaign website.
Money is an issue in SBC life, particularly the systems of giving and allocation of SBC churches denominational gifts. I don’t object to anyone raising questions on the Cooperative Program, the trends in CP giving, or the changing priorities of churches in their mission giving. But if we’re going to discuss this, let’s put it in context.
- “Cooperative” and “societal” giving aren’t the equivalent of “good” and “bad” giving systems. When some SB Cers talk about giving, one can often find a form of dualism in their words in which there is good and evil, proper and aberrant giving. We agree that cooperation is good among the almost fifty thousand SBC congregations. Such makes us into the denomination we are today with two huge mission boards, six large seminaries, and many other institutions and entities that are a part of our common efforts on the state or national level. But, since societal giving accounts for most giving on the SBC level and has for some years it is a mistake to denigrate it.
- We have always had a dual system of giving: societal and cooperative. You can quote Adrian Rogers on this. I heard it first from his own lips decades ago. Our societal giving accounts for the largest share of the budgets of our two mission boards. Every state convention, the level of SBC life that gains the most from cooperative giving, promotes societal giving in their own behalf. Every Baptist association (except where NAMB foots the bills and I’m not certain how common this is anymore) depends on societal giving for their existence . Most, perhaps all, entities affiliated with the SBC or a state convention rely at least in part on societal giving.
- Neither giving system is without flaws. The obvious drawback with societal giving is that it pits all entities against each other in competition for limited church dollars. It makes sense to pool some of our mission dollars and disburse them on a basis on which we agree, cooperatively. Cooperative giving tends to put distance between churches and entities, creates a status quo that is resistant to change, and is more likely to reward institutional indolence, and is less likely to address underperforming entities.
- The mix of cooperative and societal giving has been changing. The Cooperative Program has declined slowly but significantly over the past several decades if the measure is the percentage of church undesignated dollars. The current SBC average is 5.16%. While all of societal giving cannot be quantified, it is clear that the two big mission offerings, Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong, remain strong and thus indicate an increasing but not absolute preference for direct international and North American mission support rather than CP support. This is illustrated by the changes in the mix of revenues for NAMB and IMB. In 1978 the Home Mission Board (now renamed) received roughly equal amounts from the CP and the Annie Armstrong offering. In 2016, the “societal” AA offering was about one-third greater than “cooperative” revenues. In 1978 the Foreign Mission Board (now renamed) received slightly more from the Lottie Moon offering than from CP, about 15%. In 2016 the monies received through the LMCO were about 150% of those from the CP. Churches have made choices, and have made them repeatedly, steadily, and relentlessly, to devote more of their mission dollars to the two mission boards through direct, or “societal,” giving than through the CP.
- Adrian Rogers and the megachurch Conservative Resurgence leaders wrote the book on this lower CP, higher societal giving. I’m not sure where Hemphill gets the “neo-” in neo-societal. We’ve always had it.
In context, concerns about “neo-societal” giving look to be in the neighborhood of pejorative campaign rhetoric. Perhaps this is unintended in some quarters. We’ve got “neo-conservatives,” and more pointedly “neo-Calvinists,” and now “neo-societal.” While I like a good phrase, this one looks like a negative, ad hoc creation. There’s nothing new about societal giving in the SBC. I’m not informed by data that show there is any new trend in giving that has not been present through the entire Conservative Resurgence and the two-plus decades that have followed it. If there is, I’m open to being better informed.
Here are some things to consider before joining the campaign against “neo-societal” giving methods.
- Every church practices it already. The differences are only in the proportions of it not the presence. Who is to say that the church that gives 3% to the CP and three times that directly to the mission boards and other SBC entities is inferior or uncooperative? For almost four decades SBC presidents, all but a couple, have given below average CP but much higher direct gifts. They have also given huge sums to the CP, witness Ronnie Floyd and Steve Gaines churches seven figure CP totals, but below average percentages.
- Attacking “neo-societal” churches ignores serious questions about cooperative giving. Cooperative giving is essential to the SBC but it does not blindly follow that it should be accepted uncritically. Why have churches chosen to weight their giving mix more heavily towards direct support of the mission boards? Is there any reason to conclude that the tens of thousands of individual, autonomous church decisions about their mission giving are not a good measure of their corporate priorities? Aren’t churches supposed to be the driver of denominational life, not entities and institutions and their workers? If these decisions by churches are a valid indication of their priorities, then who is listening in the state conventions and SBC?
- Is a campaign against “neo-societal” giving the method by which state conventions will justify keeping more CP dollars? State conventions already keep most Cooperative Program gifts. They always have. The figure now is about 60% having declined slightly over the past few years. Some pastors whose churches are strongly SBC and heavy supporters of our cooperative mission work have expressed their preference for lower support for state conventions and their panoply of assorted entities, institutions, staffing, and spending priorities. The simple implementation of this has been to increase Lottie and Annie and decrease CP. Mission boards have created avenues for direct support that some churches choose to take, since all of those dollars go to the mission boards rather than the fraction that would if gifts were made through the CP. If the states believe their spending is critical, and they are much closer to the churches than the entities, let them persuade, not cajole.
- What is an acceptable Cooperative Program percentage for a church? Is it 10%, the mythical “tithe” that every SBC church should give to the denomination? I think that is buried by forty years worth of church decisions. Is it 5%, roughly our current average? And, who gets to decide the golden number? Not denominational leaders, not presidential candidates, not Baptist historians but individual churches.
- Will any complaint about declining CP giving ever be accompanied by (a) appreciation for what is given, regardless of percentages, and (b) an indication that cooperation isn’t by fiat but persuasion?
- Are we about to witness a “Cooperative Program reduction program”? In the thrust to ensure that churches are sufficiently Southern Baptist, is the outcome to be a reduction in cooperative giving rather than the desired increase? Proposals have been sounded to have a tiered system of churches with some judged to be sufficiently SBC to make the top tier and others on probation. Some pastors and churches are the victims of ‘CP shaming’ because their giving patterns are judged to be deficient. I fear that the unintended consequence of a ‘neo-societal’ campaign, which might look a lot like CP shaming, will ultimately prove negative to our cooperative work.
SBC presidents Ronnie Floyd and Steven Gaines, along with current announced candidate J. D. Greear all have a record of increasing Cooperative Program giving in their churches. Is it not appropriate to commend each one for this?
I think so.
If we’re going to “neo-” anything how about a neo-appreciation of all who work together to do God’s work?
This is, if it needs to be said, my personal opinion and does not represent that of anyone else on SBC Voices. I like both Ken Hemphill and J. D. Greear. I’ve actually met Hemphill though he wouldn’t know me from Adam’s housecat. I’ve never meet Greear but think he would be a good choice for SBC president and, if I make it to oppressively sultry Dallas this June, plan to vote for him.