Every Southern Baptist Church possesses some type of formal or informal policies for handling money, making expenditures, reporting financial information and raising funds. Typically, the larger the church, the more detailed and elaborate the regulations.
In Southern Baptist life, each autonomous entity is free to handle finances differently from the others. However, I believe a few basic principles should be applied across the board to better coordinate financial stewardship policies convention-wide. What is wrong with asking all of our convention entities to live by and support a few simple guidelines?
1. Expenditures In Line With Receipts
Call it the “IMB Rule” if you wish. Trustees at each entity are to maintain operational expenditures in line with operational revenues within two budget cycles of any shortfall. This allows for occasional budget overspending in any given year, provided that matters are at least addressed in the very next budget cycle, and completely resolved by the cycle after that. As you may know, in the case of the IMB funding crisis, the deficit spending went on for six straight years, covered by dipping into reserves and applying asset liquidation. When that well ran dry, the unfortunate result was the reduction of 20% of our missionary force—over a thousand people—perhaps the saddest chapter in the history of the International Mission Board.
To clarify, the commitment here is a simple one: no entity will dip into reserves, apply asset liquidation measures, borrow funds or take any other extraordinary measures to finance the routine, day-to-day, operational obligations of the organization. This is just a fancy way of saying that we will balance the budget without selling the farm.
What about those occasions when the operational budget is in balance and everything is in good order, but the entity decides, for whatever reason, to utilize liquidation strategies or tap into reserves? In this case, entity leaders should make such liquidation and/or reserve spending a major point of emphasis in that year’s annual report to the Southern Baptist Convention. Southern Baptists should be made completely aware that savings are being withdrawn for a certain purpose and the reserve fund is being significantly depleted.
Part of the IMB Funding Crisis of 2015 was due to the six-year accumulation of deficits. Had the matter been forcefully addressed earlier, with the threat of massive layoffs clearly communicated in advance, much of the pain could have been avoided. As Pastor Mike Bergman at First Baptist Church of Adrian, Missouri, pointed out in an online essay, if only eight million Southern Baptists had given $5 more through the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, we could have met our goal each year and kept these missionaries on the field. I will always believe that such a solution was feasible if only the harsh reality had been publicized in time. All this pain and loss of gospel witness could have been avoided.
2. No Transfers from One Entity to Another
In our churches, when members donate toward one specific designated fund, the money must be used for that purpose. It would breach our trust with the donor to betray their intent by applying money given for the Organ Fund to meet the obligations of the Scholarship Fund, for example. This same donor intent needs to be protected in our general Southern Baptist giving toward each entity.
Suppose an individual or church wishes to supplement their Cooperative Program giving toward all SBC causes with an additional direct gift to a mission board, seminary or other entity. Perhaps they are even reducing their gifts to Entity A and donating them to Entity B instead because of some concern or matter of principle. If Entity B turns around and makes an entity-to-entity transfer to Entity A, then the wishes of the original individual or church have been completely disregarded.
If there is a funding shortage at any Southern Baptist entity, then they certainly have the right to bring that situation to the attention of Southern Baptists and make an appeal for additional assistance. But Southern Baptists should reserve the right to vote with their dollars by supporting the entities they favor more heavily than those they do not. If entities can simply transfer money back and forth all they want, then Southern Baptist donors have lost the privilege of exercising their stewardship intent. Donors need to put their money where their mouth is, and recipient entities need to keep that money exactly where the donors put it.
3. Downsizing Necessitates a Hiring Freeze
Call it the “IMB Rule Number Two” if you wish. Any and all entities undergoing significant downsizing for financial purposes should at least institute a hiring freeze for the period of the downsizing—perhaps a year or two. It is incomprehensible for an organization to say, “Although we cannot afford to pay all of our current employees, we still have plans to add a few hundred additional ones before the end of next year.”
The notion that an organization would have plenty of money for rookie employees but nowhere near enough money for experienced ones invites legal charges of age discrimination and moral charges of ingratitude for faithful missionary service. If an entity’s true reason for laying off workers is indeed financial necessity, then the same shortfall preventing it from paying the fifty year-olds also prevents it from paying the twenty-five year-olds. Such a hiring freeze need not be eternal. One or two years might very well suffice. But as a matter of principle, entities should not, on a large scale, add certain jobs while eliminating others. It makes no fiscal or moral sense at all to do so.
4. Percentage Goals for All Stewardship Levels
I have been around Southern Baptists long enough to know that any time they do not want to pursue a course of action others believe they should pursue, they simply appeal to the principle of autonomy and wear such independence as a badge of honor.
Frankly, I do believe in autonomy at the individual, congregational, associational, state and national levels of Southern Baptist life. Everyone is autonomous and can do exactly as they please. No recommendation from any individual or group in Southern Baptist life threatens the autonomy of any other individual or group in Southern Baptist life, for the simple reason that the individual or group can choose to follow their advice or ignore it.
Nevertheless, it appears to be the case that whenever an individual or group suggests an ideal standard or benchmark for a congregation to embrace in their Cooperative Program support, some people will cry, “Foul!” and flag this individual or group with a fifteen yard penalty for violation of autonomy, even though I have already demonstrated that their autonomy actually remains completely intact despite such a recommendation.
Even more confounding is the tendency to throw this autonomy penalty flag only at the congregational level of the Cooperative Program funding money trail, without also throwing the flag to penalize those applying a proposed percentage standard at the state convention level.
In other words, if we are permitted to say, “I think every state convention should forward at least 50% of their CP receipts to the national convention,” then why are we not also permitted to say, “I think every congregation should forward at least 10% of their undesignated receipts through the CP channels of their state convention,” and, “I think every Southern Baptist should tithe 10% of their total income through their local church?”
If we are going to apply ideal percentage standards to any one level of the Cooperative Program money trail, then consistency dictates that we apply ideal percentage standards to all of them. Again, let me emphasize that, due to autonomy, every group and individual is completely free to do whatever they like. But if ideal percentage standards are fine at the state convention level, then they are also fine at the church level and the individual level.
Thus, below is my proposed Southern Baptist financial standard. It is only a goal, an aim toward which we all can and should strive. I would love to see Southern Baptists adopt it formally. It is a worthy goal. It is a practical goal. It is a feasible goal. And it is a goal that, if implemented, would result in the strong support of Southern Baptist work at every level of our denominational structure. This goal gets the job done—at EVERY level of SBC life.
1. Every Southern Baptist individual should aim to donate at least ten percent of their total income, undesignated, through their local church.
2. Every Southern Baptist Church should aim to donate at least ten percent of their undesignated receipts through the Cooperative Program channels of their state convention.
3. Every Southern Baptist state convention should aim to donate at least fifty percent of their total Cooperative Program receipts to the national Southern Baptist Convention.
4. Every Southern Baptist Church should aim to donate at least two percent of their undesignated receipts through their local Southern Baptist Association.
Transparency Agenda Survey Results
In a recent poll of SBC Today readers, we asked Southern Baptists to indicate if they “approved” or “disapproved” of the idea that we “Approve Southern Baptist financial stewardship standards.” With 256 respondents, 73.44% approved of such an action, while 26.56% disapproved.
This article addresses Item Nine of the Ten Item Transparency Agenda. You may READ the Transparency Agenda or COMPLETE the survey yourself. To read the articles reporting results from the other survey items, see the links below: