A new challenge unveiled by Southern Baptist Convention leaders to increase support for the Cooperative Program unified giving plan would have disqualified from leadership at least seven of the 13 "conservative resurgence" SBC presidents elected since 1979.
Hoping to avert a future financial crisis, state and national SBC leaders have endorsed a comprehensive campaign to encourage individuals, churches and Baptist state conventions to increase funding for the denomination.
While not yet in a crisis, America's second-largest religious organization faces serious financial challenges. Spending and ministry opportunities are growing at a faster rate than income. More disturbing, leaders say, is a trend toward declining contributions by church members and a shrinking percentage of funds collected by churches being forwarded to the denomination.
A 10-member ad hoc committee of employed leaders of Baptist state conventions and the SBC Executive Committee proposed a solution that challenges individuals, churches and leaders both state and nationwide to increase giving to Baptist causes.
The plan, endorsed Tuesday by the Executive Committee and last week by state convention executive directors at their annual fellowship meeting in Canada, encourages each Southern Baptist to give at least a tithe (10 percent) of financial resources to his or her local church.
It also calls for each church to earmark at least 10 percent of undesignated gifts for the Cooperative Program, a voluntary funding plan that divides funds donated by churches between Baptist state conventions and the SBC.
If Southern Baptist churches were giving 10 percent of their undesignated receipts through the Cooperative Program in 2003-2004, instead of the 6.68 percent they averaged, the ad hoc Cooperative Program committee says, it would have brought an additional $250 million into SBC coffers.
Since state conventions determine how funds are divided between state and national causes, the recommendations also encourage Baptist state conventions to develop a plan for increasing the percentage of receipts they forward to SBC mission causes.
When the Cooperative Program was developed in 1925, the original goal was for a 50/50 split between state and national conventions. While a few state conventions from time to time have set a 50/50 split, amounts forwarded from states to the national convention have averaged about 36 percent since 1984, according to SBC background materials.
Another recommendation encourages the election of state and national convention officers whose churches give a minimum of 10 percent of undesignated receipts through the Cooperative Program state and global missions.
At one time, elected SBC leaders strongly modeled support of denominational programs. In the two decades before 1977, the church where the sitting SBC president was pastor gave more than 12 percent through the Cooperative Program unified budget.
In the decade following 1979, as the focus in SBC presidential elections shifted to baptisms and biblical inerrancy, the average CP-giving percentage of the president's church dropped to 3.4 percent.
During the years of the "conservative resurgence," fundamentalist leaders now admit, support for the Cooperative Program was taken for granted.
The church of the current SBC president, Bobby Welch, has given at least 15 percent through the Cooperative Program for the last 30 years. Other past fundamentalist presidents, like Jimmy Draper, Morris Chapman and Jim Henry, also represented churches with records of strong Cooperative Program support.
Others, however, led churches only marginally supportive of SBC missions.
Jerry Vines, recently retired pastor of FirstBaptistChurch in Jacksonville, Fla., who served as SBC president in 1988-89, once referred to himself as the "first independent Baptist to be elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention."
Yet the 2.3 percent of undesignated receipts that Vines' church gave to the Cooperative Program even surpassed percentages attributed to churches of other SBC leaders.
Bailey Smith's First Southern Baptist Church in Del City, Okla., gave 1.19 percent at the time of his term in 1980-81.
Jack Graham, the SBC president in 2003-04, led PrestonwoodBaptistChurch in Plano, Texas, to contribute $95,000 one year to the Cooperative Programs of the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, less than half a percent of a budget totaling $17.1 million.
Charles Stanley's First Baptist Church of Atlanta was giving about 2.5 percent of undesignated gifts to the CP when he served as president in 1984-85.
Second BaptistChurch in Houston took in $21 million one year during pastor Ed Young's term as SBC president in 1993-94, while sending $105,000 to the Cooperative Program.
James Merritt, SBC president in 2001-02, led a church that gave between 2 percent and 3 percent to the CP.
Adrian Rogers' (SBC president in 1979 and 1986-87) BellevueBaptistChurch in Memphis, Tenn., gave less than 4 percent.
Along with soft support by churches, Southern Baptist leaders lay root blame for increasing financial need at a "widespread lack of biblical stewardship in the area of giving." A 2002 report showed the average American Christian giving 2.6 percent of income to his/her church and Southern Baptist per-capita giving at less than $1,000 a year.
"If we do not reposition the Cooperative Program and stewardship, we are going to have some hard times coming," Anthony Jordan, executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma and chairman of the ad hoc committee, told the SBC Executive Committee meeting in Nashville, Tenn., on Tuesday.
"God has led us to be the greatest evangelical missionary force in the world," Jordan said. "We want to maintain that and move forward."
Executive Committee President and CEO Morris Chapman on Monday introduced a new media campaign to build awareness of Cooperative Program and focus emphasis on stewardship, to grow denominational funding.
The Executive Committee will soon send out 50,000 copies of a DVD promoting the Cooperative Program, the first of anticipated quarterly mailings to every Southern Baptist church, Chapman said.
The Executive Committee has leased the former Sunday School Board's old Convention Press imprint, which hasn't been in use since the publishing house adopted a new name of LifeWay Christian Resources in 1997, to produce promotional and historical booklets to either give away or be sold without expecting to turn a profit.
The same 1997 restructuring eliminated the old Stewardship Commission. The assignment for Cooperative Program promotion and stewardship were split, with the Executive Committee taking CP and stewardship being transferred to LifeWay. In hindsight, leaders now say, that was a mistake, and will propose ministry statement amendments that would transfer stewardship to the Executive Committee, even though the entity doesn't have money set aside for that purpose.
"The real problem in Southern Baptist life is biblical stewardship," Chapman said. "If we get right with God on the issue of stewardship, we will be right about the Cooperative Program."
"We're not just raising money," Chapman said. "The issue is whether we will miss the blessing of participating in what God is going to do."
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.