When the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Governing Board convenes tomorrow and Friday, its decisions could reshape the organization more than at any other time in its 30-year history.
Those decisions include both financial and structural changes made in response to a recent strategic planning initiative and facing the reality of a financial rightsizing years in the making.
In an interview with BNG, Paul Baxley, CBF executive coordinator, laid out a broad outline of issues the Governing Board will address Oct. 1 and 2. He anticipates the board will adopt a budget that calls for up to $2 million less in spending than the current $16 million budget — reductions that most significantly will be made through personnel changes.
Toward Bold Faithfulness
The financial changes have not arisen in a vacuum, however. Last year, Baxley initiated a strategic planning process called Toward Bold Faithfulness. Several special task forces have been processing the information gleaned from across the Fellowship’s constituency, including from churches, lay leaders and partner organizations.
A summary document released June 1 identified the six “most powerful gifts” identified as assets to CBF: Sustained engagement in global missions and rural poverty; the presence and cultivation of young Baptist leaders; networks and partnerships; a place of belonging; a desire for diversity; and women in leadership.
Likewise, the summary identified seven “most urgent needs” in CBF life: Identity clarity; communication, connection and networking; finances and funding; diversity; prophetic voice and advocacy; growth; and resources for development, networking and blessing.
Those 13 statements of gifts and needs have been used to shape not only a budget proposal but also a structural proposal that will be considered by the Governing Board this week, Baxley said.
It had been nearly a decade since CBF undertook a comprehensive Fellowship-wide strategic planning process, Baxley noted. More narrowly focused — but highly discussed — work had been done in 2013 and 2014 around Global Missions and then in 2018 around LGBTQ inclusion.
Toward Bold Faithfulness began with an online survey that was open to anyone in the Fellowship. Specific efforts were made to include laity as well as clergy. In the end, 80% of the 4,600 responses received came from laity. The survey also reached 762 congregations nationwide.
As CBF begins its fourth decade, “this seems like a right time for us to name with clarity who we are and what we are called to be,” Baxley said. When crafting the survey, leaders feared it might not produce enough clarity, but that turned out to be unfounded fear, he added: “It was amazing how much clarity there was.”
Strategy meets money
Like nearly every religious body in America, undesignated giving to CBF has been declining for several years. Initially, those gaps were filled with designated gifts for special projects or for missions. Then a special endowment campaign in 2016-2017 raised $12 million for sustainability projects.
Nevertheless, when the Fellowship gathered for its General Assembly in Birmingham in June 2019, the Governing Board presented a budget that anticipated drawing down up to $1.5 million from reserves to achieve balance.
At that time, “we said we would not do that again,” recalled Baxley, who was just weeks into his new role. That pledge meant the next year’s budget — which normally already would have been adopted by now — would be “a balanced budget.”
Enter COVID-19. Faced with the economic uncertainty of the global pandemic and what it would mean for churches, the CBF Finance Committee took an unprecedented step at this summer’s General Assembly — which was supposed to be held in Atlanta but instead became an online experience. Instead of approving a new budget, the committee asked to continue the current budget for up to 90 days until more giving data was available and until input from Toward Bold Faithfulness had been fully processed.
That’s why the Governing Board this week will adopt a budget on Oct. 2 for the fiscal year beginning the day before, Oct. 1.
That timing actually presents a blessing in disguise, Baxley said. “In the past, we have had very little actual data for the current year when we had to begin preparing for the next year. This year, when the Governing Board acts on the budget, they’ll have access to the most information any CBF leadership body has ever had.”
Details on current income and expenses were not available prior to the board meeting but will be reported within that meeting.
“The Governing Board will be asked to consider a budget that both reflects the priorities of what we discovered but also is within our financial means,” Baxley said. “We recognize a lot of congregations are having the same conversations.”
These tough financial decisions have been a long time coming, Baxley explained. “Really since the Great Recession of 2007-2009, there has not been a perpetual sustainability. There were other efforts made to put us in a sustainable place. Leadership did attempt to deal with this. What’s clear is that prior to any of the pandemic realities, we had some financial right-sizing to do.”
That’s why with the onset of the pandemic, CBF leadership realized it had to “have space to make some decisions,” he said. “Our best stewardship was to stop and listen and pray and dream.”
The pandemic itself has offered another important data point for strategic planning, Baxley suggested. “In the pandemic we have found a remarkable agility. We’ve often talked about how because CBF is not a traditional denomination we ought to be more agile. This is a good time to live into that hope. I do think we have a capacity for it.”
Recognizing CBF’s 30th anniversary year also weighs heavily on decision-making, he added. “It’s not 1990. This is a very different world. In some ways in these days we’ll be digging deep into our founding instincts, but we’ll have to recognize we’re not in 1990 anymore.”
That doesn’t mean CBF has reached the end of its useful life, Baxley said. “I don’t think we are a community that existed for 30 years and then we’re gone.
“I’m very hopeful about CBF’s long-term capacity to thrive. I’m grieving some of what has to be done in the near term. I really believe CBF has a unique opportunity — a much better and more compelling opportunity than some other entities to which we are sometimes compared. But this is a decisive moment.”