NASHVILLE (BP) — In a Q&A with SBC LIFE, Ernest Easley, chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, addressed some of the main issues surrounding a proposal regarding how churches qualify to send messengers to the SBC annual meeting.
The Executive Committee placed on its June 9 agenda a proposal to update Article III of the SBC constitution, and Southern Baptists are encouraged to provide feedback by emailing [email protected] The committee’s deliberations, then, will determine whether the proposed revision will be presented to messengers at the June 10-11 SBC annual meeting in Baltimore.
Article III of the SBC constitution has been amended 11 times, with the latest proposal coming as a motion from the floor at last year’s SBC annual meeting to reevaluate the minimum qualifications for seating additional church messengers at the SBC.
Easley is pastor of Roswell Street Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga.
Q: Why is the Executive Committee recommending a change to Article III of the SBC constitution?
A: There have been 16 motions referred to the Executive Committee by messengers over the past 35 years, with another this past June. We just felt that it was time to update the minimum giving standards which date back to 1888, and we saw it as a good opportunity to lift up Cooperative Program as the preferred model of giving to convention work.
Some of the other proposed changes, such as consideration for natural disasters and referencing our confession of faith, were surfaced in a lengthy and thoughtful discussion of the bylaws workgroup last September.
Q: What is the minimum threshold for a church to send messengers to the convention?
A: Right now, a church that makes a contribution of any size to convention work qualifies for one messenger. Under the proposal being considered, that number would double to two. We felt like this was an appropriate change for two reasons.
First, many of our churches only send two messengers to the annual meeting. In the years where records have been kept, most churches send two messengers. The second largest category of representation is of churches that send only one messenger.
Second, pastors are often accompanied by their wives. We thought it reasonable to encourage them to come as a couple, no matter the size of the church or the amount of the church’s gifts to the convention.
Q: Why do you suggest dropping the 250 members portion of the current Article III?
A: While we don’t think this has happened, under the current system, a church of 2,500 members could send a full complement of 10 messengers for no more than the cost of a cup of coffee. We felt that wasn’t right. Under the proposed system, the smallest church in the convention qualifies for two messengers for no more than the cost of that same cup of coffee. We believe in the value of every church in the convention and wanted to provide a more level playing field for the smaller churches in the convention.
Q: Don’t you feel like the $6,000 figure for each additional messenger will alienate many of our smaller churches?
A: We sincerely hope not. In fact, we think it should encourage them for several reasons.
First, it should encourage our smaller churches to know that this raises the threshold of giving for our larger churches. Under the current system, the largest church in the convention could seat 10 messengers for a very small percentage of its undesignated receipts.
For an extreme example, if a church had a budget of $1 million, it could seat a full complement of messengers for as little as that cup of coffee I just mentioned, or for no more than a $2,500 gift to convention causes. That’s only one quarter of 1 percent of the church’s gifts — for 10 messengers. We think this is patently unfair.
Under the proposed system, that same church would have to give at least $60,000 to qualify for a full complement of messengers. We think it is both reasonable and fair to challenge our larger churches in this way. Thankfully, most of them already give much larger sums than this amount.
Second, the contribution limits for additional messengers is an “either/or” option. Let’s say a church has an annual budget of $76,000. It automatically qualifies for two messengers for any gift it makes to convention work. If that church contributes 10 percent of its receipts through the Cooperative Program, it qualifies for a full complement of messengers for total gifts of $7,600.
Or, if the church contributed 5 percent through the CP ($3,800) and gave an additional $2,000 to Lottie Moon, $1,500 to Annie Armstrong and $300 to the SBC World Hunger Fund, it would qualify for a full complement of 12 messengers to the SBC annual meeting. We believe that proportional giving is biblical — and that it honors our smaller-budget churches for their contributions to Kingdom work.
Third, churches across the convention are already giving, on average, more than 5 percent of their undesignated church gifts to convention work through the Cooperative Program. If we add in the gifts to the Lottie Moon Offering for International Missions, the Annie Armstrong Offering for North American Missions and the SBC World Hunger Fund, few churches would be negatively impacted by this.
Q: Does the Executive Committee think this will increase attendance at the SBC annual meetings?
A: No. Increasing attendance at the annual meeting was not a factor in our deliberations. While we do wish attendance to increase, we do not think Article III is the place to attempt to accomplish that.
Q: Does the Executive Committee expect the new language to increase church contributions to convention causes?
A: No. The Executive Committee is certainly concerned about the steady decline in the number of Christians who give their tithes and offerings to their churches. And we are concerned about the level of church commitment to give to the missions and ministries of the convention through the Cooperative Program.
We hope that as we tell the compelling story about the tremendous Acts 1:8 opportunities the Cooperative Program affords every church, churches will regain confidence in supporting our SBC causes. But the recommended amendments to Article III are primarily designed to update antiquated 19th century minimum giving standards to a more realistic 21st century level of giving.
Q: If giving or attendance are not expected to be improved by the suggested changes, what improvements are expected?
A: To name a few, friendly cooperation is better defined, the Cooperative Program is explicitly referred to and prioritized, greater participation by smaller churches is facilitated, filing an Annual Church Profile is promoted (though not required), and involvement in the annual meeting is protected for churches affected by calamity.
By making participation in the convention more than just about money, it sends a signal to churches that may wish to give a token contribution to the convention in order to benefit from such things as seminary tuition discounts, that being identified with the SBC means something.
Q: What is the limit on the number of messengers that any one church could qualify to send to the SBC’s annual meeting?
A: Now it is 10. Under the proposal it would be 12.
Q: Does the new formula require churches to give through the Cooperative Program?
A: No. As is the case now, all gifts to the convention are welcomed and celebrated. However, the convention has gone on record many times over the years, both through resolutions and most recently through the 2010 Great Commission Task Force report, lifting up Cooperative Program as the preferred means through which churches give to convention causes.
Q: Does this proposal disenfranchise churches that otherwise could send messengers?
A: No. In fact, it doubles the number of messengers (from one to two) for any church that makes any level of financial contribution to the convention. There may be some churches that would not be able to seat a full complement of messengers under the new proposal; but no church that contributes to convention work is disenfranchised by this proposal.
Q: Had the suggested new language been in effect at the time of the Conservative Resurgence, would it have been possible to correct the course of the convention in the manner that was accomplished in the 1980s?
A: This question was raised in the Executive Committee’s deliberations.
While the available data is being analyzed in an attempt to shed more light on the point, the Executive Committee was mindful of that concern in its deliberations. We plan to report more fully actual messenger representation at past SBC annual meetings in future articles.
Q: How was the $6,000 figure derived?
A: What was apparently deemed “bona fide” as the increment upon which additional messengers could be qualified in 1888 was the amount of $250. That amount of money in today’s terms has a present value (depending on the calculation methodology employed) of between $4,000 and $7,000.
Q: Why was the title changed from “Membership” to “Composition”?
A: While all Southern Baptists view themselves as “members” of the convention (membership matters!), the convention technically has no members. It is a convention, a gathering. It convenes on one Tuesday each year, comprised of a particular set of individuals, transacts the convention’s business, and disbands the following day. The following year, it convenes again with a different set of individuals, transacts the convention’s business, and disbands. The change to “Composition” better conveys the historic idea that the annual gathering of the convention is a gathering of messengers, duly certified by autonomous churches.
Q: Why was the descriptive term “missionary” not carried forward into the new language?
A: The word “missionary” was frequently used in the 19th and early 20th centuries during an anti-missions movement to distinguish churches that believe in missions engagement from those that opposed such engagement. Southern Baptist churches are united around our common missions enterprises. It was deleted due to potential confusion since there are now separate Missionary Baptist denominations.
Following is the text of the proposed Article III, to be considered in June.
Article III. Composition: The Convention shall consist of messengers who are members of Baptist churches in cooperation with the Convention at levels which the Convention, from time to time, determines. The following subparagraphs describe the Convention’s current standards and method of determining the maximum number of messengers the Convention will recognize from each cooperating church to attend the Convention’s annual meeting.
1. The Convention will only deem a church to be in friendly cooperation with the Convention, and sympathetic with its purposes and work (i.e., a “cooperating” church as that descriptive term is used in the Convention’s governing documents) which:
(1) Has not intentionally operated in any manner demonstrating opposition to the doctrine expressed in the Convention’s most recently adopted statement of faith. (By way of example, churches which act to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior would be deemed not to be in cooperation with the Convention.)
(2) Has formally approved its intention to cooperate with the Southern Baptist Convention. (By way of example, the regular filing of the annual report requested by the Convention would be one indication of such cooperation.)
(3) Has made undesignated, financial contribution(s) through the Cooperative Program, and/or through the Convention’s Executive Committee for Convention causes, and/or to any Convention entity during the fiscal year preceding.
2. Under the terms above, the Convention will recognize to participate in its annual meeting two (2) messengers from each cooperating church, and such additional messengers as are permitted below.
3. The Convention will recognize one (1) additional messenger from each cooperating church for each full percent of the church’s undesignated receipts or for each six thousand dollars ($6,000), whichever is less, which the church contributed during the fiscal year preceding through the Cooperative Program, and/or through the Convention’s Executive Committee for Convention causes, and/or to any Convention entity.
4. The messengers shall be appointed and certified by their church to the Convention, but the Convention will not recognize more than twelve (12) from any cooperating church.
5. Each messenger shall be a member of the church by which he or she is appointed.
6. If a church experiences a natural disaster or calamitous event and, as a result, the church is not qualified to appoint as many messengers as the church could appoint for the Convention’s annual meeting immediately before the event, the church’s pastor or an authorized church representative may, for no more than the three (3) annual meetings after the event, certify the facts to the registration secretary and obtain the same number of messengers it could have certified for the Convention’s annual meeting immediately before the event.
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