Several blogs in the past couple of weeks have brought attention to the Cooperative Program and the way in which its funds are distributed. The BGCT has asked Buckner Baptist Benevolences, which is an agency receiving Cooperative Program funding, not to solicit funds directly from BGCT churches. Buckner had plans to initiate an offering called Bless the Children to provide additional funding to help meet various needs. The Cooperative Program funding that Buckner receives is just a small portion of their budget, but the BGCT asked them to put the offering on hold, at least as far as BGCT congregations are concerned, during this period when giving is not meeting the budget.
Attention has been drawn to Howard Payne University in Brownwood, as a result of its women’s basketball teams recent NAIA national title and undefeated season. One of nine institutions of higher learning that receives funding from the BGCT, HPU is having to deal with the financial strains and stresses that most small, private colleges must deal with. And even though only a small portion of its budget is provided by the BGCT’s Cooperative Program gift, the fact that the amount will not be increased once again this year is having an affect at HPU, and at the other schools as well.
One of the main reasons the Cooperative Program came into existence was to avoid the competition among various agencies and institutions for funding from the churches. Churches were bombarded with dozens of appeals for offerings and regular funds, and often either those who got their first, or those who had the better orators and preachers as their representatives, got the lion’s share of the money. For a long time, the Cooperative Program helped to balance the gifts that came from the churches, on all of its various levels. In recent years, as the cost of operating institutions, particularly colleges, universities and hospitals, has increased dramatically, and the various agencies and institutions of the SBC and state conventions have grown, the demand for funds has increased faster than the giving.
Controversy has raised issues related to control. Agencies and institutions which receive Cooperative Program funds have their trustee boards elected by convention bodies. Many of the institutions related to state conventions, after watching the effect of control of trustee boards on the six seminaries, questioned having a state convention control their governance and operations by electing a trustee board when the Cooperative Program money they received accounted for only a very small portion of the money they received to operate. As medical costs skyrocketed, many hospitals related to state conventions have been sold to private corporations. Long before Baylor made the move to a self-perpetuating trustee board, Wake Forest University determined that sacrificing the small amount of Cooperative Program dollars it received, weighed against its other sources of income and operating expenses, was worth the cost of achieving self-control. A number of other schools have done the same in recent years. As Cooperative Program giving from churches continues to fall behind inflation, the question of whether a gift that provides only a small fraction of an institution’s budget is the entitlement to complete control of the trustee board will continue to come up.
Appeals to the churches to increase their CP support haven’t met with success. On the SBC level, I believe this is partly due to the fact that many of the SBC presidents elected by the conservative resurgence have come from mega churches with mega budgets, but with records of almost non-existent support of the CP. The argument that they’ve made, basically that “dollars pay the bills, not percentages,” is hollow and empty, since the actual dollar amounts they are giving are surpassed by churches that are often less than a fourth of their size.
It may be time for a paradigm shift in the way the Cooperative Program operates. Our colleges and unversities have expanded by enrollments that reflect a wide denominational diversity of students, and in many cases those from Baptist congregations represent less than 50% of the student body. Some Baptist related schools take their Cooperative Program money and divide it up as grants and scholarships for the students on their campus who come from Baptist churches as a way of not only helping them attend a school they might not otherwise be able to afford, but also as a means of recruiting and retaining students. Some operate in a partnership with schools, providing resources for ministerial students and mission volunteers, and maintaining the campus ministry apparatus.
The “giving generation,” those in our churches who are the biggest tithers and givers, are slowly passing away. In less than twenty years, our churches and the conventions they cooperate with, will face a major financial crisis if we do not prepare for it. We need to train our people in principles of church support, and we must, at the same time, streamline our convention agencies and institutions to be efficient stewards of the money they receive from the churches, considering it to be sacrificially given and precious. Many of our business practices need to reflect recognition of sacrifice as well. The future doesn’t appear to hold the opportunity for budget increases, or the addition of new offerings. We must learn how to work with what we have been given.