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‘One to One’ relationships with churches yields new dynamic in state convention

FRESNO, Calif. (BP)–Several years ago, a woman in a local church asked Fermin Whittaker a question he has never forgotten.

“Where’s my dollar?” she demanded.

“I said to her, ‘What do you mean?'” recalls Whittaker, executive director of the California Southern Baptist Convention. “She said, ‘Don’t tell me about the Cooperative Program. Where’s my dollar that I gave to missions?”

That appeal led the California executive to launch a statewide effort to “put a face” on the Cooperative Program, the Southern Baptist Convention’s unified channel for supporting missions and ministries at home and around the world through local church offerings.

It also led Whittaker and his staff to seek a partnership with LifeWay Christian Resources. The goal: to apply “One to One” personalization principles in their relationship with California churches.

The influential One to One approach, pioneered by business consultants Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, stresses the nurturing of interactive relationships with individual customers — one at a time — rather than marketing generic products to the masses. In California, Whittaker’s “customers” are each of the churches affiliated with the state convention.

“Many of the major corporations in the world are doing it, but we’re not doing it for that reason,” Whittaker insists. “I believe Jesus always took time for the individual. Southern Baptists do so many things right, but often over the years [SBC] entities have been more process-driven than relationship-driven. We say to churches, ‘Here’s a program; God bless you and come on board.’ Relationship-driven means we say, ‘What’s your need and how can I help you?’ It’s a very difficult change in mindset, but I’m excited. Our people are really jazzed up. It has revolutionized my staff.”

State convention workers began intensive study of the One to One approach last fall with representatives from the network partnerships group of LifeWay’s church resources division. Early this year, they launched two “learning projects.” One effort focuses on listening to 50 convention-affiliated churches that do not contribute to the Cooperative Program. The other project seeks to understand the different characteristics of congregations in four segments or “needs clusters” — growing, plateaued, declining and small churches.

The “learning projects” are just getting underway, but the one relating to non-contributing congregations already has borne fruit: Two of the churches have begun giving through the Cooperative Program on a monthly basis — and requesting regular update/reminders.

“We’re early in the process, but we should learn a lot,” says Mike McCullough, CSBC associate executive director and coordinator of the state effort. “We have to learn how to listen to churches, then take what we’re hearing and deliver customized resources to help meet their needs. One size doesn’t fit all.”

That goes double in the rainbow-colored colossus of California, where Southern Baptists are trying to share the Gospel with an estimated 32 million non-Christians from nearly every imaginable language and culture. California Baptists reflect that variety: By the end of last year, nearly 2,000 churches and missions affiliated with the convention were ministering in 54 languages and among 100 ethnic groups.

The Cooperative Program learning project is directed at 25 primarily white and 25 primarily black churches. One of the aims, McCullough notes, is to ask, “Does this work with Anglo congregations? Does it work with African American congregations? We may try it later with Hispanic and Asian congregations. This is all about learning what the preferences of our churches are and trying to address their needs.”

California churches contributed more than $7.3 million to state, national and international ministries through the Cooperative Program in 2002, but more than a third of convention-related churches gave nothing at all.

“We believe as a state convention that we’re not relevant to a large percentage of our congregations,” McCullough admits. “They don’t know us, and they don’t understand the resources we have that could assist them.”

They hope to change that with the One to One approach. Bill Taylor, director of LifeWay’s network partnerships group, thinks they will succeed.

“They’ve done all the work,” Taylor said. “That’s the genius of it. It’s not a matter of some outsider coming in and being a super-charged consultant. All the pilot programs are run by their people. It’s really a model of how to do this thing together.

“I think it speaks to the future, because the old way of [dominant denominational] entities, whether at the national level or the state conventions — that day is over. Basically the priority becomes the needs of the church rather than the needs of the convention or the national entity. Everybody talks that language, but it’s another thing to practice it. California has moved from student to practitioner. I’m hoping that LifeWay’s network partnerships can work very closely with California Baptists to help other states do this.”

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges