For most Southern Baptists, the phrase Cooperative Program is a denominational code for money. There is nothing really wrong with that since it does describe the major funding process for our work. But the Cooperative Program is much more. It describes people working together, believing they can do much more in partnership than as individuals.
People working together voluntarily is the genius of the Cooperative Program. No one forces us to do it. There’s no coercion or top-down orders sent from headquarters about working together. There are no dues to pay or bosses to please. Prickly Baptists, often defined by what we are against, choose to work together because they want to. No other reason. That’s what outsiders never understand about Southern Baptists. We have this intense desire to work together because we want to. That’s why it’s hard to divide us. Our unity is not built on organizational charts, legal contracts, or other binding agreements. Our cooperation results from being cooperative, nothing more.
Our voluntary cooperation springs from our theological understanding of the church and Christian community. The metaphors in the Bible to describe the church are usually plural – stones in a building, members in a family, fruit on a vine, etc. We know we are at our best when we are collected in some way for a common effort.
For me personally, this has resulted in a tight network of ministry partners in the Western United States. The state executive directors are vital ministry partners. We are not directly connected on any organizational chart. We are only indirectly connected financially as they channel money from churches to the national denomination and then on to Gateway. No one makes us work together. Yet, we do. We meet each year to develop joint strategies, share common problems, and also catch up on our families and personal lives. We cooperate, not because we are forced to do so, but because we want to. This kind of organic connection is hard to break.
It’s also my privilege to network with the Great Commission Council – the group consisting of entity presidents in the Southern Baptist Convention. This group exercises no formal authority and its members have no authority over each other. Each year we elect a chairperson who is empowered to do two things – set the meeting times and order lunch! When we meet, no one has any authority over anyone else. In fact, we cannot even compel each other to come to the meetings.
So, you may wonder, how does anything ever get done? Cooperation. We work together because we want to. We know we can do so much more if we coordinate our efforts, so we try. It’s not easy. We are all big ego people (well, except for Sandy Wisdom-Martin who truly models servanthood) but somehow, we check those egos at the door and work together. Again, we do this because we really believe cooperation makes us more effective.
The Cooperative Program has been a financial lifeline for Southern Baptists for a long time. It has survived global warfare, denominational scandals, national turmoil, social upheaval, and financial calamities. It has thrived as a financial strategy because it rests on something far more important than money – a Christian commitment to set aside personal agendas and work together for eternal purposes. That’s the secret sauce of the Cooperative Program.