Electing leaders with poor records of Cooperative Program support has had a negative impact on the Southern Baptist Convention’s fiscal health, according to a task force report released Saturday.
An eight-member group of SBC and state convention leaders found that over the last 40 years, the unified budget which supports missions, seminaries and other ministries has “gradually begun to vaporize as a high priority,” even among denominational leaders.
“It is well known that a number of our leaders in the past generation hardly ever spoke about the Cooperative Program or promoted it in one way or another,” according to a Baptist Press report quoting the findings. “For the most part, their churches were poor models of Cooperative Program support.
“As a result, it has been projected that thousands of pastors and churches reduced their Cooperative Program percentage of undesignated monies as they followed the example of those who led them.”
In a 1999 booklet titled The Takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, Rob James reported that for the 20 years between 1957 and 1977, the church where the sitting SBC president was pastor gave an average of 12.3 percent of undesignated receipts to the convention’s unified budget. For the decade between 1979 and 1989, the years of the “conservative resurgence” battle between moderates and fundamentalists, the average percentage slipped to 3.4 percent.
During the takeover era, fundamentalists routinely put up presidential candidates who were biblically conservative and evangelistic, pastors of megachurches with lots of baptisms but comparatively low percentages of denominational support. Typically they opposed, and defeated, moderates with higher percentages of local church budgets going to the Cooperative Program but who were less dogmatic in doctrinal matters.
While some of the fundamentalist presidents led churches that modeled denominational support, others gave a pittance when compared to their church’s total budget.
Jerry Vines, pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., who served as SBC president in 1988-89, once referred to himself as the “first independent Baptist to be elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Yet the 2.3 percent of undesignated receipts that Vines’ church gave to the Cooperative Program even surpassed percentages attributed to churches of other SBC leaders. Bailey Smith’s First Southern Baptist Church in Del City, Okla., gave 1.19 percent at the time of his term in 1980-81.
Jack Graham, the SBC president in 2003-04, led Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, to contribute $95,000 one year to the Cooperative Programs of the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, less than half a percent of a budget totaling $17.1 million, according to the Baptist Standard.
Charles Stanley’s First Baptist Church of Atlanta was giving about 2.5 percent of undesignated gifts to the CP when he served as president in 1984-85.
Second Baptist Church in Houston took in $21 million one year during pastor Ed Young’s term as SBC president in 1993-94, while sending $105,000 to the Cooperative Program.
James Merritt, SBC president in 2001-02, led a church that gave between 2 percent and 3 percent to the CP, according to a report.
Adrian Rogers’ (SBC president in 1979 and 1986-87) Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., gave less than 4 percent.
“For sure, this reality has hurt the Cooperative Program as much as anything and has been discouraging and regrettable,” the task force leaders said. “About that point, there yet remains a huge amount of disappointment, mistrust and even raw emotions which need to be recognized, addressed, and reconciled all across the Southern Baptist Convention.”
A moderate Baptist leader said SBC leaders are waking up to something that moderates knew all along.
“The SBC has awakened from its 25-year, Rip Van Winkle-like slumber to recognize that what moderates said from the beginning of the takeover was true: giving matters and shows who the true leaders are,” said Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics. “As fundamentalists had to admit that no golden age of evangelism has accompanied their takeover, they must now admit that their presidents and porters were not really invested financially in supporting the denomination.”
The committee recommended that in the future people elected to leadership positions should come from “strong Cooperative Program churches” and should be “well-known advocates themselves of Cooperative Program commitment.”
Other recommendations say every elected SBC and state convention leader “should promote the Cooperative Program” with “vigor and intentionality on a consistent basis,” that Southern Baptist churches should send “at least a tithe of undesignated receipts” to mission causes through the Cooperative Program and that as CP giving increases, state conventions “must be challenged” to increase the percentage of Cooperative Program funds they forward to the SBC, toward a goal of a 50-50 split.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.