Southern Baptist donations to their Cooperative Program increased

The SBC's leaders attributed that increase to the flocks' generosity and missionary zeal. But I don't think those lofty concerns were truly uppermost in Southern Baptists' minds this year.

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In a year of very bad news, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) got a spot of cheer this past week. Donations to the SBC’s all-important Cooperative Program are a bit higher than expected. Their Executive Committee praised the “generosity” of Southern Baptists for this bump. But I think something else is going on here. And if I’m right, it’s not about generosity at all. Instead, this bump reflects one particular rule in the SBC regarding officer elections. Today, let me show you what the Cooperative Program is, why it’s so important–and why there might be more people donating than usual this year.

(Sometimes you’ll see the Cooperative Program called the Cooperative Fund, with or without that capitalization. It’s still the same thing.)

Good news for a denomination in bad shape: Cooperative Program giving higher than expected

Recently, the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) had some good news to report. This fiscal year, their all-important Cooperative Program has gotten much higher-than-expected donations from SBC member churches.

In a year marked way more by scandal and declines than cheer, Southern Baptists welcomed this good news. Their main news site, Baptist Press, made sure to crow about it:

The start of 2022 indicates a continuation of recent giving trends in the SBC as giving through the national Cooperative Program Allocation Budget has soared to more than 12 percent above budget for the fiscal year. January’s $21.1 million total is only the second time a monthly total has surpassed $21 million in the last decade (February 2019)

Baptist Press

The EC’s Interim President, Willie McLaurin, attributed this rise in donations to “the generosity of Southern Baptist churches” and “the power of synergy and unity across our Convention of churches.” He promised that every dollar donated would “impact missions,” meaning recruitment.

However, I strongly suspect that generosity and recruitment had a little less to do with this increase than simple politicking and infighting did.

And unless someone were decently well-acquainted with the SBC’s denominational rules and the Cooperative Program itself, they wouldn’t even suspect what’s really going on here.

About the Cooperative Program of the Southern Baptist Convention

In a lot of ways, in its ideal form, the SBC floats along like a Portuguese man o’ war. It’s a colony organism. Its member churches like to think they’re completely independent, like fully independent nation-states within a federation. So, they just loosely cooperate and act together for a few super-important common causes.

Indeed, any one individual church in the denomination might only barely interact with the mother ship. Or maybe, not at all. I spotted an SBC report a few years ago that indicated that the mothership can’t even compel member churches even to report their own annual stats. Once a church signs up, its level and degree of involvement is up to its pastor(s).

However, the SBC also does some things as a collective entity. And that takes money. So all of these independent nation-state churches pool money together to achieve their common goals.

The SBC’s denominational leaders get that money from the Cooperative Program. It disburses funds for all of their collective efforts.

What doesn’t the Cooperative Program pay for?

Ever since 1925, the Cooperative Program has allowed the SBC to operate as a single, monolithic entity. As such, it is the most important part of the SBC’s budget. Their top-ranked Executive Committee disburses that money.

Officially, the fund covers various outreach and evangelistic efforts. When we check out SBC church sites, that’s definitely the part of the fund their leaders stress the most. Here’s one church website discussing the Cooperative Program:

We are a Southern Baptist Church that is committed not simply to see our church grow, but see Jesus’ Kingdom advance. As a result we are committed to supporting Gospel centered works through participation, prayer, and provision of financial support given to the cooperative fund and North American Mission Board.

The Way Church

According to the SBC’s March 2022 statement, its member churches have raised $105M for the Cooperative Program so far this year. As you might expect from the above quote, the lion’s share of that money goes to the SBC’s North America-based and international evangelism ($77M this year, or about 73% of the total).

But there’s a lot more going on with this program than just outreach and evangelism!

Here are some other SBC activities that use Cooperative Program money (from that March 2022 statement):

  • Official SBC-branded seminaries and the SBC history archives: $23M, or about 22% of total
  • Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC): $1.75M, or 1.6% of total
  • Something nebulously described as “SBC Operating” and the Executive Committee itself: $3.1M, or 2.98% of total
  • Vision 2025 (ex-EC president Ronnie Floyd’s pet project, a hilariously inept-sounding evangelism/church-planting initiative): $100k, or 0.1% of total, though the Baptist Press article says it’s really $200k.

I ran the March 2022 statement through a calculator to get those percentages. The Baptist Press article I found roughly matches what I got, so that’s good.

How much more money are we talking about?

Here’s the SBC’s Cooperative Program statement from October 2020-March 2021. (And a relink to October 2021-March 2022.) Here’s October 2019-March 2020, for comparison. Remember, the 2020 Annual Meeting was canceled, and it would have been an election year.

By March 2020, Cooperative Program giving stood at $101M. I suspect people still thought there’d be a meeting and an election that year. In March 2021, after the first full year of the pandemic and staggering losses everywhere, churches still scraped up $96M and showed up en masse to vote.

This year, they’re at $105M.

The SBC calls its 41 state-level sub-groupings “State Conventions.” (They had 42, but in 2018 they kicked out the DC Baptist Convention for being too gay-inclusive, and there’d been culture-war friction for years before that.)

Most states have their own Convention, so there’s the Alabama Baptist Convention, the Tennessee Baptist Convention, etc. Sometimes, states with very few SBC churches get grouped together, like the Northwest Baptist Convention and the Minnesota-Wisconsin Baptist Convention. Two states, Texas and Virginia, have two conventions each. That’s what you’re looking at on page 3 of these links, under “Cooperative Program Allocation Budget.” Because of the wreckage of the pandemic, I’m comparing the 2019-2020 fiscal year’s donations to 2021-2022’s.

And because I am exactly that nerd, I recorded all the conventions’ donations for those two years in a separate text file so I could compare them. (You can see a screenshot of my results here.)

A comparison between 2020 and 2022 Cooperative Program giving

Most state-level conventions increased their giving to the Cooperative Program in these two years. At a glance, I see dramatic increases in donations.

Naturally, inflation accounts for some of this increase. Still, the increase holds true almost across the board. Only 14 state conventions decreased their donations from 2020 to 2022, and most of those decreases weren’t even dramatic. Of the $1M+ conventions, Georgia dropped almost $600k, Missouri only about $40k, and Virginia – SBCV about $25k. All other decreases came from conventions donating six figures or less. One of the decreases there was pretty dramatic: Wyoming went from $55k to $18k. Otherwise, the lower-level decreases were far less noteworthy. As an example of what I mean, Indiana went from $423k to $394k.

Between our two comparison years, a few state-level conventions did dramatically increase donations. Oklahoma went from $5.1M to $5.4M, Tennessee from $8.2M to a whopping $10M, and North Carolina $5.8M to $6.2M.

Overall, the theme I’m seeing is that of increased giving across the board, especially in larger conventions.

But there’s something else this fund does that is of special interest

The Cooperative Program gets its name from the idea that churches cooperate with the SBC’s overall denominational mission by donating to it. If they donate enough, then they’re considered cooperating churches.

According to the SBC’s own FAQ page, here’s how much the member church needs to donate:

The Convention does not set a minimum amount; but neither does the Convention encourage “minimalist” giving in reference to the contributions a cooperating church makes to the Convention’s ministries. If a church is truly committed to the purpose and work of the Convention, it is reasonable to expect the church will give as generously as it is able to support the missions and ministry causes of the Convention.

SBC FAQ

Oh. Well, at least I know now why nobody in my community last year could figure out what “cooperation” means in terms of dollar amounts! And who decides how much “cooperating” requires? It sounds like there’s a backroom committee somewhere that sets the price for each church desiring that label.

In the SBC’s 2021 Annual Report (p.6-7), we find some additional information. Cooperating churches can send two “Messengers” to the SBC’s Annual Meeting. Article III.3.(2) specifically mentions the first solid dollar amounts we’ve seen yet on this topic: for specific extra donations, member churches can appoint extra Messengers to go to the meeting–for a max total of 12.

Sending Messengers to the Annual Meeting seems to be one of the only tangible rewards a member church gets for being “cooperative,” beyond certifying their members as valid candidates for SBC roles and leadership positions.

However, that Annual Meeting is so important that any ambitious church leader would want that “cooperative” label like air itself.

Why SBC churches might want to attend the Annual Meeting

The SBC conducts its most important denominational business at the Annual Meeting.

If some member churches don’t care who runs the denomination, where their donations (if any) go, or how the SBC handles its crises and challenges, then they might not care about sending Messengers to that big shindig. They may proceed as they please.

If they do care about any of that, however, any of it at all, then they will want to get as many Messengers to that meeting as they possibly can.

A few years ago, SBC leaders called attendance “being in the room.” They advertised Annual Meeting attendance to church leaders as a way to help guide and direct the SBC (bravely ignoring how it only hurtled further and further into decline and cultural irrelevance). Accordingly, the denomination’s leaders pretended that they totes wanted younger SBC-lings to help direct the SBC’s future.

For years now, the SBC’s leaders have steadfastly refused to do any of its denominational business through teleconferences or internet-based virtual meetings. No no! It must all be done in-person. For less-important matters that only require a yes or no, Messengers vote by show of hands or other methods. For really important matters, like officer elections, Messengers cast votes by ballot.

And suddenly, just like that, we know exactly why the SBC conducts officer elections this way. Its leaders want voters to go through significant effort to be eligible for voting. They want voters to be heavily invested–financially, if not emotionally–in the denomination. The only opinion that really matters here is the opinion of the person paying them tons of money.

If you ain’t paying them till it hurts, they don’t care what you think.

Of course Cooperative Program giving is on the uptick

With all of this in mind, we turn our attention to what is already turning into a particularly-contentious presidential election campaign. (I described it more fully here.) The two Old Guard candidates, Tom Ascol and Voddie Baucham, are already viciously attacking their tribal enemies, the Pretend Progressives.

In truth, there’s not even a cat’s whisker of space between the actual beliefs of the two factions. All the Pretend Progressives are doing is making nice with abuse victims and accepting that critical race theory (CRT) provides a helpful scholarly framework for evaluating social systems. Neither faction wants to change anything too much; one faction’s leaders are just more honest about that fact.

But that not-even-a-whisker’s-breadth of difference has already been enough to provoke Old Guard snarl words like:

  • “radical feminism” (LOL)
  • “Race Marxism” (lolwut)
  • “woke” (we all should wish)

Old Guard-friendly websites like Capstone Report and The Federalist have already been gleefully calling the Pretend Progressives “SBC Elites” (with that capitalization) and “social-justice warrior elites” and characterizing their faction’s leaders as far more representative of the SBC’s membership as a whole.

However, if the Old Guard really felt that way, they’d allow voting from all SBC members. I haven’t seen that suggestion from any of them. So far, the only voters for president are voters from “cooperating” churches. And the people bankrolling those churches hold the only opinions any faction leader cares about.

Stacking behind the boss

In MMO gaming, there’s a phrase: stack behind the boss. A boss is a big, difficult-to-destroy enemy. To stack behind that boss, one player holds its attention facing forward. Everyone else stands behind it, on its tail, and stays as close together as possible. There, they attack together. This tactic keeps the stacked players safer and helps them deal damage more effectively.

That seems to be what’s happening here.

A long time ago, I noticed that attendance at Annual Meetings seemed to rise in years where important business would be discussed. In 2017, 5,015 people attended the big meeting in Phoenix. But the next year, 9,632 people showed up in Dallas. That’s the year J.D. Greear got elected president.

But the faction wars were heating up quickly. The SBC canceled their 2020 meeting, which is when another presidential election should have occurred. So, they held it in 2021 instead. That year, according to this Old Guard attendee, 15,726 messengers came out to vote.

(PS: Anybody else very curious about the “painful experience” that attendee describes that conveniently made him so willing to abandon sports to become a pastor? Jesus doesn’t change anybody, after all.)

One can only imagine what this year’s attendance will look like.

But this increase isn’t about missionary zeal. It’s not about reversing the SBC’s decades-long decline.

This increase in Cooperative Program giving is about being “in the room” to vote for the next president. And about having an opinion the SBC factions’ leaders actually care to hear.

NEXT UP: Ed Litton, the current SBC president, already knows the big sex-abuse report coming out in June is going to be absolutely devastating. He’s trying hard to soften its landing. We’ll check out his manipulation attempts next–see you there!

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...