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Charles Dickens’ classic Oliver Twist includes a young rascal known as “the artful dodger” because of his ability to pick someone’s pocket and make a quick getaway. The most accomplished “artful dodgers,” I’ve observed, are politicians or other folk who twist things just enough to give the wrong impression and mislead the public while dodging the truth.

Informed readers are accustomed to seeing that sort of thing in denominational public relations channels like Baptist Press. Such behavior is not limited to the national scene, of course. There have been several examples relative to the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSCNC) recently. I’ll mention only two.

One regards the situation with Woman’s Missionary Union of North Carolina (WMU-NC), which is moving out of the Baptist building because that is the only way, under the current administration, to fully preserve its autonomy with regard to hiring and having final supervision over its staff.

While WMU-NC has taken great pains to insist that it is changing its address, but not its core mission to serve BSCNC churches as a missions resource and missions offering promoter, people who should know better have made it sound as if WMU-NC is “separating,” “resigning,” or “leaving” the BSCNC.

That is a clear twisting of the truth, and WMU-NC executive director Ruby Fulbright confronts some of the misleading information in an article now posted on the WMU-NC website. The BSCNC’s official position can be found in this press release.

A second and equally serious matter relates to the BSCNC’s mounting budget crisis. Budget receipts have been down throughout the year. For months, BSCNC leaders blamed the lower receipts on the calendar, saying the financial year started a week later than in 2006. As I have pointed out several times, that is only because 2006 contained 53 Sundays, a calendar anomaly that won’t happen again for a while. The 2006 budget was fully funded only because of that extra Sunday.

As long as the budget deficit remained around $700,000, the amount needed in an average week to meet the roughly $37 million budget, the argument carried some credibility and kept members of the BSC Executive Committee and Board of Directors from asking too many questions.

The deficit has continued to grow, however, reaching more than $1.8 million at the end of September, three quarters of the way through the financial year. Giving is down most notably in Plan C (20 percent) and among Plan A and Plan B churches that exclude the Southern Baptist Convention (32 percent and 29 percent, respectively). None of the plans showed an increase. Even those favored by the most conservative churches are down: the traditional Plan A by almost 2 percent, and Plan D by 0.22 percent.

The total is 6.57 percent below budget needs for the year, and 3.22 percent behind last year’s totals.

Here’s what should be making budget planners nervous: many churches begin their fiscal year in October, and it is highly likely that many more of those churches will be decreasing their gifts to the BSCNC rather than increasing them.

That means the traditional positive bump the budget gets during the fall may not materialize. BSCNC leaders acknowledged the budget uncertainty by postponing approval of the 2008-2009 from the regular meeting of the Executive Committee and Board of Directors in September to a special called meeting Oct. 29 — an event that will cost thousands of extra dollars in itself.

What concerns me most is that budget planners have sought to lay the blame for budget uncertainy on lower receipts to the North Carolina Missions Offering (NCMO), which was down about 26 percent through September. WMU-NC and North Carolina Baptist Men are the two largest beneficiaries of the NCMO, though some money also goes for church planting.

Two things should be said here: if the BSCNC hadn’t quibbled so much about its support for WMU-NC and the assurance of WMU-NC’s place in future NCMO budgets, there wouldn’t be such a deficit in NCMO giving. Some churches are choosing to give directly to WMU-NC instead of contributing to the NCMO.

A second thing to note is that the real budget problem is not with NCMO, which could potentially come up several hundred thousand dollars short, but with the BSCNC’s primary budget, which could easily face a deficit of $2 million or more.

Please understand — I really hope I’m wrong about this. I would love to see the BSCNC make and exceed its budget. I just don’t think it’s going to happen.

And the reason it won’t happen is not because WMU-NC chose to leave the building. The reason has been building for years. Convention after convention, as the BSCNC has approved motions that show greater intolerance for diversity and lower support for beloved institutions, loyalty to the BSCNC has eroded. That is likely to continue.

When the churches that don’t begin their fiscal year in October start a new budget cycle in January, I suspect they will reflect even less support for the BSCNC giving plans.

BSC budget planners have hoped to increase the 2008 budget by more than three percent, to nearly $39 million, with most of the increase going to church planting.

With prospects for meeting the current budget as dismal as they appear, proposing an increase for the next cycle will be a tough sell — but it won’t be due to WMU.

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