The State of Giving in the Southern Baptist Convention
Third Report of the SBC Funding Study Committee
To the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention
September 23, 2003
Since its appointment in the spring of 2002, the SBC Funding Study Committee has met eleven times and, in addition, has conducted numerous interviews and conference calls. The Committee has gathered and analyzed large amounts of data. It has divided its research into two related areas: (1) the financial status and needs of the Southern Baptist Convention in general and (2) the financial status and needs of the seminaries in particular.
In its two previous reports to the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention (September 2002 and February 2003), the Committee took the following action:
- Reported its goals:
- To assess the role of Cooperative Program as a funding source
- To determine the need for special fund raising initiatives
- To suggest cost cutting initiatives
- To address denominational funding priorities
- To assess the status of local church stewardship and mission support
- To address the funding needs among the various levels of denominational life
- Recommended, in conjunction with the Council of Seminary Presidents, the implementation and funding of a core curriculum course in all the seminaries on the Southern Baptist Convention’s polity, organization, and functioning with special emphasis on the role of the Cooperative Program.
The work in these arenas continues. It was also noted in previous reports that, while the preponderance of its time in the early meetings had been spent on the issues of the seminaries’ needs, the SBC Funding Study Committee would begin to research the larger issue of future funding trends in the denomination with the goal of proposing actions to enhance growth in financial support for Southern Baptist Convention ministries through the Cooperative Program, the mission offerings, and other appropriate forms of giving. Thus, “the state of giving in the Southern Baptist Convention” is the focus of this third report of the SBC Funding Study Committee. Further study by the Committee, including the particular needs of theological education in Southern Baptist life, will continue.
The Southern Baptist Convention and its entities are facing serious financial challenges as they engage the ministry and mission opportunities in this 21st century. It is the opinion of the Committee none of the entities are in a financial crisis at present. However, all of them are experiencing trends in their fiscal health that could degenerate into a crisis in very few years. The central feature causing the financial challenge is that the ordinary growth of operating expenses coupled with the growth in the opportunities for expansion of ministries is outpacing the growth of income. Some part of this reduction in income is due to lower earnings on investments caused by market devaluations and a sluggish economy.
A more disturbing trend, however, is the decline in the percentage of contributions by church members to the churches, and of the churches to missions. While total contributions have been increasing in previous years, the rate of growth has not been keeping up with growth in spending caused by rising costs and by growing ministries. During recent periods of strong economy, the increasing contributions have been taken by many as a signal of financial health. But the percentage of available income that has been contributed has been falling at an alarming rate. (See data below). This is now being compounded by the fact that total dollar contributions in 2003 to date are showing a decrease. The result is a financial decline that is impacting the operations of Southern Baptist Convention entities as summarized below.
1. The International Mission Board has made news repeatedly this year because of its decision to delay the deployment of new missionaries who are ready to be sent to strategic mission assignments. Approximately 100 candidates have been deferred to next year or put on hold. The number of new short-term personnel also will be reduced by 30% this year. To divert more funds to the field, 61 full-time and part-time positions were eliminated. Of those positions that were eliminated, 37 home office staff members lost their jobs. Perhaps the most significant action to reduce products and services will be suspending publication of the IMB’s flagship magazine, theCOMMISSION. These decisions were made because the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering was only marginally larger than the previous year and missed its goal by $10 million, Cooperative Program receipts are flat, and investment income for the last few years has declined dramatically. The rapid growth in the missionary force has exceeded the available revenue stream required to undergird it.
2. The North American Mission Board's proposed budget for 2004 will be 6% less than the current year's budget. The proposed budget eliminates 31 positions, seven of which are currently filled by employees who will not be offered other positions or retirement. NAMB's financial team projects the board's income next year will be $7.2 million less than the 2003 budget. NAMB has not met income projections four of the last five years. Cooperative Program receipts are flat and Annie Armstrong Easter Offering receipts are running behind last year’s level.
3. With growing student bodies, especially in the baccalaureate programs of study, and rising operational costs, the Seminaries are squeezed financially by falling investments earnings and flattening Cooperative Program receipts. They have been balancing budgets by containing costs (professor salaries at SBC seminaries are, on average, less than comparables at Association of Theological Schools institutions) and by increasing tuition. Tuition costs, while significantly lower than ATS comparables, have risen sharply in recent years. The leaders of the seminaries are concerned that rising tuition costs will result in graduates leaving school with too much debt. These debts could hinder the graduates’ ability to survive financially in entry-level ministry positions.
4. Others. The entities mentioned above receive approximately 95% of the SBC Cooperative Program Allocation Budget. The remaining recipients (ERLC, Annuity Board, and SBC Operating Budget) also are adjusting to the closing gap between flattening revenues and growing ministries. Anecdotal information from some Baptist state conventions (including the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina which announced Aug. 26, 2003 it was cutting 20% of budgeted positions) indicate they are experiencing financial pressures of the same sort. They, too, are invoking cost cutting measures (including elimination of ministry positions) in reaction to flat or falling revenues. Although LifeWay Christian Resources and the Annuity Board do not receive Cooperative Program or special offering receipts (except for the Annuity Board’s relief ministry), these entities are experiencing the combined pressures of devalued markets, a soft economy, and rising costs and are making necessary business decisions to remain fiscally sound and competitive in a more troublesome financial climate.
The American economy is cyclical (with growth and decline, bull and bear markets, etc.) and this affects (positively and negatively) the contributions of Southern Baptist churches and the denomination. This surprises no one. The disturbing, and potentially devastating, factor is the declining percentage of contributions by Southern Baptist members and churches, even during times of economic growth.
The problem begins with the giving of Southern Baptist church members. The 2000 report on the state of giving by American churches produced by empty tomb, inc. indicates that per member giving as a percentage of income decreased between 1968 and 1998. The 1968-98 church giving data contained in this report indicates that giving as a percentage of income for Congregational Finances declined from 2.45% in 1968, to 2.12% in 1998, a decline of 13%. Southern Baptists, according to this report, give 2.03% of their earnings to their churches. This figure is derived by multiplying the total membership (data from the Annual Church Profile) by the median per capita income in the USA. That total is divided into the gross receipts reported by the churches. The alarming fact is not just that the 2.03% giving average falls miserably short of the tithe (10%), but that the percentage has dropped dramatically in the last thirty years. In a time when Southern Baptist members arguably were experiencing financial prosperity, they have been giving a shrinking percentage of their available income to the local church.
This same trend is evident in the percentages the churches give to missions. The report by empty tomb, inc. further states contributions to the category of Benevolences (their term for any kind of missions outside the local congregation) have been declining proportionately faster than those to Congregational Finances between 1968 and 1998. Not only are American church members giving smaller percentages to their churches, their churches are giving smaller percentages to anything outside the congregation’s needs.
Southern Baptist churches are no exception to this trend. The following facts are startling:
1. From 1987 to 2001, undesignated receipts in SBC churches grew from $3.203 billion to $6.445 billion (101%) and total receipts in SBC churches grew 108% over that same period, from $4.293 billion to $8.935 billion.
2. In the same period, total missions expenditures reported by churches, including Cooperative Program, special offerings and local missions, grew only 47.9% from $662.7 million to $980.2 million.
3. Furthermore, gifts to the Cooperative Program nationwide, including both the portion retained by state conventions and the portion forwarded to the SBC, grew at a lower rate (47.8%), from $336.8 million to $487.2 million. In the same period, Lottie Moon receipts went from $68.3 million to $103.8 million (51.9%) and Annie Armstrong receipts grew from $29.98 million to $47.97 million (60%).
4. Perhaps the most telling statistic for the near future of mission funding for Southern Baptists is the rapid decline in percentage giving through the Cooperative Program. From its inception in 1925, the Cooperative Program was predicated on local churches forwarding a percentage of their undesignated gifts through the Cooperative Program for all Southern Baptist Convention and state Baptist convention causes. In the first two years of the effort, the average gift from the churches settled in at about 11% of income. (The initial proposal by some that churches forward 50% for CP now seems to have been wildly unrealistic). A random check of the data from 1930-1980 shows the churches, after surviving the effects of the Great Depression, maintaining percentage giving to the Cooperative Program in the 11% range. However, in the early 80s, the percentage began to drop steadily. From an average of 10.5% in the 80s, the percentage has plummeted to 7.39% in 2002. As a percentage of undesignated offerings, local churches have decreased their Cooperative Program giving by 30%.
Three trends are clear, all of which indicate serious challenges for Southern Baptist Convention financial support:
1. Church members are giving smaller percentages of their income to their local churches;
2. From this smaller percentage, local churches are spending an even smaller percentage of their income outside the congregation on any form of missions;
3. From this smaller percentage, Cooperative Program is receiving an even smaller percentage of the local churches’ mission expenditure.
The Cooperative Program Development Division of the Executive Committee has conducted a limited number of surveys and focus groups in an effort to begin to analyze the cause of the downturn in Cooperative Program support. No definitive conclusions have been reached yet but a number of hypotheses have been suggested:
1. Increased local church expenditures due to rising health insurance costs, expansion of facilities, and increasing sizes of church staffs have squeezed out gifts to missions.
2. More emphasis on local church mission initiatives has caused a shift in where the mission dollar goes.
3. Churches believe the Convention ministries already have plenty of money, allowing the church to cut back.
4. Political infighting has led to decreased satisfaction with the denomination and, therefore, lessening support.
5. Churches have concerns about the financial efficiency and ministry effectiveness of the Convention ministries when compared to their own hands-on mission projects.
While all of these reasons have surfaced in the research, even taken together, the stated reasons do not seem to form the opinion of a majority of the respondents. While more research is indicated, the factor that appears to be emerging as the most plausible explanation for the declining support for the Cooperative Program is a serious neglect of Cooperative Program education and promotion in the churches. Rather than widespread negative feelings about the Cooperative Program, there appears to be widespread ignorance about the Cooperative Program. In addition to this, many of those who do know anything about it at all view it as a “necessary mechanism” for funding the denominational bureaucracy but not the “key methodology” for comprehensive world evangelization.
There is no one predominant way Cooperative Program is taught in local congregations. Research indicates the first and second most common methods are through the use of bulletin inserts and during the seasonal/annual missions offerings. The research does not indicate exactly how, and to what extent, the CP message is delivered during the seasonal/annual offerings. Even these methods are a priority in only 45% of churches. This data led one of the research teams to conclude missions education is a “passive activity” in most churches.
Two major obstacles will have to be overcome to reverse the declining percentage trend:
1. The first, and most important, is the lack of commitment to biblical giving by large numbers of Southern Baptist members. Unless this is corrected, both local church ministries and all extra-church missions will be competing for support from a smaller revenue base. In essence, everyone will be trying to get a larger piece of a smaller pie.
2. Secondly, Southern Baptists, especially the younger generations, must be taught the value of the Cooperative Program. CP’s image must be re-envisioned from a “necessary but stodgy bureaucratic finance system” to a “dynamic, comprehensive, effective, missions strategy for Southern Baptists.” Unless Southern Baptist churches are led to see Cooperative Program as a tool they need and want in order to fulfill the Great Commission, CP will lose support to other initiatives that appear attractive but are likely to be less effective than Southern Baptist Convention ministries.