Georgia convention grappling with financial challenges

November 21, 2020

Georgia Baptist leaders recently implemented significant budgetary cuts across various levels to address the challenging financial situation for the historic state convention.

Along with a 6% state convention budget decrease from the 2020 budget of $40.25 million to $37.835 million, 30% (49 of the 140) of Georgia Baptist Mission Board staff were offered voluntary retirement incentive packages on Oct. 21 and some employee and retiree benefits going forward were eliminated. 

The 2020 Georgia Baptist Book of Reports reports total financial gifts received in the state decreased 10.3% from January to June 2020, compared to the same period in 2019. The 2019 Georgia Baptist Book of Reports stated total financial gifts had decreased 2.78% from January to June 2019 compared to the same period in 2018.

Going into 2019, 20 state missionary positions were downsized after that $1.2 million decline in funding from the convention’s 3,500-plus churches in 2018, according to The Christian Index

Voluntary retirement incentive

Now going into 2021, another downsizing has been put in motion with the voluntary retirement incentive packages.

To qualify for the retirement package, employees must be at least 55 years old with at least 10 years of GBMB service, and the decision must be made by Dec. 4.

Those who opt to retire under the offer will be asked to sign non-disclosure agreements in order to ensure the “personal protection of their information,” David Melber, GBMB chief operating officer, told The Alabama Baptist.

Melber and GBMB executive director Thomas Hammond also pointed to other moves in recent months to address the financial challenges within the convention:

  • An across-the-board 5% pay reduction for GBMB staff, which was initiated this past April and is slated to continue through 2021,
  • Furloughing some staff members for several months in 2020,
  • Restricting travel for several months in 2020,
  • Preparing to sell properties that have proven to be financially unsustainable, including Toccoa Baptist Conference Center in North Georgia, which has been owned by Georgia Baptists since 1963, and the GBMB office in Duluth, Georgia, which was dedicated in November 2006. The original $25.6 million debt on the building was paid in full in March 2015.

Read more about the earlier 2020 cuts here.

“We’ve done our homework. We’re not walking into this blind,” Hammond said. “We have a plan.” 

Tightening benefits

Employee and retiree benefits were trimmed in recommendations approved by the GBMB executive committee Sept. 15, which were reported in the 2020 Georgia Baptist Book of Reports, and are effective Jan. 1, 2021. Those taking the retirement offer in 2020 will receive the benefits. 

One recommendation eliminated term life insurance and dental insurance for retirees.

A second recommendation modified certain employee benefits:

  1. Eliminated gratuity payment to employees at retirement,
  2. Capped funds to match employees’ contributions to GuideStone Financial Resources, 
  3. Eliminated the years-of-service payments to employees,
  4. Eliminated “special pay situations” beyond  an employee’s base compensation, combining those payments with the employee’s base compensation.

“Our system of how employees were compensated was confusing in that people had additional pay beyond a base salary — special pay and longevity pay were added to the base pay,” Melber explained. “Going forward those items have been eliminated.”

And once GBMB leaders know who accepts the retirement packages and how those salaries add up, they can then know how to proceed related to organizing to live within the 2021 budget adopted by the roughly 600 messengers attending the state’s annual meeting Nov. 9.

Financial history

Georgia Baptists’ budgets have fluctuated through the years, with a record high of $53.3 million in 2008. 

While five other southern state conventions also saw budgetary decreases in the years since the so-called Great Recession in 2008 (read more here), Hammond and Melber also cited a pattern of overspending for more than two decades as well as challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hammond, who celebrates his second anniversary at the GBMB helm in January, shared how a “financial redirect” was needed when he met with the GBMB executive committee in mid-October.

In a recent exclusive interview with The Alabama Baptist, Hammond and Melber offered no explanation for what they described as overspending, and J. Robert White, who served as Georgia Baptists’ executive director from 1992 to 2018, declined to comment on convention-related budgetary items. 

“I prefer to be positive and supportive of my successor,” he said.

The Alabama Baptist staff has not done a detailed review of the GBMB spending habits under White, but the Cooperative Program contribution going to Southern Baptist causes from Georgia Baptists during his 26-year tenure exceeded $1.1 billion.

With current-day financial realities and a roughly $1.3 million monthly CP contribution from Georgia Baptists to SBC, it would take more than 60 years to hit the $1 billion again. Attempting to compare numbers in years prior to the Great Recession and even prior to COVID-19 will be up for debate among Georgia Baptists as to whether that is actually productive.

But bottom line going into 2021, “next year, the budget … will be the budget,” Melber reported to The Christian Index

Rethinking field ministries

Fleshing out some of the details with The Alabama Baptist, Melber explained that ongoing Georgia Baptist ministries will be “more field-focused with pastors and churches.” 

For example, Georgia Baptists currently have collegiate ministries on 42 of 107 campuses statewide. Churches and associations may need to initiate ministries on campuses where none exists, he suggested.

The current financial challenges are far from a “terrible” problem, Melber said. In reality, they can be a “rallying cry” and “unifying event,” he said. “Sure, things will be different, but that doesn’t make it worse. We need to focus on what can come through this. We’re innovating. It’s an exciting time to be here. An exciting time.”

By Margaret Colson

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