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Georgia Baptists make financial adjustments in light of 20-year audit study

WARNER ROBINS, Ga. (BP)The process of rectifying a challenging financial situation for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board (GBMB) begins with an assessment of where things stand, state leadership said at a meeting of the GBMB Executive Committee Tuesday (Sept. 15).

W. Thomas Hammond Jr., Georgia Baptist Mission Board executive director, addresses Executive Committee members at Central Baptist Church in Warner Robins. EC members unable to attend did so virtually through the screen in the background. Photo by Scott Barkley/Index

The changes come following a study of annual audits conducted by the Georgia Baptist Convention/Georgia Baptist Mission Board from 1999-2019.

The audits reported a 31 percent decrease in GBMB revenue that included $1.21 million drop in Cooperative Program giving to the state. During that time, the GBMB also decreased its unrestricted investments held at the Georgia Baptist Foundation by 96 percent.

David Melber, Georgia Baptists’ new chief operating officer, informed GBMB staff of upcoming changes Monday (Sept. 14). Using a term from his background in construction, he compared the process to the renovation of a home.

“There’s a place we want the home to get to,” he said, “but there’s going to be an in-between time we have to get through.”

That “in-between” will include a present-day reality of limited cash and liquid assets plus no longer covering financial losses for related parties such as colleges and camps.

Georgia Baptist Executive Director W. Thomas Hammond Jr. and others pointed to a longstanding practice of consistent cash overspend for non-budgeted items. Those losses have largely come through supporting areas such as camps, colleges, and The Christian Index. Norman Park Conference Center realized $12.35 million in losses from 1999-2015. Toccoa Conference Center losses from 2000-2019 totaled $10.87 million.

The Toccoa Conference Center has been placed up for sale, the Index reported Wednesday (Sept. 16).

Georgia Baptist Chief Operations Officer David Melber delivers the report on Toccoa Baptist Conference Center. Photo by Scott Barkley/Index

Sustained decline in subscribership at the Index mirrored declines across the journalism industry and paralleled an increase in postage and printing costs. That joined the $3.6 million in estimated losses connected to Pinebloom, a Decatur antebellum mansion acquired by the Convention in 2000 and used as the Index offices until 2003.

These factors and more have brought the Georgia Baptist Mission Board to a current reality of a 100 percent decrease in cash and cash equivalent and a place of painful, though necessary, belt-tightening.

Melber repeated throughout his presentation that there was nothing malicious or nefarious about the spending habits. In fact, he consistently characterized the transactions as coming from “a heart of generosity” or “benevolence.”

But he added: “We no longer have the ability to underwrite related party losses.”

Georgia Baptist Executive Director W. Thomas Hammond, Jr., pointed to past and future steps to bring the Mission Board more in line with its budget.

“Through downsizing and adjusting Georgia Baptist staff levels, we’ve worked to match our future strategies for reaching Georgia and the world with the Gospel,” he told The Index. “Other steps taken to that end came on April 1, when we suspended employer retirement contributions for all staff and initiated staff pay reductions.”

Other key actions proposed to Executive Committee members were:

  • A complete overhaul of financial procedures and internal reporting
  • Toccoa Baptist Conference Center operations suspended as of Sept. 30 and staff reduction to match attendance trends
  • A decrease in retiree life and dental coverage
  • A decrease in GBMB employee retirement benefits
  • Adjustments in GBMB employee ongoing benefits

Melber proposed that assets not aligned with the current Georgia Baptist Mission Board strategy be placed for sale. Those properties are Pinebloom, 340 vacant acres in Waycross, a house in Norman Park, and the Missions and Ministry Center in Duluth. An ongoing analysis is looking into alternate revenue potential for BCM properties while strengthening those ministries.

“In these actions … we’re asking for your support as we seek to steward the best we can what the Lord has entrusted to us as Georgia Baptists,” Melber reported.

Executive Committee members approved a 2021 Cooperative Program budget of $37,835,000 presented by Hammond. That figure represents a 6 percent decrease from last year’s budget, the largest drop since 2012, which was also at 6 percent. It’s not the largest in recent memory, though, as the Great Recession led to reducing the budget in 2009 (5.16 percent) and 2010 (8.2 percent).

Of the 2021 budget, 60 percent will fund Georgia Baptist entities and ministries while 40 percent – $15,134,000 – will be forwarded to the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee for national and international missions and ministry. Messengers will vote on approving the budget at the annual meeting to be held Nov. 9 at Ingleside Baptist Church in Macon.

This post was updated Sept. 17 to reflect a clarification regarding investments through the Georgia Baptist Foundation.