To understand the behind-the-scenes conflict happening between the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee and some of the SBC’s agencies and institutions, understand first that the devil is in the details. Or in the dollars. Or in lack of trust, once a hallmark of Southern Baptist life.
There are wonky details of little concern to the average person in the pew who gives an offering through their local church that ultimately makes its way to Nashville, where the Executive Committee distributes gifts through the Cooperative Program to mission boards and seminaries and other causes. That’s the dollars side. But that financial plan was made possible for decades because of trust.
Assume a church gives 10% of its undesignated offerings to the Cooperative Program (the current average is half that amount). Depending on policies of the state Baptist convention the church affiliates with, anywhere from 40 cents to 60 cents of every dollar will make it to Nashville.
Those dimes and dollars will accumulate to nearly $200 million given to the national Cooperative Program this year. Of every dollar received, 50 cents goes straight to the SBC International Mission Board and 23 cents goes to the North American Mission Board. Another 22 cents goes to fund theological education at the SBC’s six seminaries. The remainder goes to the Executive Committee and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
“What’s complex is the policies adopted that govern how those funds may be used.”
That’s the simple part. What’s complex is the policies adopted that govern how those funds may be used. Those policies are outlined in a document called the SBC Business and Financial Plan. It sounds dry, but it’s important. And it is administered by the SBC Executive Committee, which likely has the lowest trust ratings of any entity in the denomination. That’s largely, but not exclusively, because of the sexual abuse scandal outlined in the Guidepost Solutions independent report two years ago.
The Business and Financial Plan
The most recent attempt to amend the SBC Business and Financial Plan, although approved by Executive Committee trustees, was voted down by messengers to the 2021 SBC annual meeting. The public face of that rejection was fear the Executive Committee was gaining too much control over the mission boards, seminaries and ERLC. But the subtext was distrust of the Executive Committee and its leadership. This was, after all, the same annual meeting at which the Guidepost report was released.
The Executive Committee has existed since 1917 and over time has grown in influence as the ad interim voice of the denomination between annual meetings. Technically, the Southern Baptist Convention only exists for two days every year during the annual meeting. Administration of the denomination is given to the Executive Committee the other 363 days of the year — within limits.
The Executive Committee — governed by an 86-member board of trustees — operates with a lean staff but has tremendous influence. The enormous board — which is 12 times the size of the original seven-member board created in 1917 — was intended to ensure accountability to all states and stakeholders, but critics today believe the board is unwieldy. And irresponsible. And giving the rest of the entities a bad reputation.
“The Executive Committee is the guardian of the SBC galaxy.”
In addition to receiving and disbursing Cooperative Program funds, the Executive Committee is the guardian of the SBC galaxy — outlining and sometimes enforcing the policies that help entities cooperate with each other and stay in their lanes.
That’s made some entity heads chafe long before the Guidepost report.
In 2019, retired Executive Committee President Morris Chapman made a motion at the annual meeting to “strengthen the fiscal accountability of SBC entities to the convention and to promote greater transparency regarding the use of Cooperative Program dollars.”
Chapman is both an institutionalist and someone who cares about policies and procedures. He is old-school Southern Baptist. Both as Executive Committee president and in retirement, he has been at odds with some entity heads who want more control of their organizations.
Critics charged, once again, that the Executive Committee was seeking to expand its power.
“What finally put the kibosh on the amendment was a speech made by Danny Akin.”
In the context of anxiety about the Executive Committee and the sexual abuse crisis, what publicly put the kibosh on the amendment was a speech made by Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He said the six seminary presidents opposed the amendment, which would “jeopardize our standing with our accrediting agencies” and create “outside interference with respect to funds.”
The amended plan included this threat: that Cooperative Program funds “may be escrowed” by the Executive Committee if an entity is found not to be “operating in accordance with the convention’s expectations.”
“This proposal would be an unprecedented expansion of the Executive Committee powers and in many ways placing the Executive Committee between the local churches and the entities we are trying to support through the Cooperative Program,” argued Vance Pitman, then pastor of Hope Church in Las Vegas and later that year a staff member at NAMB. This was “not the right time to allow expanded powers of the Executive Committee,” he warned.
Messengers bought that argument and rejected the amendments.
Who’s transparent now?
One irony is that the Executive Committee is now the most transparent board of trustees anywhere in the denomination. All plenary sessions of Executive Board trustee meetings are livestreamed for anyone to watch. No other entity — no seminary and no mission board — does that. Southern Baptists may watch their Executive Committee at work — guests are even allowed into committee meetings on background rules — but they are not allowed to see other governing boards at work.
If Southern Baptists in the pew knew as much about the internal governance of the seminaries or mission boards as they do about the governance of the Executive Committee, trust likely would be lessened for them as well.
The Cooperative Program was built on trust in a different time in American life. It was built on trust that denominational officials could be trusted to use their offering money frugally, not to pay their executives exorbitant salaries and perks, not to hand out expensive swag or hold meetings at luxury resorts in Puerto Rico.
Money versus control
The struggle today is about accountability, trust, control and money. Cooperative Program giving has not kept pace with inflation for years, and the way SBC entities fund themselves has been slowly evolving. This is not 1925 anymore. But the SBC’s governance model reflects more that century-old mindset than a modern mindset.
Which brings us back to the failed amendments to the Business and Financial Plan. For the amount of Executive Committee oversight and the threat of funds being escrowed, the various SBC entities receive a disproportionately low percentage of their income from the Cooperative Program.
The North American Mission Board this year anticipates income of $134.7 million, and Cooperative Program giving will account for only 34.52% of that income. The International Mission Board this year anticipates income of $294 million, and Cooperative Program giving will account for only 33.57% of that income.
“For the six SBC seminaries, Cooperative Program giving will account for 17% to 29% of total income.”
For the six SBC seminaries, Cooperative Program giving will account for 17% to 29% of total income. And for the two mainly self-funded entities, Guidestone Financial Resources and Lifeway Christian Resources, Cooperative Program gifts will be zero and 1%.
The SBC already has complete control of electing trustees to govern these institutions and has demanded that bylaws be changed to place the SBC as the “sole member” of the corporations, to ensure trustee boards won’t go rogue and separate from the convention.
But to demand more oversight when trust is lacking and the Cooperative Program amounts to such a small percentage of income seems a bridge too far, according to some agency heads.
But wait, there’s more.
From the beginning of the Cooperative Program, SBC institutions theoretically have been limited in direct fundraising they can do.
Even the current Business and Financial Plan lays out these rules:
- “No entity of the Southern Baptist Convention shall conduct any type of fund raising activity without the advance approval of the convention, or its Executive Committee. No advance approval shall be required for the two convention approved special offerings: Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions and Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions.”
- “Each convention entity shall report annually to the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention on any type of fund raising activity conducted by the entity. The report shall include a summary of the activity, its title, financial goals, structure, cost, and the results of such fund raising during the past year.”
- “Each Convention entity shall report on its efforts during the year in promoting Cooperative Program missions giving.
- “In no case shall any convention entity approach a church for inclusion in its church budget or appeal for financial contributions.”
Those rules emanate from the creation of the Cooperative Program in 1925 as a way to replace the old “society method” of funding, where each SBC entity made direct appeals to individual churches, association and state conventions. The Cooperative Program was intended to replace those one-on-one appeals with a joint approach — one for all and all for one.
The minutes of the proceedings of the 1917 convention include this note about the chairman of the Executive Committee: “The chairman unsolicited assumed the salaries of six foreign missionaries in addition to his regular offerings to foreign missions; he also made a generous extra offering to home missions. Another member voluntarily paid the salary of a foreign missionary extra, visited and spoke at a prominent church and was the main factor in securing the support of three other foreign missionaries and also made a liberal special gift to home missions. The other members have been most generous in their support of the boards.”
When the Cooperative Program was formed in 1925 — an outgrowth of something called the 75 Million Campaign — seminaries and other agencies sought help getting out of debt and creating more stable income sources.
“Times have changed, and funding sources for SBC entities have changed.”
Times have changed, and funding sources for SBC entities have changed. The chairman of the Executive Committee is not individually funding missionaries. Seminaries successfully raise money for buildings. And not only do most entities own multi-million dollar endowments, most engage in some form of direct appeal to churches beyond what the Cooperative Program first intended. And the Executive Committee has been unable to stop it.
NAMB this year anticipates nearly $8 million in “unrestricted gifts” outside the Cooperative Program and Annie Armstrong Offering — plus $12 million in investment earnings. It reports owning $156 million in investments plus another $60 million in “beneficial interest in trusts and endowments owned by others.”
IMB this year anticipates $8.6 million in “other income” outside the Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon Offering. The IMB reports investments of $388 million.
For seminaries, the situation is even more lopsided. Take Southern Baptist Theological Seminary — the largest of the six — as an example. Its anticipated $52 million in income this academic year will be funded 50% by tuition and fees paid by students. The $10 million in Cooperative Program funding will amount to only 19% of its income.
The seminary also has $100 million in investments and funds held in trust by others.
Seminaries, like all educational institutions, are perpetually fundraising. It is the nature of the beast. There is no way, they argue, the SBC Executive Committee can monitor or control that.
To be sure, $10 million in Cooperative Program funding is not trivial. But what if there were a way to still get that $10 million or more without the direct oversight of the Executive Committee? That’s what would happen if the Executive Committee were dissolved, as some entity heads reportedly want to happen.
There is a recent historical parallel to this moment in Southern Baptist history. It is similar to what Baptist colleges and universities faced over the last three decades as they renegotiated governance agreements with the state Baptist conventions that once birthed or supported them. Over time, cooperative funding through state conventions amounted to as little as 1% of some university budgets, yet the state conventions expected full control of the trustee boards. And the state conventions sometimes wanted to put restrictions on the schools that interfered with student recruitment, faculty recruitment and fundraising.
The result was a push for more independence by the schools and sometimes complete separation from the state conventions. Two prominent examples are Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and Belmont University in Nashville. These schools and others broke away from state convention control while still maintaining their heritage. And these schools have thrived and raised more money and recruited more students as a result.
Could it be that the mission boards and seminaries of the SBC have reached a similar moment? Is it crazy to imagine — as some are — that at least the seminaries and maybe the mission boards too would generate more funding to do more good ministry if they were set free from the SBC’s Business and Financial Plan?
It’s a documented fact that denominations are dying. Even denominational identity is waning, as more churches take “Baptist” out of their names to compete with the nondenominational megachurches around them. Trust in denominations is at an all-time low.
Crazy as it sounds, don’t be surprised if some of these ideas make their way to the floor of the SBC annual meeting either this summer or in years ahead. It seem likely that what’s old will be new again.
How might the SBC reshape itself next? | Analysis by Mark Wingfield