An old saying goes like this: “Do as I say, not as I do.” Though many of us have said something like this to our children, we knew our parenting was weak when our lives betrayed our words of instruction.
As I see it, the big issue in Baptist life today is that for too long, key leaders, and leaders at all levels, have been unable to say, “Do as I do,” or “Do as I did.” We are now seeing the fruit of this in the staff reduction at the International Mission Board (IMB).
We are grieving the IMB announcement that our missionary force will be reduced by as many as 800. We are already down more than 800 field missionaries from our peak of over 5,600 in 2009. Still, with less than 4,800 field personnel, we have been unable to fund even these reduced numbers. An attempt to keep missionaries on the field led to huge deficit spending by the IMB, $210 million above income over the past six years. Obviously, this cannot continue, thus the staff reduction. Others will write and speak about how the financial crisis was and is being handled. My interest here is to address what I believe got us to where we are.
As I see it, the trouble began over 30 years ago when we began electing and selecting leaders who did not support missions through the Cooperative Program (CP). These were godly and gifted men, but men who chose not to participate in the SBC system of mission funding that was the unique genius of our Baptist forefathers. In those days some gave theological reasons for not supporting missions through CP, or supporting it with a pittance, and these reasons had some merit. But with the conservative resurgence, the argument of liberal drift in the SBC went away. Still, many of those who did not support CP for reasons of liberal drift continued their lack of support even when conservatives were in control. Moreover, many of these non-CP-supporting conservatives were elected and selected to lead the SBC and her entities, entities that they did not support financially before they came to lead them. In some cases, even when they became our leaders they did not give to missions through the CP in any substantial way. The selection of weak CP supporters to key SBC leadership roles continues to the present, not exclusively, but not uncommonly either. Interestingly, when non-CP supportive men are elected and selected to lead CP supported entities, they are now in a position to ask others for the financial support that they did not give themselves. It’s a “Do as I say, not as I did/do,” kind of thing.
I believe that the primary cause of CP declining from about 10.5 percent of a church’s budget in the 1980s, to about 5.5 percent today, is because of decades of leadership that has too often been selected to lead what they did not support. The example that this has set for young pastors who have come into SBC life over the last few decades has been disastrous. “How disastrous” you ask? Well, if the average CP giving per Baptist church was 10.5 percent, as it was 30 years ago, the IMB would have about $85 million more per year than it currently has. And if that were the case, we’d be growing our mission force by 2,000 or more, not cutting the force by 800. And this is just the impact on the IMB. At all levels of SBC life we would be stronger if CP giving was where it once was. We would have far more resources for church planting and evangelism in North America. With all of our talk about evangelistic church planting in the past several years, not only have baptisms plummeted to the lowest levels since the 1940s, we are also planting fewer churches than we did a decade ago. We need to get honest with ourselves and talk about the way things really are and not just feed off a few happy anecdotes. I know I sound quite negative, but facing reality is essential if we are to solve the problem.
I consider it most troubling, and irritating, that much of the CP discussion over the past six or seven years has centered on how we “cut the pie.” Most often this means that state conventions should send more of the CP to the national and international entities. And the states, in general, have done this. State conventions have reduced their staffs by several hundred persons over the past several years. But please, if we don’t get past “pie cutting,” and develop strategies to grow the pie, we’ll continue to decline (and we are declining, seriously declining by every measurement). And by “develop strategies to grow CP,” I mean first and foremost, select our leaders from among the thousands who believe in and support CP. And don’t try to convince us that our best leaders are not found among those who actually support the SBC cooperative system in a substantial way. That is crazy, and more than crazy, it is disrespectful of those leaders who actually put their money toward SBC missions.
We live in an age where everyone wants a quick fix to the problem. I believe that the current funding problem in the SBC did not happen quickly. It has taken a few decades to get us into the shape we’re in, decades of choosing one leader after another whom, if the average Baptist church followed their example of CP mission’s giving, the SBC would be “out of business.” “Do as I say, not as I do” kind of leadership regarding CP has gotten us into the shape we’re in today. It didn’t happen quickly and it won’t be fixed quickly. It will require a pattern of selecting leaders who supported what they were asked to lead even before they were asked to lead it.
All of this said, some will say that “pew warming Baptists” is where the problem really starts because giving to the local church, as a percentage of one’s income, is also down. This is true. But this is also a leadership problem as we pastors haven’t always done a good job of stewardship education in our churches. And not all church leaders tithe on their income, let alone go beyond the tithe. From what I’ve read, poor personal stewardship by church leaders is a major problem.
We could also point to the fact that the average church not only contributes less to missions through CP than they once did, they also contribute less to mission causes through all channels than they once did. This is also true. Local churches are keeping more money for local ministry than churches did a few decades ago. But these facts do not argue against my main point that it all starts from the top, with prominent leaders in key positions. Leadership really does matter. Over time, we typically follow the example that our leaders set. By that I mean that we “do as they do,” not as they say.
I am privileged to live and serve in the Great Northwest. And in the Northwest, when we look for leaders, we look for men and women who believe so much in what we do that they support it through the CP. I believe that if I ask people to support what I fail or failed to support throughout my ministry, my leadership is greatly weakened. But if a leader can say what Paul said to the Corinthian Church – “Imitate me” (1 Cor. 4:16) – and say it with integrity, that is strong leadership. And that’s what we need at all levels of leadership in Baptist life.