A proposed funding cap on “partners” of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship could jeopardize the survival of Associated Baptist Press, two leaders of the national news service said in a letter April 8.
A CBF Partner Study Committee in February recommended that future CBF funding levels not exceed 20 percent of any partner’s budget. The cap, according to the report, comes from the philosophy that CBF does not seek to own or control institutions but rather works in partnership with others to accomplish its goals.
In a letter to ministry supporters, however, ABP’s executive editor, Greg Warner, and board chairman, Ed Vick, said the proposal “poses a very real threat to our survival.”
If applied to ABP’s current funding, according to the leaders, the cap would cut support of the organization by $40,000 or 31 percent. ABP’s revenue has already dropped 29 percent since 2002, according to the letter, and the staff has been reduced by nearly half. “We are barely able to maintain our ministry,” the letter said. “And now we will face another cut—more than any other CBF partner organization.”
Formed in 1990 as an alternative to the Southern Baptist Convention news service, Baptist Press, ABP has been included in every CBF budget since the Fellowship formed in 1991. But CBF support has dropped steadily since 1996, Warner and Vick say, forcing ABP and other organizations to invest more time and money in seeking direct funding from local churches and increasing the burden on congregations already swamped with funding requests.
The letter urged supporters to comment during an open response period to the Partner Study Committee, which ends today (April 15.) It also suggested contacting members of the CBF Coordinating Council, who are set to vote on the proposal June 28-29, and said that every person attending the June 30-July 1 CBF General Assembly will have a chance to vote on the partner proposal.
“The danger is clear,” the letter said. “If we are unable to convince the CBF Coordinating Council or CBF members to amend the partner proposal, we will face the most serious financial crisis in our 15-year history–which undoubtedly will lead to a severe curtailment of our ministry, from which we may never recover.”
The ABP leaders criticized the funding cap as “arbitrary and without rationale.” They said it “couldn’t come at a worse time” for ABP, and “takes CBF even further away from its original role as a central funding mechanism for Baptist churches.”
CBF moderator Bob Setzer, in an April 13 letter to the Coordinating Council, took issue with several points in Warner and Vick’s letter.
Rather than being “arbitrary,” the 20 percent funding cap would allow CBF “to be a significant partner without being a controlling partner,” wrote Setzer, pastor of First Baptist Church in Macon, Ga.
“One could argue the funding levels now in place are much more arbitrary than setting the same maximum support threshold for all partners,” Setzer said.
He said CBF’s vision from the beginning “was far more comprehensive than simply being a funding channel for partners.”
“Perhaps most importantly, it was to be an alternative missions delivery system, empowering moderate Baptists to witness for Christ throughout the world,” he said.
Setzer said the study committee believes ABP should be able to absorb a reduction in funding from 27 percent of its budget from CBF to 20 percent over three years. “Further, a lower threshold of funding will strengthen ABP’s claim of being an ‘independent national news organization,’ not beholden to any particular donor or organization.”
But the ABP letter said given recent economic history, there is no reason to believe the news service will be in any better position to absorb the loss in three years than it is today.
“An additional 30 percent cut at this time, even if phased in, will make it impossible to regain the ground we have lost and likely cripple ABP for good,” Warner said in a follow-up message to Coordinating Council members Thursday. “Now is not the time for our most generous and capable partner to ‘wean’ us off. Now is the time for partners to stick together.”
Warner said a move by the CBF away from providing operating support for historic partners while moving toward project funding for new partners makes it “clear CBF is becoming a less reliable channel for churches to support traditional Baptist ministries.”
Curtailment of the news service “would be a tremendous loss for the Baptist cause,” the letter said. “Associated Baptist Press has a unique ministry of informing Baptists and non-Baptists of the work God is doing among us.”
Setzer, in his letter to the Coordinating Council, reminded members their role is “to rise above the particular interests of any particular partner in evaluating the committee’s proposal.”
“Many of us have served or do serve on boards of partner organizations we believe are invaluable to the CBF movement,” wrote Setzer. “If viewed from the perspective of that partner only, we could mount an impressive case CBF should fund our preferred partner at a higher threshold than any other.”
But as a council, Setzer said: “We have a responsibility to act in the best interest of this movement of free and faithful Baptists and all of our more than 150 partners around the world. As we near the conclusion of this thorough two-plus year process, let’s be mindful of the due diligence that has occurred and indeed will continue as we convene in June.”
Meanwhile, the pastor of a prominent CBF church in Georgia released a letter he sent to the Partner Study Committee asking the group to reconsider the hard cap of 20 percent funding.
While it is true that many partner organizations have other revenue streams and the CBF relies exclusively on church donations, average laypeople and church leaders often define the movement as much by its partners as by its core ministries, said Bill Wilson, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dalton, Ga.
“Despite our attempts to suggest that CBF is a stand-alone entity, the vast majority of moderate Baptists look to CBF to function as a central funding mechanism for a wide array of ministries,” Wilson said. “As a local church pastor, I need CBF to function in this way. To minimize that reality is to jeopardize the very reasons some churches and people support CBF. Quite simply, when our partners suffer, CBF suffers.”
While partners are struggling, Wilson said, “recent tracking of percentages of receipts staying in the CBF office seem to indicate a growing central organization at a time when our missionary force is stagnant and our membership is plateaued. My staff and lay leaders understand the tendency toward institutional preservation, and they will react negatively if such a pattern continues to play out over the coming years.”
“In the end, I do not want to be faced with the difficult choice of whether to recommend to my church that we continue funding CBF at its current level or we divide up our current CBF gift to include line items for various partners to ensure their survival,” Wilson said. “The recommendation as it now stands seems to guarantee that will happen.”
“If it does, CBF will get fewer dollars from our church, and we will be burdened by the process of discerning which partners deserve funding and at what level. Such fragmentation will inevitably lead to ‘donor fatigue’ on the local church level and a resistance to increasing the level of support for all denominational entities. Everyone will eventually suffer.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Editor’s note: CBF moderator Bob Setzer resigned this year as a member of the Baptist Center for Ethics board of directors, citing potential conflict of interest with the Partner Study Committee. The committee’s recommendation would also reduce CBF funding for BCE.