The first of several conferences teaching pastors the basics of debt-free living — named It's A New Day: How Will You Spend It? — aims at "liberating people from the bondage of debt," according to one of its organizers.
The new focus is not another capital campaign or a new way to raise Cooperative Program funds to support Southern Baptist missions and ministries.
Tackling financial bondage will help people "choose who to serve, because if they are in bondage to debt…they are not free to choose to serve God," Bob Rodgers, the SBC Executive Committee's vice president for Cooperative Program and stewardship, said in a panel discussion during the March 22-23 conference in Orlando, Florida.
The initiative is tailor-made for Southern Baptists in a collaborative relationship with Crown Financial Ministries. Last year, messengers to the SBC annual meeting in Greensboro, North Carolina, voted to move the ministry assignment for stewardship to the SBC's Executive Committee from LifeWay Christian Resources — a move which Ashley Clayton, the EC's new associate vice president for stewardship, predicted will broaden the understanding of stewardship from merely giving the tithe to the church to something much bigger.
Basic money management strategies will produce leaders who can be "catalyst[s] that can shift the culture," Clayton said. "The whole world has awakened to the financial problem and yet Southern Baptists have been silent. This initiative is about helping people come to grips with where they are financially."
Clayton, in an interview, told the Florida Baptist Witness that the church is not immune from America's obsession with spending, with the average American spending $1.20 for every dollar earned.
"Easy money, consumer credit card debt is at epidemic proportions — not just outside the church, but inside the church," Clayton said. "We are also discovering that pastors are not immune from the pressure of debt as well."
The spiritual impact of that debt burden can be staggering, Clayton said, causing people who would otherwise be willing to go on a mission trip, teach a Sunday School class, or tithe to hold back.
"They are willing to do it but they honestly can't," Clayton said. "The bondage that they're under is absolutely keeping people from fulfilling what God has called them to do."
The "transformational" approach of the It's A New Day initiative can have a dramatic impact on Southern Baptist life, Clayton said, with state-by-state regional and church-wide emphases.
"You can motivate people on Sunday morning all day long to do all these wonderful things in the Kingdom, but when Monday morning rolls around their motivation goes out the window because they're in debt," Clayton said.
Stewardship Entails Integrity
John Sullivan, executive director-treasurer of the Florida Baptist Convention, welcomed the conference to Florida and spoke briefly about the importance of stewardship, calling it a "matter of integrity" for Christians.
"When you come to the matter of stewardship, you come to the matter of life commitment," Sullivan said. "I guarantee you it has more to do than just with money, but it does deal with money, and we understand that because money becomes representative of our life and energy.
"Stewardship is a matter of integrity on the part of the believer," Sullivan continued. "No one loses their integrity, they give it up. Stewardship is a matter of integrity; you must not give it up."
The conference format featured individuals sharing testimonies, keynote speakers, and a practical segment which took participants through a workbook designed for immediate application of principles and a colorful "Crown Money Map" which takes individuals and families through seven destinations to reach in their journey to financial freedom. Conference-goers received additional books and resources including a four-week church-wide emphasis, "Road to Financial Freedom" on a CD complete with graphics and artwork, sermon outlines, and Sunday School lessons.
Morris H. Chapman, president of the Executive Committee and a conference leader, said he believes God may be waiting on a revival of stewardship to precede a revival in the nation.
"I believe God is up to something in regards to stewardship," Chapman said in sharing a personal testimony of growing up in a church and home which did not emphasize stewardship or tithing.
"It is definitely a new day when it comes to stewardship in Southern Baptist life," Chapman said.
Keynote speakers were Ken Whitten, pastor of Idlewild Baptist Church in Tampa; Hayes Wicker, immediate past president of the Florida Baptist State Convention and pastor of First Baptist Church in Naples, Florida; and Tom Mullins, a non-denominational pastor from West Palm Beach.
Whitten, who previously served on staff with Adrian Rogers at the Memphis-area Bellevue Baptist Church in Tennessee, shared a personal story of how he struggled with finances until his late twenties when he and his wife Ginny were "fighting more and arguing more" than they should have been — and mostly it was over money.
"I was a giver. I loved to give [but] I couldn't even spell it — a 'budget,'" Whitten admitted. "I was the one who said, 'This is going to become too restrictive. I will be put on a leash; that I'll never get to play golf again.'"
Asking another couple in the church for help, Whitten said he was able to sort out where the money for clothes, shoes, and diapers was going to come from — and how he could still buy a gift for his wife without feeling guilty — and possibly keep his putter.
"You are looking at a man that's freed, and there's no feeling like freedom in that regard," Whitten said.
Stewardship is something he's passed on to his children, Whitten said. He recalled driving down Popular Avenue in Memphis and the children reminding him to consult the "blue book" on the way to the "golden arch supper club" — to make sure there was enough money to eat out.
"Jesus said we are to be good stewards," Whitten said. "The Bible says that God measures your spiritual maturity by how you handle your money."
And it doesn't matter how much you make; it's how you spend it, Whitten said, listing four principles from Luke 16: accounting, budgeting, saving, and giving.
With three years of back-to-back building campaigns at Idlewild, Whitten said he hasn't had time to "be kind of wimpy, whiny" when talking about money. Instead, there is a "culture" at Idlewild that says, "We are just a giving group of people."
Introducing Rob Taylor, a former tight end for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Whitten said he is Idlewild's stewardship pastor and oversees a number of ongoing Crown Financial Ministry classes at the church.
"This is a part of who we are. This is our DNA," Whitten said. "If we can train the next generation, we can make a difference."
Whitten said he is thankful for the SBC's new initiative and believes that pastors are a good starting point because everyone "makes mistakes" in knowing how to respond to stewardship issues.
"I can stand in the pulpit and I don't feel like a hypocrite," Whitten said. "I can just be a fellow struggler."
The Grace of Giving
Hayes Wicker, president of the 2007 SBC Pastors' Conference, spoke from 2 Corinthians 8:1-7 in focusing on coaching tips related to stewardship.
"I believe God is calling us to finish the course and to fight the good fight and to keep the faith," Wicker said. "God says to dare not drop the baton on the relay race. [We are] running the race together to win in the areas of giving and finances."
Wicker said his church has raised more than $54 million for their building projects over the years and operates on a budget that has increased from $700,000 to more than $10 million.
Citing statistics which show the average American is more than $35,000 in debt, Wicker issued the following "coaching" tips: "Runners in the race need help," "Grace is the motivation to run the race," "Grace giving is the track on which to run," "We first give ourselves to the coach," and "Go all out — in utterance, in knowledge, and in love."
Freeing people from the "grip of materialism" to where they can discover "the joy of giving" is important in fostering grace as the motivation for giving, Wicker said.
"I believe it is the unmerited favor of God that ought to motivate our people," Wicker said of the importance of preaching about stewardship in relation to grace. "Most sermons are just good advice, not Good News."
Praying and fasting about giving is normal fare at First Baptist in Naples, Wicker said. And it's important to remember that many of the people in the region are from non-church backgrounds.
"They don't not only believe in tithing, they don't believe in Sunday School of all things," Wicker said. "[They have to] learn to embrace the things money can't buy."
As a result of the emphasis on "joyful and voluntary" giving, Wicker said people engage in "hilarious giving" — bringing their "change" offerings and coin collections when asked.
"In every venture, we have to ask: "Where's the faith?" Wicker said. "I don't think we can bite off more than God can chew. He can chew some pretty big pieces of steak."
Leading by Example
Tom Mullins, a former football player and coach, said he learned to lead using his coaching strengths and has grown his church through several building projects while continuing to give to missions.
"We have always given with a generous spirit for the Kingdom of God," Mullins said, citing one church event when more than $40,000 in $100 bills were passed out to single moms — and a few single dads as well. This type of giving generated even more giving and the church's offering "shot out of the roof" after that, Mullins said.
Speaking from 1 Chronicles 21:18, Mullins urged pastors to lead in genuine worship.
"God desires men and women who will worship Him in spirit and in truth," Mullins said. "As our personal place goes, so goes the place of our congregations and churches."
Leading by example — not asking for the "ministerial discount" or seeking to use the good name of parents or relatives — will be worship that costs.
"As leaders we come before God and we set the example of giving," Mullins said, remembering the days when he and his wife lived on soup and peanut butter and crackers. Still giving, "it became the fabric of who we are," he said.
Crediting God with blessing him "beyond measure," Mullins said when leaders practice worship in all areas of their lives "God will be honored," "others are blessed," and "you will be blessed."
Tracy Schmidt, a member of First Baptist Church of Central Florida in Orlando, shared six principles related to stewardship, idolatry, faithfulness, planning, giving, and trust.
"Giving is absolutely liberating because it takes the focus off of us," Schmidt said. "It reminds us Who we are serving and where it came from."
A former member of Bellevue Baptist Church, he was able to completely retire his parents' and his wife's parents' mortgages as "gift[s] from God."
Encouraging pastors to teach about stewardship, Schmidt said, "You are robbing them if you don't teach them how to give. You have to lead by example."
Throughout the conference, Money Map counselors were available to participants. They are part of a network of more than one thousand individuals trained to assist individuals who desire to use Crown Financial Ministry resources which include a "10 Week Biblical Financial Study Set" for use in small groups, available to Southern Baptist churches at a 40 percent discounted rate through the fall of 2007 by calling 1-866-902-6578.
Other resources include Making Change: A Transformational Guide to Christian Money Management by Ken Hemphill, available through LifeWay Christian Bookstores or at www.LifeWay.com.
To find out when the next It's A New Day conference is scheduled, go online to www.sbc.net or call Terry Doherty at 615-782-8680.