A state Baptist convention that has not been able to pay its retirees’ promised medical supplements for two years made a $2 million extra gift to the Southern Baptist Convention’s two missions agencies Nov. 14.
That extra giving — $1.7 million to the International Mission Board and $300,000 to the North American Mission Board — came as one online source identified the state convention’s executive director as the likely candidate to become president of the SBC Executive Committee.
The Christian Index, house news organ of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, reported the special gifts in addition to the $16.5 million Georgia Baptists already gave to the IMB and nearly $9.5 million given to NAMB this year, both through special offerings.
An oversized check was presented to IMB President Paul Chitwood by GBMB Executive Director Thomas Hammond and three others during the annual meeting in suburban Atlanta.
That presentation was made the same day SBC insider Benjamin Cole, who tweets as the Baptist Blogger, said early reports indicate Hammond likely will be the candidate to become president of the SBC Executive Committee in Nashville.
A search committee has been seeking a new Executive Committee president for two years and has had two failed candidates. One was recommended to the board but did not receive the required majority for election. Another, at the point of being a sole finalist, was found to have fabricated most of his educational resume.
The GBMB has struggled with declining giving from churches over the past three decades.
News of the Georgia convention giving the $2 million in extra funding to the two missions agencies, while celebrated as empowering to missionaries, struck observers as odd, since the GBMB has struggled with declining giving from churches over the past three decades. Other state Baptist conventions have not recorded similar precipitous declines in giving.
Some Georgia Baptist pastors, not wanting to be identified for this article, questioned why the surplus funding was not spent on strengthening the Georgia convention’s own missions presence in the state which has been hobbled by a nearly 70% staff reduction that began with Hammond’s administration in January 2019.
Budget deficits were so severe that the state convention in 2021 dropped funding for its retirees who had been promised Medicare supplemental coverage as part of their retirement packages. The convention eliminated Cooperative Program funding for the retirees and state executive’s new ministry focus named Pastor Wellness. However, the Health Care Ministry Foundation, which only funds grants annually, picked up Pastor Wellness and doubled the budget to nearly $2 million — about $700,000 more than the previous year and coincidently the same amount defunded from the retirees.
Following a large outcry supporting retirees from around the state and an article published by BNG, funding was immediately picked up by the Foundation and recently was renewed for 2024 under the same arrangement because the state convention, presumably, could not afford to resume the coverage.
The GBMB has been saddled with a $42 million headquarters property it has been unable to sell, even though the Health Care Ministry Foundation had paid off the remaining $25 million debt on the property in 2015. The five-story headquarters, now vacant, is located on 40 prime acres in Gwinnett County northeast of Atlanta.
For the first time in their history, committee members were not given a projected budget at their September meeting.
At last November’s annual meeting in suburban Atlanta, David Melber, the state mission board’s chief financial officer, said he expected Cooperative Program giving to continue a downward trend in the coming year. Yet at this year’s annual meeting, extra money was available for the IMB and NAMB and a 2024 budget was adopted with a 4.2% increase — in spite of Executive Committee members being informed in September to expect a 3% decrease. For the first time in their history, committee members were not given a projected budget at their September meeting and went nearly two months — until the eve of the annual meeting on Nov. 12 — to see the document.
The reason for the 60-day delay, according to Executive Committee members, is that the budget committee “needed more information.”
The surprise 4.2% increase, a dramatic turnaround from the previous decades of decline, represents “the largest projected increase in the Georgia budget in over 25 years,” according to Melber.
How this positive change was possible was not explained in reporting of the Christian Index.
Regarding the extra funding to the IMB, Steve Browning, chairman of the Georgia Baptist Financial Services Committee, said the gift was possible because of a financial surplus in this year’s state Mission Board budget.
From 2007 to 2022, Cooperative Program giving in Georgia fell from $49.5 million to a about $34.3 million. Executive Committee members approved a 2022 budget of $32 million, which messengers repeated for 2023. The 2024 budget was increased to $33 million earlier this week.
The difference between the special gifts to NAMB and IMB is that the NAMB money will be designated strictly for church planting in Georgia and not for national church planting efforts. How NAMB and state Baptist conventions share responsibility for church planting has been a matter of contention for several years, as NAMB has adopted a more exclusionary policy that doesn’t always collaborate with state conventions.
Amid the staff cuts at the Georgia convention, the state’s ethnic church planting office is now vacant. That led some Georgia pastors to question why the surplus funds could not have been used by the state convention to do its own church planting.
All this comes amid a decade of emphasis from the SBC on asking state conventions to give a larger share of their offerings from churches to the national body. The way the Cooperative Program works, churches give money to their state conventions, which keep a portion for their in-state ministries and send a portion to the SBC for national and international ministries. Previously, that split typically fell around 45% to the SBC and 55% to in-state work. But increasingly, some state conventions have been moving toward a 50-50 split or even more.
Regarding this year’s extra money to the IMB, Hammond told messengers to this week’s annual meeting; “The reason this check was able to be given was because of the Lord’s blessing on the faithfulness of Georgia Baptists and their commitment to sacrifice and serve together to reach the world for Christ. They are the most generous and evangelistic people in the Southern Baptist Convention.”