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Texas convention ends ties with SBC publisher LifeWay

DALLAS (BP)–The Baptist General Convention of Texas is ending a longstanding cooperative agreement with LifeWay Christian Resources, the Nashville-based publisher for the Southern Baptist Convention. By pulling out of the ministry investment plan when it expires Sept. 30, BGCT stands to lose several hundred thousand dollars from LifeWay to support ministries and church growth initiatives while gaining the freedom to promote its own BaptistWay Press curriculum.

“I’m surprised and saddened by the decision, but I respect the BGCT’s right to make it,” stated LifeWay President and CEO James T. Draper Jr. “LifeWay has enjoyed a long relationship with the convention, and I fully expect this will continue throughout the many Southern Baptist churches and associations in Texas that will keep using our resources.” He said LifeWay and BGCT leaders share “a desire that people everywhere would know Christ and make Him known.”

Draper acknowledged the challenge to keep providing resources and services to Texas customers. “We understand that we are now in a competitive situation with the BGCT for curriculum sales to Texas churches, but that does not change our commitment to provide biblically sound, relevant and value-priced resources to help people and churches know Christ and seek His Kingdom.”

BGCT Executive Director Charles Wade advised Draper of the decision, pledging to continue working with LifeWay to meet the needs of Texas Baptist churches. “To the degree these churches acquire and apply LifeWay’s products to achieve their mission of service to our Lord, we will endeavor to assist the church in accomplishing its purpose.”

According to reporting by BGCT’s Ferrell Foster, the state convention’s executive board members responded with scattered applause to the March 2 announcement by Lynn Eckeberger, coordinator of the BGCT’s church health and growth section. Eckeberger was quoted as basing the decision on the changing needs of churches. “We will serve the churches in Texas with an ever-increasing diligence, unhindered by product sales fostered by an agreement to provide exclusive privilege” to one publisher.

“We are very interested in helping churches become aware of our BibleWay curriculum and will much more aggressively promote it than we ever have before,” stated Dennis Parrott, director of BGCT’s Bible study/discipleship center. Parrott told Baptist Press, “We do not consider this supplemental Bible study material. Now, with integrity, we can say we aren’t obligated to promote LifeWay or anyone else’s [curriculum], but we do feel an obligation to promote what we feel is the best.” While encouraging BGCT churches to use BibleWay Press materials, Parrott emphasized, “We are not going to run down anyone else’s curriculum.”

BibleWay Press was launched over more than four years ago, providing free downloads of material via the Internet. Parrott estimates that 70 percent of Texas Baptist churches average fewer than 100 people in Sunday School and will find the free Internet access appealing. Purchases by larger BGCT churches will help underwrite the cost of providing free material to those with limited budgets.

Eckeberger credited a larger customer base and increased sales of BibleWay Press curriculum with making expansion possible, with the BGCT providing about $500,000 to launch the effort during the past three years. Baptist doctrine clinics, Vacation Bible School training and Bible drill materials will be added next year, he said. Total sales doubled from 2002 to 2003, with 1,100 churches purchasing material from BibleWay, Parrott said. He said 672 customers buy curriculum from BibleWay on a regular basis.

According to records LifeWay releases annually, literature purchased by churches affiliated with BGCT from LifeWay has gradually declined, with $12.967 million in revenue in 2001, $10.641 million in 2002 and $9.823 million in 2003. Although revenue from churches affiliated with Southern Baptists of Texas Convention has risen from $2.46 million in 2001, $2.729 million in 2002 to $2.954 million last year, total Texas revenue declined from $15.427 million to $12.777 million when sales to churches of both conventions are combined.

With no Cooperative Program funding, LifeWay depends upon sales to undergird the work of churches in the areas of ministry to which LifeWay relates. “Since we are self-funding, we operate on sound business principles which enable us to carry out our vision of helping people and churches know Christ and seek His Kingdom,” LifeWay spokesman Rob Phillips said. “We return funds above operating expenses right back into ministry [supporting the SBC operating budget, state conventions, associations and churches].”

LifeWay’s state convention allocations — totaling $6.71 million last year — are based on Cooperative Program giving and improvement in three areas on which the health of cooperating churches is measured, as well as growth in the sale of LifeWay products. State conventions are asked to demonstrate growth among their churches in three areas of their choosing, including church health (Sunday School and Sunday morning worship attendance combined with increased enrollment in discipleship training and music ministries), baptisms, FAITH evangelism strategy and Vacation Bible School. Taking those factors into account, LifeWay allocated $711,074 in BGCT ministries in 2001, $457,261 in 2002 and $291,060 in 2003.

Using the same formula to determine allocations to Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, LifeWay allocated $131,850 in 2001, $258,948 in 2002 and $341,298 in 2003 as SBTC churches increased Cooperative Program giving and demonstrated improvement in selected areas of church health. Combining allocations for both conventions, the total “Texas investment” declined from $842,924 in 2001 to $632,358 last year.

In exchange, state conventions are asked to provide space for LifeWay’s display and bookstore at annual meetings along with visibility in the written program and plenary sessions. LifeWay curriculum materials are showcased during LifeWay-sponsored state training events.

“No more than five years ago we saw our primary role in BGCT to serve as an extension of LifeWay to help them in promotion and use of their materials,” Parrott said, calling it a strong relationship. “Now that has definitely changed. We have finally acknowledged that because churches are using a variety of materials, we can’t single in on any one curriculum and assume anyone is using it. It’s a more general training approach.”

For the past three years, training has not centered on LifeWay curriculum, he added. “If it’s our training event, we help churches with teaching principles, not by interpreting any one curriculum. So there won’t be any difference in the way we provide training opportunities for associations or churches.”

Although promising to continue offering support for churches preferring LifeWay materials, BGCT staff no longer will receive training from the Southern Baptist publisher after the cooperative agreement ends. That could pose a problem for Texas Baptist associations that have relied on BGCT to train their volunteers who go on to train local church workers.

“We respond to the needs of our churches,” explained Gene Pepiton of Wichita-Archer-Clay Baptist Association in Wichita Falls, Texas. “The material produced by LifeWay is written by Southern Baptists out in the field and then goes through the editing process, drawing on others who are gifted in the area of education who write lesson plans go to along with the Bible study. It’s a strong model for developing good literature.”

When BGCT training conferences were no longer centered on LifeWay’s curriculum, his association and a few others in Texas began taking leaders to LifeWay’s Glorieta (N.M.) conference center to be equipped in teaching VBS material. “We had a growing need for a VBS conference of quality since that is probably the most evangelistic thing the majority of our churches will do in any given year. Any time they teach the Bible three hours a day for five days we can expect results.”

Pepiton said, “If I’m trying to do training up here for local leaders and I have five sets of curriculum to teach, I’ve got a problem,” referring to the multiple sets of workers needed to do training. “If you’re teaching Sunday School teachers of younger children, you literally sit down and teach them how to organize a lesson. You’ve got to use something as a model. If all of us are using the same thing, the conference can focus and be more application-oriented. If everyone is on a different page, how do you do that?” he asked.

“Obviously there are some in Texas who feel there’s room for more than one curriculum piece, but our churches have not, to this point, in any quantity, reflected their need for us to resource their teachers with other literature,” Pepiton said. “If they do, we’ll have to respond because regardless of who’s doing what, our job is to resource our churches.”

LifeWay church consultants may be spending more time servicing the needs of individual BGCT churches once the cooperative agreement ends in September. “They provide consultation on church health, work with church staff to suggest resources and assess needs for training and development,” explained Larry Ware, network partnership specialist for a region that includes Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas.

While Ware no longer will relate to the BGCT, he will continue to work with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention which was formed in 1998. “We provide resources for training events and printed materials purchased at discount to use in conferences,” as well as working with associations, Baptist colleges and universities, seminaries and local church ministers of education.

Although there will be no agreement upon which to base training for BGCT personnel, Phillips said LifeWay will continue to serve all of their customers in Texas. “LifeWay will continue to train church and associational leaders and ministry multipliers in Texas. We will also continue our ministry investment plan with the SBTC.

“LifeWay’s church consultants develop close relationships with churches in each state convention and stay abreast of church needs,” Phillips said. “Perhaps even more important from a strategic ministry point of view, we have network partnership specialists who meet with state conventions staffs and associations to help improve their ministry by strengthening our relationship with them and providing biblical solutions for every ministry need.”

Ware knows that churches have many options to consider in selecting resources. “Several major publishers are always marketing to the churches. I think we produce quality materials that interpret Scripture in light of traditional Southern Baptist beliefs. We have Southern Baptists writing for Southern Baptists.”

LifeWay curriculum writers follow the current Baptist Faith and Message for doctrinal guidance, while BibleWay Press utilizes the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message preferred by BGCT.

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter