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Supporting the Whole or Supporting the Parts comment (0)

July 3, 2014

By Bob Terry

Supporting the Whole or Supporting the Parts

It was one of the most dramatic moments of the recent Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) annual meeting. International Mission Board (IMB) President Tom Elliff seemed caught in a dilemma. From the convention floor, a messenger posed the question about whether Elliff would support using money from other SBC entities to help underwrite additional SBC international missionaries. 

Two things made the question poignant. First the Great Commission Resurgence program adopted five years ago in Louisville, Ky., began with a call for taking money from other SBC entities as well as state conventions and directing it to international missions efforts. Since that time many state conventions have cut missions budgets in their own states to send additional money to SBC causes. On the SBC level, the Executive Committee has lowered its percentage of support and redirected those funds to international missions. Now the messenger wanted to know if Elliff would support SBC-related seminaries following the example of state conventions and the SBC Executive Committee by lowering their budgets by 1 percent and redirecting those funds to international missions. 

Declining receipts

Second was Elliff’s report to IMB trustees a month earlier. In May, Elliff told his trustees they had to come to grips with the unsustainable demands placed on IMB resources from years of declining Cooperative Program (CP) receipts and sluggish Lottie Moon Christmas Offering giving. He warned that IMB would be hard-pressed to continue supporting the more than 4,800 missionaries serving today much less meet multiple field requests for hundreds of new personnel.

A lesser man might have caved in to the pressures of his office and endorsed taking money from other SBC entities in order to strengthen the work for which he is responsible. It is only natural to fixate on the importance of one’s own contribution to the kingdom of God and when that contribution is international missions, it is hard not to ask for a larger percentage of the budget. 

That is not what Elliff did. Instead he told the messenger that every part of the work done by Southern Baptists is important and that every part of the work deserves support. The answer, he said, was not to re-divide the CP budget but to enlarge the budget so all the work could grow from stronger support. 

Rather than focusing on one part of the work, Elliff emphasized the importance of the whole CP partnership between churches, state conventions and national programs. That was statesman-like leadership. He would have no part of trying to strengthen the part of the work that he leads at the expense of his co-laborers in the kingdom of God. 

Later Elliff shared an analogy to explain his commitment to CP giving. He said, “The Cooperative Program does more for Southern Baptists than just generate resources. For Southern Baptists, CP is something like the glue between the many thin layers that comprise a full sheet of plywood. Alone those thin sheets are so very weak. Glued together they form a sheet that is remarkably strong and durable.

“The Cooperative Program, the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and the Annie Armstrong Offering for North American missions put the world on notice that Southern Baptists are about the Great Commission. That is our strength,” he concluded. 

That commitment should not surprise anyone. From his first day as IMB president, Elliff has championed CP. Neither he nor the IMB has ever indicated they were moving “away” from the CP. 

Yet the IMB must find new funding if it is to positively respond to present day opportunities. Elliff suggested trustees consider career missionaries through models already in use for Missions Service Corp volunteers such as self-funding or church funding. IMB would provide oversight and/or logistical support for missionaries but financial support would be up to others. 

Asking churches to be more committed to international missions is another possibility, especially for those that are sending the missionaries. It is not right for a church to make a solitary CP contribution so members from that congregation can qualify as coming from a cooperating church. Going forward, Elliff said churches from which missionaries come may be expected to provide ongoing financial support to international missions including CP giving. 

Partnering with churches and other Christian groups to reach unreached people groups or to take on multi-year projects is another possible strategy. IMB is correct when it says, “This is a tactile, hands-on generation, with churches eager to play a personal, up-close and onsite role in missions.” 

But what churches actually do is not controllable by IMB or SBC or anyone other than the members of that local congregation. Local church autonomy is part of Baptist polity. A church may agree to personal involvement and fund that expanded effort by redirecting some of its missions support away from CP and toward the hands-on assignments. 

Some Baptists may see no problem with this development since more money is going to missions efforts than by giving through CP alone. Recent reports in Alabama indicate a number of churches are considering this option or have recently embraced it. Some argue that missions giving will dry up altogether if not tied to a church’s onsite missions efforts.

That brings us back to the question posed to Elliff by the messenger at the recent annual meeting. Should CP dollars be redirected away from the whole program of work done by Baptists in our state and national conventions in order to strengthen one part of the work?

Supporting all

We join Elliff in saying “no.” All Baptists do together through the CP is important and deserves support. Picking out a single program or a few programs for support at the expense of the whole is like supporting a favorite child at the expense of the family. When a child has a special need, it is met with special support, not by sacrificing the well-being of other family members. 

It was encouraging to learn that the percentage of undesignated offerings from churches given to missions through CP climbed from 5.41 percent to 5.50 percent for the last year of record. Hopefully this is the beginning of a new trend, a trend that demonstrates that all Baptists do together is worthy of financial support through the CP.  

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