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‘Everyone serves the churches’ in new structure approved by SBTC executive board

Kason Branch, a member of the SBTC 2021 Vision Team, makes a portion of the team’s report during the Aug. 18 SBTC Executive Board meeting. Team members Randi Kent (left) and Tony Wolfe (right) are also pictured. Photo by Gary Ledbetter

GRAPEVINE, Texas (BP) — Madisonville rancher Craig Bailey drew from the New Living Bible translation of Romans 8 to encourage the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention Executive Board to view the “thorns and thistles” of life from a heavenly perspective. Before voting Aug. 18 on a 9.42 percent budget reduction for 2021 and rallying around a Vision 2021 task force report to restructure SBTC ministries, board members listened to Bailey address the temporary adversities of “sin, death and decay.”

“Thorns and thistles means more to me than it does y’all,” he said, speaking from his experience on a Texas ranch. Instead of being like “cringing, fearful slaves” referenced in verse 15, he stressed the lesson in verse 31: “If God is on our side, who can ever be against us?”

The perfect storm of four months of greatly decreased income from affiliated churches, as well as the urgency of preparing a 2021 budget in time for the board meeting, led SBTC Executive Director Jim Richards to enlist the help of an in-house task force to help solve the problem without compromising core values. Board members affirmed ministry team structure recommendations advanced by the 2021 Vision Team that will better position staff and ministries to serve the more than 2,600 affiliated SBTC churches.

Richards said eight staff members evaluated the future of the SBTC in light of changes accelerated by the pandemic. A survey sent to more than 500 individuals from a wide array of SBTC constituencies saw a 37 percent response rate.

Survey questions related to the purpose and effectiveness of the convention yielded 10 observations for action in regard to maintaining the mission statement, prioritizing church health, increasing digital communication, strengthening relationships with pastors, producing resources for smaller membership churches, engaging younger pastors, including greater diversity of thoughts and views through a cultural lens, realizing cost savings by downsizing the office, maintaining the EQUIP training and Empower evangelism conferences while suggesting a possible combination of one or both with the annual meeting, and distinguishing the differences between the two Texas state conventions to new board members and younger pastors.

Set to take effect in 2021, the structural changes approved by the board reduce the number of departments from seven to five and allow the executive director an allocation of $250,000 from reserves to cover additional transition costs of the new plan.

Richards emphasized that every person employed by the SBTC will live by the motto “everyone serves the churches” as they individually relate to a dozen or so churches each year while also carrying out assigned duties.

Board Chairman Danny Forshee of Austin thanked the team for its extensive research and recommendations. In addition to Richards and Davis, other members of the team included Tony Wolfe, Kason Branch, Lance Crowell, Randi Kent, Kenneth Priest and San Juanita Shelton.

With fewer staff based in Grapevine and an already-reduced workforce resulting from natural attrition, the executive board also authorized the chairman to appoint a committee to look into selling the current 30,000-square-foot office building and relocating to a smaller building in the same area.

Davis explained the need to formulate a budget that is more in line with actual receipts for March through June of 2020, when a downturn in churches’ giving began.

The SBTC, like all state Baptist conventions, is dependent on undesignated Cooperative Program giving from affiliated churches in order to provide in-state ministries and fulfill the Great Commission mandate not only within Texas, but around the world. The proposed 2021 in-state CP budget calls for a reduction of $100,099 per month.

The proposed budget of $26,159,798 is $2,721,306 less than the 2020 budget and continues to allocate 55 percent of undesignated receipts to benefit Southern Baptist work around the world.

CP receipts for the first half of the year were $1,164,872 under budget – $720,000 less than reported at the midpoint of 2019. Davis projects the budget shortfall to increase by the end of the year.

With tight restrictions imposed as early as March on discretionary spending, travel and hiring of new employees, as well as receiving a forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loan from the government, reductions in salaries and benefits for employees have not been necessary in 2020. Moving major events such as student camps and the EQUIP training conference to a virtual platform led to a net surplus for the first seven months of 2020.

The board also approved 19 churches for affiliation, and removed 94 churches that have disbanded, merged or disaffiliated, bringing the new total of affiliated churches to 2,669.

Credentials Committee Chairman Jason Gray of Redeemer Church in Abilene explained that the larger number of churches removed was proposed after years of attempting to locate a spokesman for each one to verify its status. In the process of contacting every SBTC church during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gray said, “It became clear that an updating of rolls was necessary.”

“The decrease can seem disappointing, but I think it is the desire of all of us to have an accurate number of affiliated churches,” he added, calling for the SBTC to continue with “utmost integrity” in its credentialing process. Of the 94 churches removed, only seven requested disaffiliation, returning to independent status, joining the American Baptist Convention or aligning exclusively with another state Baptist convention.

In other business, the Board:

  • approved the continuation of a Cooperative Ministry Relationship with Criswell College and Fraternal Ministry Relationships with the Conference of Texas Baptist Evangelists and the Korean Baptist Fellowship of Texas;
  • heard a report of an executive committee request that the IRS accommodate Baptist polity to allow churches to continue to be placed under group exemptions afforded the SBC;
  • authorized use of up to $40,000 of the Protection Benefit Endowment to cover protection benefit costs in 2021;
  • approved a change to the matching benefits offered by GuideStone Financial Resources to fund church employee retirement plans specifically for qualifying lead and senior pastors;
  • received reports from the Southern Baptists of Texas Foundation, Texas Baptist Home for Children, Jacksonville College and Criswell College; and
  • provided a means of changing the date and location of the Nov. 9-10 annual meeting scheduled at Hyde Park Baptist Church in Austin in case restrictions make that necessary.