SBC Life Articles

The Cooperative Program, Shared Ministry Expenses, and the Spirit of Cooperation


The final section of “Penetrating the Lostness,” the Great Commission Task Force report adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention in June 2010, contains ten sets of challenges addressed to all Southern Baptists.  The set addressed to state conventions includes eleven specific challenges.1 Buried in this list of charges is this bullet point:

“Determine to return to the historic ideal of a 50/50 Cooperative Program distribution between the state conventions and the SBC, recognizing the historic commitment of the SBC and the state conventions to share expenses for the promotion and administration of the Cooperative Program.” 2

Eight months later, state convention executives from most of the state conventions that cooperate with the SBC gathered in Williamsburg, Virginia, for their 2011 annual meeting.  An item on their agenda involved the two pieces in this challenge: a consideration of the goal of reaching a 50/50 division of Cooperative Program receipts between state and SBC causes; and a discussion of “shared ministry expenses”—those expenses related to the promotion and administration of the Cooperative Program. 3

Though they did not (and cannot) bind their respective state conventions to a predetermined budget formula, the state convention executives attending this historic meeting affirmed their willingness to do two things. First, they unanimously affirmed the request to consider working with their respective states to achieve the ideal of a 50/50 distribution of Cooperative Program contributions between state conventions and the SBC, after shared ministry expenses are deducted. 4 Second, they agreed to do what they could to keep the percentages in their respective state convention budgets allocated for shared ministry expenses to a minimum. 5

Discussion of these two matters is nothing new in Baptist life. These two subjects have been part of an ongoing conversation between state convention leaders and SBC leaders since the Cooperative Program was first established in 1925. 

For example, during its 1925 annual meeting in Memphis, Tennessee, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a report from its 38-member “Commission on Future Program.” 6 Among the seventeen numbered recommendations in its report were these two:

That we “recommend to our constituents that they divide their offerings for denominational purposes upon a basis of 50% for Southwide [SBC] purposes and 50% for statewide purposes” 7 ; and

“That the state treasurers be asked to take out of the total distributable receipts all expenses before the funds are divided, and remit the amounts due according to the percentages of distribution adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention and the State Conventions.” 8

Strapped with many years of financial debt following the $75 Million Campaign, with a corresponding diminished ability to carry out assigned ministries, state conventions and SBC entities alike looked to the new CP as an instant cure-all to their financial woes.  But, such was not the case. Concerns about equitable distribution of limited financial resources surfaced almost immediately. As soon as 1927, an entity of the SBC faulted the states for keeping too many dollars at home. In its report to the Convention, it lamented, “For this year our Convention theoretically allocated 22½ percent of Southwide funds to Home Missions and requested the states to agree on a fifty-fifty basis in the division of funds for Statewide and Southwide interests. Most of the states, however, failed to do this.” 9

A few years later, another SBC entity accused some states with loading their shared ministry expense categories with administrative expenses which had nothing to do with promoting the “whole” Cooperative Program. 10 Additionally, pressed by their own financial needs, some states began to set aside what came to be known as “preferred items”—funds set aside to service outstanding debts—prior to subtracting the promotional costs for the Cooperative Program, which, in turn, preceded the calculation of the amount of money they forwarded to the SBC according to the percentage distribution formula of their budgets. 11

1930 proved to be a watershed year for the still-fledgling Cooperative Program. During the annual meeting of state convention leaders in February of that year, state executives wrestled with the issue of what could properly be counted as shared ministry expenses. They suggested an outline of what they felt could be “expenses chargeable to” the promotion of the whole Cooperative Program, and agreed that the percentage amounts set aside for these purposes should be submitted to the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention for conference and agreement. 12

Three months later, the State Mission Board of the Maryland Baptist Convention submitted a resolution to the SBC Executive Committee.

It stated, in part,

“While we believe the question of administration expenses needs careful consideration and revision in practically every State, we also feel that the question of Preferred Items, amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars, should be adjusted in a way that would be fair to Convention causes, and if this is not done, that it would be practically impossible to arrest the tendency downward of receipts through the Co-operative Program.” 13

Prompted by these actions, the Executive Committee convened a joint conference with the state secretaries and the SBC entity executives on September 11, 1930. These leaders agreed to a list of items that rightly could be chargeable to the “Whole Program.” In its ensuing report, the Executive Committee noted that when these legitimate administrative and promotional expenses were deducted and the resultant balance was distributed according to the formula adopted by the various states, the percentages as adopted by the states would automatically be prorated. 14

To illustrate, imagine that a state convention received one million dollars in Cooperative Program contributions from its cooperating churches.  If the state had adopted a budget based on a 50/50 division of Cooperative Program receipts after shared expenses, and 8 percent of its budget was identified as shared ministry expenses, the formula would look like this:

  $1,000,000received in CP contributions
less$80,000in shared ministry expenses
 $920,000remaining, to be divided 50/50 with the SBC

$920,000 divided by two equals $460,000. This means that $460,000 would go to SBC causes and $460,000 to state causes, or a 46/46 division, with the remaining 8 percent used by the state to promote, receive, and disperse its Cooperative Program contributions.

Because shared ministry expenses are not counted as part of the resultant Cooperative Program contributions forwarded to the SBC, this state would be identified as a “50/50 state” after shared expenses are subtracted. The SBC would receive 46 percent of funds actually contributed to the state by the churches; but, as described both historically and in the GCR Task Force report, this state should be considered a 50/50 state. In other words, the state and the SBC would receive an equal distribution of the remainder after shared ministry expenses have been subtracted.

Thus, from the time the Cooperative Program was initially established to the present day, Convention messengers have adopted reports and made requests of the states to embrace the ideal of a 50/50 division after shared expenses are deducted. Logically, this formula will never yield a true 50 percent of CP funds forwarded to the SBC from an individual state unless, of course, the state chooses not to deduct shared ministry expenses prior to calculating its division of CP contributions. The possibility that a state would choose not to deduct shared ministry expenses was endorsed and applauded as a worthy ideal in a 1956 SBC report, 15 but it has never been specifically requested or expected.

Recognizing that the distribution of funds would never reach a true 50/50 after shared expenses are first subtracted, attendees at the 1930 joint conference stated their conviction that it was unwise for the states to add any additional encumbrances, such as a “preferred item,” upon their adopted CP distribution formulas. To do so would merely escalate the loss of funds available to the ministries of the Southern Baptist Convention. 16

The principles hammered out during 1930 were reported to the Convention in 1931.  Though these principles led to a “more sympathetic feeling” toward states that were unable to reach the ideal of a 50/50 distribution of funds between statewide and SBC causes, 17 the Convention was not finished discussing these matters.

The following year, the SBC restated its strong objection to states setting aside CP contributions as “preferred items.” It adopted a report from the SBC Promotion Committee which affirmed,

“That the Promotion Committee reaffirm the conviction expressed by the joint committee last year ‘that it is not a wise policy for any state to put any state cause in the general program as a preferred item for any amount to be taken out of the funds of the whole program,’ and that in order to maintain the principle of equitable co-operation, state emergencies be provided for out of state funds.” 18

One year later, executives of the SBC entities submitted a resolution to the SBC that urged the states to eliminate “preferred items” and to move with all haste toward a fifty-fifty division of funds. 19 They also urged that “expenses chargeable to the whole Cooperative Program be kept at a minimum” and “heartily commended” those states that were giving “more liberal consideration to the Southwide causes included in the Co-operative Program.” 20

The principles reflected in this 1934 report were restated and affirmed by the SBC in annual session in 1951. 21 In 1956, these principles were again restated, with the additional note affirming those states that “choose not to deduct any items before division between State and Southern Baptist objects.” 22

In 1971, the Convention again adopted the same set of principles as reported in 1934, 1951, and 1956, with yet another additional item. The Convention urged the respective states not to “recommend a decrease in the percent of Cooperative Program funds going to Southern Baptist Convention causes until representatives from the Southern Baptist Convention, its Executive Committee, and/or its agencies shall have had an opportunity to present Southern Baptist Convention needs.” 23

As the Convention entered the 1990s, a disturbing trend in Cooperative Program support appeared. After many years of consistent support from cooperating churches, the percentage of church gifts to the Cooperative Program began to decline. In an effort to rebuild trust in the efficiency and value of Cooperative Program support, the SBC instituted an expansive restructure of its ministries, downsizing from nineteen to its current twelve entities. 

Within a decade, it became apparent that mere restructuring of the Convention was insufficient to halt the slow, but steady, drop in percentage gifts given by the churches through the Cooperative Program. At the initiative of several state convention executive directors, a group of state executives and SBC leaders formed an ad hoc committee to study the Cooperative Program. By early 2006, the Ad Hoc Cooperative Program Committee had formulated a comprehensive report. 24

Prior to presenting its report to the SBC Executive Committee, the Committee asked the state executive directors to review the report at the annual state executive fellowship meeting.   They affirmed the report and adopted the following statement:

The following recommendations were adopted by the executive directors of the state conventions during their meeting in Banff, Canada, February 16, 2006.  This action was historic since the directors see themselves as a fellowship, not a voting body.  However, the future of the Cooperative Program is fundamental to our unified work as Southern Baptists, and it was felt these recommendations were worthy of our support and commitment. 25

Recommendation #5 of this report stated, “That each state convention have a plan for forwarding an increasing percentage of receipts to SBC mission causes through the Cooperative Program, with the Cooperative Program Advance Plan being one possible model.” 26

Over the years, the Convention has never lost sight of the reality that the churches which support the SBC and its ministries are, by and large, the same churches that support the state conventions and their ministries, the SBC and the states are best served by this time-tested and highly successful pattern of working together. From time to time, some fail to understand the strategic interdependence of the SBC and the state conventions, losing sight of the fragile nature of the relationships involved. The states cannot direct the SBC; neither can the SBC direct the states. However, for almost a century, the two sets of ministries have managed to work with each other to accomplish the broad missions and ministry purposes of both.

When the Great Commission Task Force presented its Final Report, it tapped into this long and storied history of interdependent cooperation. In Component #6 and Recommendation #6 of its Final Report, the Task Force strongly affirmed its conviction that the states should be more directly involved in promoting the Cooperative Program. 27 In the Challenges section of its report, it affirmed that the states should be compensated through the legitimate means of shared ministry expenses. 28 By adopting its report, the Convention once again affirmed the interdependent relationship the SBC and the state conventions share in receiving and disbursing Cooperative Program receipts for the purposes of impacting a lost world with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Each time the Convention has faced significant financial stress—the debt of the 1920s, the Great Depression of the 1930s, the post World War II and post-Korean War recessions, the oil crisis of the early 1970s, the double-dip recession of the 1980s, the dotcom bubble burst of the 1990s, and the most recent global banking crisis beginning in 2008—concerns about equitable distribution of Cooperative Program contributions have surfaced. Yet, time and again, the Convention has found its way forward by working together with its autonomous partners in ministry. Often, the way has been marked by a certain uneasiness, sometimes through very pointed conversations, and even, on occasion, in spite of strained personal relationships. 

But at the end of the day, the “sympathetic feelings” of cooperation have predominated. The SBC and the cooperating state conventions have found ways to move forward together. With the global economic crisis still looming large in our rearview mirrors, Southern Baptists once again face challenging times as a network of cooperating churches, associations, and conventions.  And once again, we must find our way forward… together… for the sake of the Gospel.


1           “Penetrating the Lostness: Final Report of the Great Commission Task
              Force of the Southern Baptist Convention,” 2010 SBC
Annual, pp. 78-96.
2           “Penetrating the Lostness, ” p. 93.
3           Tim Yarbrough, “State Execs Work Toward 50/50 CP,” Baptist Press,
             23 February 2011, www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=34707.

4           Ibid.
5           Ashley Clayton and Roger S. Oldham, “The Entire Cooperative Program,”
             SBC Life, April/May 2011, web edition, www.sbclife.org/Articles/2011/04/

6           1925 SBC Annual, pp. 25-37.
7           Ibid., Recommendation #1, p. 34.
8           Ibid., Recommendation #15, p. 37.
9           1927 SBC Annual, p. 283.
10        1933 SBC Annual, p. 151.
11        See, for example, the 1930 documents printed in the 1931 SBC Annual, pp. 26-39
12        1931 SBC Annual, p. 27.
13        Ibid., p. 26.
14        Ibid., Item #1.3, p. 28.
15        1956 SBC Annual, p. 41.
16        1931 SBC Annual, Item 3, p. 28.
17        1932 SBC Annual, p. 38.
18        1932 SBC Annual, p. 39.
19        1933 SBC Annual, p. 54.
20        1934 SBC Annual, pp. 48-49.
21        1951 SBC Annual, p. 40.
22        1956 SBC Annual, p. 41.
23        1971 SBC Annual, p. 59.
24        “Penetrating the Lostness,” pp. 170-198.
25        Ibid., p. 65.
26        Ibid., p. 66.
27        “Penetrating the Lostness,” Component #6, pp. 85-86;
        and Recommendation #6, p. 88.

28        Ibid., fourth bullet point under “Challenges for State Conventions,” p. 93.


    About the Author

  • Roger S. Oldham