WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–Southern Baptists are the envy of the evangelical world when it comes to the use of combined giving to support convention-wide causes, but this is not a foregone conclusion for the coming decades.
This avenue, the Cooperative Program (CP), is now nearly 85 years in development and has grown on the national level from $4 million in 1925 to $200 million in 2009. The amount of the dollars in play is staggering and is evidence that we can do more together than we can apart.
On the national level, we can look at the existence of six outstanding seminaries, two major missions boards, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and other supporting ministries of the Southern Baptist Convention. If you adjust the 1925 dollars for inflation, Southern Baptists have increased the “purchasing power” of the CP by $144 million in 85 years! The blessing of the CP is felt every day when half of our core budget at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary is paid for by the gracious giving of Southern Baptists to the CP. We tell our faculty and staff one way to look at the blessing is in the fact that Southern Baptists, through the CP, pay for half of your annual salary and benefits. It is almost unfathomable that when I put in one dollar in the offering plate at my local church, First Baptist Church of Durham, N.C., that only 1/10th of a penny makes it to Southeastern, but all of those $0.001 gifts across the convention add up to nearly $8 million for Southeastern Seminary. Praise God, and we celebrate the CP!
While there is celebration, there is also concern. The greatness of the CP is counterbalanced by the impersonal nature of the CP. If you ask the average church member if he or she has ever heard of the CP, you often hear a consistent “no” or, at least, “I have heard of it, but have no idea what it is.” Let’s face it, people give to that which they are emotionally tied and to what they believe is accomplishing good work. The only solution is to reengage the local church in understanding both the power and necessity of the CP.
This is why I am excited about the recommendation of the Great Commission Task Force to return the CP promotion to the state conventions since in some ways they are able to communicate to the local churches more effectively. Of course, if this shift occurs, the potential exists, with proper execution, for the state conventions to benefit from increased CP giving. The local church needs to reengage and increase their participation in the CP to stem the tide of a decline in the overall effectiveness of the CP as evidenced by the numbers over the last 20 years.
In 1990, the Conservative Resurgence was at its peak, and our convention had firmly set a course built upon a return to the inerrancy of Scripture and theological fidelity. Total CP giving at the national level was $140 million. At first glance one could look at this number and say how great we are doing because we are now giving $60 million more annually to the CP. However, we often forget that we live in an inflationary world, and dollars in one year do not hold the same “purchasing power” as dollars in another year. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s inflation calculator, $140 million dollars in 1990 is equivalent to $230 million in 2009. Therefore, from a purchasing power standpoint the CP has actually lost $30 million or 13 percent in 20 years. This means an effective loss of $15 million for the International Mission Board and, in the context in which I live, Southeastern, a loss of $1.2 million. However, in the context of the seminaries, inflation in higher education across the country runs around 1.5 percent higher than standard inflation. This means that the six seminaries over the last 20 years have lost over $27 million in the purchasing power the CP provides.
The brunt of this loss of purchasing power is only evident in large scale at the national level. When comparing the CP dollars kept in the state conventions, one notices that their loss in purchasing power from 1990 through 2008 (2009 numbers are not published yet) amounts to 2.3 percent or $8 million across the 42 state conventions versus a purchasing power loss of 11.3 percent related to national CP receipts over the same time period. The state conventions carry out many valuable ministries, but it is clear that priorities have remained at home. It is important to remember that the national entities, for the most part, are only blessed to the degree that the state conventions pass along CP dollars for national initiatives.
It is my prayer that Southern Baptists will embrace the concept of Great Commission Giving as we recognize what has existed from 1925 forward in regard to designated giving. I also hope that within the umbrella of Great Commission Giving we would rally around the CP from the person in the pew to the pastors in the pulpits, from the executives of the state conventions to the leaders of our national entities, so that the CP regains its ability to keep pace with economic realities.
I frequently share with students regarding church budgeting that your church budget is nothing more than your ministry plan expressed in dollars and cents. Southern Baptists have declared one ministry plan with our lips but have executed a different one with our wallets and budgets. May God adjust all of our priorities so that we can preach the good news to the 1.6 billion people who have never heard the lifesaving gospel of Jesus Christ.
Ryan Hutchinson is senior vice president for business administration at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest. N.C. NOTE: CP giving numbers are pulled from the SBC Annuals and SBC Executive Committee reports. Inflation information is based on the U.S. Department of Labor’s inflation calculator. Higher education inflation numbers are estimated based on the Higher Education Price Index (HEPI) that is tracked by The Commonfund.