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Is This What Was Intended?comment (0)

January 6, 2011

By Bob Terry

Do you remember the Covenant for a New Century adopted in 1995 by messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) meeting in Atlanta? It was a thorough restructuring of the SBC designed to position the national convention for effective and efficient ministry in the 21st century.

The first decade of that century has come and gone. One can now ask if what Southern Baptists are experiencing today is what was intended when the restructuring was done.

Consider, for example, what has happened to Cooperative Program (CP) promotion. In 1995, Southern Baptists had a Stewardship Commission with the sole purpose of teaching biblical stewardship and promoting the CP. Staff members worked closely with state directors of stewardship promotion to develop teaching materials and promotion campaigns that were used across the convention.

In order to increase efficiency, the Covenant for a New Century transferred the responsibility of CP promotion to the SBC Executive Committee (EC). It was an attempt to link the responsibility of allocating funds with the task of raising them. The EC already was responsible for recommending the annual SBC budget. What had been the sole focus of the Stewardship Commission became one of several assignments of the EC even though a staff member was charged with promoting the CP.

The result was predictable. Cooperation and coordination of CP promotion among the state conventions declined. Some state convention directors have been openly critical of EC actions (or inactions).

In December 2010, EC President Frank Page announced that he was eliminating the office of CP promotion and taking on the responsibility himself to demonstrate to Southern Baptists how important the task is. Page’s action complied with the recommendations of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force report approved earlier in the year, which called for returning CP promotion to the state conventions and reduced the EC’s budget by about one-third.

In 15 years, Southern Baptists have moved from having an official entity charged with stewardship education and CP promotion to having CP promotion be one of the personal assignments carried out by the chief executive officer of the SBC EC. And during that time, average CP giving by SBC churches has fallen from 8.73 percent in the 1990s to 5.86 percent for the 2008–09 fiscal year.

Southern Baptists repeatedly say glowing words about the importance of the CP. Historically it has been the financial foundation of the SBC’s balanced program of missions and ministries. An organizational truism is that “structure follows priorities.” Considering what has happened to CP promotion and giving in the last 15 years, one can only ask is this what was intended by the Covenant for a New Century?

The SBC Education Commission, which the Covenant for a New Century did away with, worked primarily with the colleges and universities of cooperating state conventions. The commission always seemed out of place being an SBC commission primarily focused on state convention entities. Almost unnoticed was the informal channel of communication and coordination between the SBC seminaries and the various colleges and universities, which the commission provided.

Generally Southern Baptists agreed that state convention-related schools would handle college training while the SBC concentrated on professional training for ministry through its seminaries. The seminaries have had diploma programs for those called to ministry late in life and without college training. However, the primary focus of the seminaries was the professional training of the master of divinity program and doctoral level instruction.

In 1995, one SBC seminary had a baccalaureate program and the six SBC seminary presidents already had tried to diffuse what they called a “potential issue of competition and conflict among the seminaries” through The Colorado Concord.

Today every seminary has a college program of significant size. For the 2008–09 academic year, one-third of the total instruction done by Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, Calif., and Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., was in the college program. At New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, it was more than 25 percent of the total hours; for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., it was more than 20 percent.

Across all six of the seminaries, the percentage of instruction done at the college level has reached as high as 26.76 percent and remained above 25 percent for four consecutive years.

The importance of the college level training to the institutions is seen in the fact that total full-time-equivalency students in 2008–2009 were fewer than in 2007–2008, which, in turn, was fewer than in 2006–2007. The trend has been downward even with the influx of college level students.

In 2008, the EC called attention to this trend in a report to the SBC annual meeting. The report said, in part, “The committee believes most Southern Baptists expect their offerings to be used primarily to fund such graduate level instructions (master’s degree level and advanced doctoral degree level).”

The report continued, “The committee wonders whether the escalation of instructional hours from other than basic and advanced degree programs may over time undermine the priority of producing graduate level ministerial training.” Messengers accepted a recommendation to study that very issue: what impact does college level instruction have on seminary level training.

Today, in addition to supporting the three colleges affiliated with the Alabama Baptist State Convention through the CP, Alabama Baptists also support six other colleges — one at each at the six SBC seminaries. Alabama Baptists contribute as much CP support for a freshman English course at the College at Southeastern, for example, as they do for a theology of the New Testament course in the master of divinity program at the seminary.

Seminaries may boast of record enrollments because of their growing college programs, but they also have to divide their CP dollars to support the college programs as well as the traditional seminary training.

Southern Baptists find themselves in an awkward situation. In the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force report, more money for seminary education was championed. At the same time, increased attention is being focused on the impact of baccalaureate programs on CP funding for ministerial graduate education. Would more money be available to train pastors if the seminaries did not sponsor colleges? Would the circumstances be different if the seminaries and colleges had continued to communicate and coordinate through an entity like the Education Commission?

Again is this situation what was intended by the Covenant for a New Century? There is more, much more, to consider. Next week, we will look at other developments in the past decade as we continue to ask is this what was intended?

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