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Report: Lagging CP support, stewardship foretell crisis

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The Southern Baptist Convention and its entities will face a financial crisis in the near future unless giving to the denomination increases, according to a report that was adopted unanimously by the SBC Executive Committee Sept. 23.

The report by the SBC Funding Study Committee finds that giving by church members has decreased gradually over the past 30 years and is far below the biblical standard of the tithe. Additionally, churches are forwarding less of their offerings to the Cooperative Program than they did two decades ago and are sending less of their money to missions.

Those two factors, combined with a sluggish economy, already have impacted the number of missionaries on the field and the tuition rates at SBC-funded seminaries. But the report says that, barring an increase in giving, the situation will continue deteriorating.

The Cooperative Program, established by the SBC in 1925, is the method for funding Southern Baptist Convention and state Baptist convention missions and ministries. While giving to the Cooperative Program, or CP Missions, reaches records yearly, those gains barely have kept pace with inflation.

Cooperative Program money pays the bills for missionaries and also funds the six SBC seminaries that train future missionaries, pastors and those going into fulltime Christian service. It also supports other ministries, such as the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“The Southern Baptist Convention and its entities are facing serious financial challenges as they engage the ministry and mission opportunities in this 21st century,” the report states.

“It is the opinion of the Committee none of the entities are in a financial crisis at present. However, all of them are experiencing trends in their fiscal health that could degenerate into a crisis in very few years.”

The report lists seven recommendations intended to reverse the trend, such as creating a pastor-led strategy that will promote biblical giving and educating Southern Baptists about the Cooperative Program through Sunday School literature. It discourages additional special offerings, saying that the denomination “will be better served by an aggressive stewardship education emphasis.”

“[T]he factor that appears to be emerging as the most plausible explanation for the declining support for the Cooperative Program is a serious neglect of Cooperative Program education and promotion in the churches,” the report says. “Rather than widespread negative feelings about the Cooperative Program, there appears to be widespread ignorance about the Cooperative Program.”

While the sluggish economy has contributed to the situation, it hasn’t been the main factor, the report says. Instead, the report points to a decline in giving as the main problem, and notes that giving was falling even when the economy was booming.

Among the report’s findings about giving:

— Giving as a percentage of income in American church members declined steadily between 1968 and 1998, from 2.45 percent to 2.12 percent, according to a study by the research organization empty tomb, inc. Southern Baptists give an average of 2.03 percent, empty tomb found.

“The alarming fact is not just that the 2.03% giving average falls miserably short of the tithe (10%), but that the percentage has dropped dramatically in the last thirty years,” the report states. “In a time when Southern Baptist members arguably were experiencing financial prosperity, they have been giving a shrinking percentage of their available income to the local church.”

— Gifts forwarded from churches to the Cooperative Program have not kept pace with an increase in church offerings. Although total offerings in Southern Baptist churches grew 108 percent from 1987 to 2001, gifts to the Cooperative Program grew only 47.8 percent. Two special offerings not considered part of the Cooperative Program, Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong, saw increases of 51.9 percent and 60 percent, respectively.

— Churches have reduced their Cooperative Program giving, from an average of 10.5 percent of their budget in the 1980s to 7.39 percent today. When the Cooperative Program was formed in 1925, the figure was about 11 percent.

While the report warns of a pending crisis if current trends aren’t reversed, it notes that Southern Baptist entities already are making unwelcome changes. The International Mission Board, North American Mission Board and the six seminaries receive 95 percent of Cooperative Program budget money. Among the report’s findings on those entities:

— The International Mission Board has postponed the deployment of some 100 missionary candidates, reduced the number of new short-term personnel by 30 percent, laid off 37 staff members and eliminated an additional 24 jobs, and suspended publication of The Commission magazine.

“These decisions were made because the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering was only marginally larger than the previous year and missed its goal by $10 million, Cooperative Program receipts are flat, and investment income for the last few years has declined dramatically,” the report says.

— The North American Mission Board eliminated 31 positions and has a proposed 2004 budget that is 6 percent less than its current budget.

“NAMB has not met income projections four of the last five years,” the report states. “Cooperative Program receipts are flat and Annie Armstrong Easter Offering receipts are running behind last year’s level.”

— Due to falling investment returns and flattening Cooperative Program giving, the six Southern Baptist seminaries have been forced to increase tuition rates, resulting in fears that those going into fulltime Christian service will carry too much debt.

“These debts could hinder the graduates’ ability to survive financially in entry-level ministry positions,” the report says.

    About the Author

  • Michael Foust