In theory the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and the more than 40 Baptist state conventions to which it relates are all autonomous. They cooperate with each other voluntarily.
In practice, however, connections between the SBC and the state conventions vary. In general, smaller state conventions with fewer resources rely more on the SBC. Larger, usually older, state conventions depend less on the national group.
A recent progress report by the SBC’s Great Commission Resurgence Task Force (GCRTF) calls for considerable loosening of those ties and a centralization of control in the SBC’s North American Mission Board.
Glen Land has more than 30 years’ experience working in “pioneer” areas, places of Southern Baptist work generally outside the south. He describes how ending the cooperative agreements and other GCRTF proposals would negatively impact those regions in an article posted on the Network of Baptist Associations web site. Other views can be found on the network’s blog.
Land, whose position as missions director for the Minnesota-Wisconsin Baptist Convention was eliminated in December because of a budget crisis, describes how the cooperative agreements work. Each state convention agrees to contribute a percentage to missionary positions with NAMB providing as much as 80 or 90 percent in smaller conventions.
“But given the small number and size of churches in the new conventions, it can be an enormous challenge for these conventions to come up with even a modest matching amount,” he said. “It is not uncommon for newer conventions to be unable to access all of the money offered by NAMB in a given year due to their inability to match those funds.”
Land takes issue with six parts of the task force proposal, including the insistence that NAMB must lead.
“This reinforces the philosophy of a top-down approach to strategy planning, and implies that the past failure of this approach was because it was not done rigorously enough,” he said. “I would argue the opposite is closer to the truth.”
If the cooperative agreements end, smaller state conventions could not adjust their budgets “to avoid massive terminations of mission personnel,” Land said.
“State conventions would be reduced to skeleton staffs and associations in new convention areas would either cease to exist or would be left with volunteer or part-time leadership,” he said.
Land also foresaw catastrophe in a task force recommendation that all future funding by NAMB be “project-driven.”
“These projects must be driven by NAMB’s strategy and fulfill NAMB’s priorities,” Land said. “Once again, these means that NAMB will be sole arbiter of strategy. I regard this as a recipe for disaster.”
“Can it be we are really witnessing a State’s Rights debate in the SBC? At heart, the back and forth between the State Conventions and the GCRTF seems quite a bit like the flap over a ‘Blue Ribbon Commission‘ and the Federal Government.”
Littleton said the SBC structure has become “calcified.” The GCR Task Force looked at “discretionary spending,” he said.
“When I type ‘discretionary,’ what I mean is that our funding formulas only give a small percentage to the (SBC’s Executive Committee) to manage,” he said. “It is grand naivete to think our entities could not manage their economies better.”
The task force report calls for NAMB to keep $50 million that it sends to state conventions.
Regarding the state conventions, Littleton said, “Here is a new thought for some of you who want to harangue State Execs, ‘Do you really think any of our entities and the EC will manage their resources differently [read, better] if they get more money?’ You see this is thinking that we can bail out GM with more money but no structural changes. This is thinking banks have learned the lesson from the recent economic downturn.”
Littleton noted that the task force report compared 1950 and 2008 in areas other than the amount of money received.
“We want to talk about a lack of growth to correspond with the population explosion,” he said. “Why no mention of the fact we generate more money today than ever in our churches and denomination.”
Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a member of the task force, wrote an article that talks about the cooperative agreements. He said a change is needed because the agreements are “outdated and confusing.”
“When the Great Commission Task Force recommends the phased elimination of these agreements, we are calling for the North American Mission Board to rethink how it should relate to the state conventions so that the mission board retains a more focused ministry of assisting Southern Baptist churches to reach North America,” he said.
Mohler said funds sent from NAMB to state conventions “are allocated and channeled in ways that are difficult to trace, much less to prioritize.”
“We are calling on the North American Mission Board to focus its energies on reaching North America, with a strategic concentration on unreached and underserved people groups, the cities, and the planting of healthy, reproducing churches. There is simply no way that Southern Baptists can be more effective and faithful in this task if we retain the funding mechanisms of the Cooperative Agreements.”
The change does not mean NAMB will abandon “pioneer areas and underserved regions,” Mohler said.
“To the contrary, we are calling for even greater efforts in these areas of our mission and work. But we do not believe that Southern Baptists expect NAMB to be primarily engaged in replicating state convention structures and personnel.”
NAMB will continue to partner with state conventions, according to Mohler.
“But now is the time for a new partnership structure – a structure that liberates NAMB to do its work, while respecting the important work of the state conventions,” he said.
Todd Littleton’s brother, Paul, also a pastor, wrote responded to Mohler. Paul Littleton said most Baptists aren’t aware of the Cooperative Agreements, saying that he didn’t even know about them until reading Mohler’s article.
Paul Littleton notes that the Mohler is, “for all intents and purposes, a life-long denominational employee” and the task force only has “token” representation from the non-mega-churches. As such those in the group view church and denominational life differently than typical Southern Baptist pastors.
“However, Mohler is pretty clear regarding what should replace the old Cooperative Agreements and I can only say that whatever failures there may be with the Cooperative Agreements the proposed solution appears to be far worse than the current problem. For historical purposes it is probably important to note that the NAMB has been perfecting one colossal disaster after another for quite some time now and it has resulted in the firing of the two most recent Presidents of that entity.”
Paul Littleton says the task force recommendations for NAMB would have the SBC acting more than a denomination than a convention of churches.
“And that’s what is totally absent from this proposal. The local church,” he said.
As Paul Littleton suggested, the GCRTF plan is, in effect, upside down. He wrote:
I just know that Southern Baptist’s strength has historically resided in the local church and I know that this proposal moves us away from our strength. I also agree with the many voices who say that if the Southern Baptist Convention is going to have a true Great Commission Resurgence it will have to come firmly at the level of the local church. This proposal has nothing to do with the local church and by extension, I believe, will have little if any positive impact on a Great Commission Resurgence among us.