Local church autonomy and missions support

“Tom,

Thanks. I’m a younger pastor (28), and it sounds like you’ve got us figured out….”

-Pastor Brian

I don’t know if I have younger pastors figured out or not, but I used to be one (a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away), I have many friends who fit that profile and I have ongoing conversations with many in that category.

One of them is a friend who pastors in Indiana. A couple of years ago their Southern Baptist church decided to change the way that they financially support Southern Baptist missions and causes. They had specific reasons for their decisions. I did not agree with my friend’s reasoning though I do understand it and certainly recognize their right, as an autonomous church, to make such a decision. Their local Director of Missions (DOM–in Southern Baptist life this is a person who serves an association of churches) did not see it this way and brought charges and false reports against my friend and the church he serves. The DOM wrote letters and made contacts with SBC agencies and institutions seeking to discredit this church and pastor. His actions were unethical and shameless. And the response of many of the denominational employees he got involved was not much better.

Here is part of the motivation behind the church’s action to redirect their giving. The church became increasingly disillusioned with the associational leadership and with some of the activities and doctrinal positions promoted by the state convention. In addition, the church wanted more of its money given to Southern Baptist causes to make it to the international mission field (the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana voted to keep 72.82% of all Cooperative Program receipts for the year 2004). Consequently, the church decided to cut their financial support for the local association and the state convention and to send money directly to the International Mission Board of the SBC.

For doing this they were threatened, maligned and misrepresented by denominational employees. Their pastor was deceived and treated very unfairly. In fact, the things that were said about and done to the pastor and church simply confirmed the worst fears about denominational bureaucracy in the minds of some members. Though no one has told me this, my guess is that the actions of denominational employees have probably innoculated this church from ever again participating in the Cooperative Program (CP). All because they exercised their autonomy to see that more of their money made it to international mission fields.

Granted, this is an extreme case, but it does illustrate the mindset that many denominational employees have about local churches and the CP. Kevin Morse speaks for many in a response he made to my last post, “I’m beginning to feel like the CP has stopped being a resource for the benefit of the local churches in the convention. Rather, we have become a resource for the CP.” As this feeling spreads, support for the CP will wane and no amount of cheerleading, carrot-dangling or intimidation can prevent it.

Cooperation is based on trust. And trust is a fragile thing. It is hard to build and easy to break. Yet cooperation is a vital to the advance of the Gospel in the world. If it does not exist within a local church, not much can be accomplished. If it does not exist between churches, that which could be accomplished together will not be done. History has many testimonies of great good that has resulted from the cooperation of churches who are committed to a common cause. Many of those testimonies can be found within our own Southern Baptist heritage and show how extremely useful the CP can be. If we hope to see vital, fruit-bearing cooperation in the future, then we must honestly face the fractured trust of the present. This will require some hard self-evaluation on the part of denominational leaders. And it will require some intense listening to the concerns of local churches.

No one is asking, but if the question of how to address the diminishing support of the CP among Southern Baptist churches were posed to me, I would respond by calling attention to these very realities. Lack of enthusiasm for the CP is not a financial issue. It is not a loyalty issue. It is not a motivational issue. It is a trust issue. Address the reasons–many of them very legitimate–that more and more churches are having difficulty trusting the denominational machinery. Ask churches. Listen carefully to their responses. Field tough questions. Give honest answers. Where mistakes have been made, admit it. Where sin has been committed, repent. Where viable alternatives exist, acknowledge them and be willing even to explore them. All of this will go a long way to rebuilding the kind of trust on which cooperation thrives.