The Baptist General Convention of Texas is ending its formal relationship with the Southern Baptist Convention’s LifeWay Christian Resources, according to an announcement Tuesday at a meeting of the BGCT Executive Board.
Lynn Eckeberger, head of the BGCT’s Church Health and Growth Section, said the state convention will not renew its “Ministry Investment Plan” with LifeWay, which expires Sept. 30, according to a news release.
Eckeberger described the ministry plan as part of a “long-standing agreement” offering the SBC publisher recognition and visibility within the state convention.
He said the document commits the BGCT to “expeditious submission” of statistics compiled in LifeWay’s Annual Church Profile, “recognition, visibility and location” of LifeWay at BGCT-sponsored events, participation in LifeWay-sponsored meetings by BGCT staff and to showcase only LifeWay products during Texas training events that are sponsored by the national publisher.
The agreement also provides a “revenue source for the state convention,” Eckeberger said.
Eckeberger said the SBC publisher has used the annually renewable agreements to achieve a “prominence of position directly related to product sales.”
The BGCT is the largest of 42 autonomous state and regional conventions that cooperate voluntarily with the SBC, and it has been among the most critical of reforms instituted by fundamentalists in charge of the national convention. Texas is one of two states where the SBC works with two conventions—one moderate and one conservative. Competing conventions also exist in Missouri, but the SBC declined to accept gifts from a rival to the conservative-controlled Missouri Baptist Convention.
The LifeWay “ministry plan” agreements date back to a pre-SBC controversy era when state conventions functioned essentially as franchises for products of what was in those days called the Sunday School Board. Nowadays churches choose from a wider array of curriculum providers. A recent study by Eckeberger’s office found churches using products from 37 separate publishers and about 15 publishing houses he termed “frequently” used in Texas churches.
For the last four years, in fact, the BGCT has published its own curriculum line, BaptistWay Press, which Eckeberger said doubled in sales between 2002 and 2003 and is on track to be self-supporting by the end of 2004.
Eckeberger said the changed relationship with LifeWay probably wouldn’t have much effect on local churches. BGCT leaders have said that 90 percent of Texas churches use LifeWay materials, and therefore BGCT staff must be familiar with those materials in order to help churches train effective teachers.
While the BGCT says it doesn’t “promote” LifeWay over other publishers, when a church desires to use any product “we will work with them for those products to be effective,” Eckeberger said.
Eckeberger said the greatest impact will be on “behavior of state convention staff.” Asked by EthicsDaily.com for an example, Eckeberger said that BGCT staff members now “automatically” entertain invitations from LifeWay for their expertise or service. In the future, he said in an e-mail, “there will be closer scrutiny of such requests.”
Eckeberger said ending the agreement does not necessarily mean that his staff won’t continue to relate to LifeWay but that “we will set our own relationship with LifeWay.”
LifeWay President Jimmy Draper said in a statement he was “surprised and saddened” by the BGCT decision, but he respects the state convention’s right to make it.
“LifeWay has enjoyed a long relationship with the convention, and I fully expect this will continue through the many Southern Baptist churches and associations in Texas that will keep using our resources,” Draper said.
Draper said his company’s challenge now “is to keep providing the very best resources and the very best service to our Texas customers.”
“We understand that we are now in a competitive situation with the BGCT for curriculum sales to Texas churches, but that does not change our commitment to provide biblically sound, relevant and value-priced resources to help people and churches know Christ and seek His Kingdom,” Draper said. “We continue to share with BGCT leaders a desire that people everywhere would know Christ and make Him known.”
LifeWay, which reported $414 million in product sales in 2003, spends about $3.6 million a year in “cooperative work” with Baptist state conventions, which helps fund staff in various program areas.
LifeWay spokesman Rob Phillips said the company invested more than $291,000 to the BGCT in 2003 through the plan, formerly called the cooperative work agreement. He said that funding would cease Sept. 30.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.