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Will the Southern Baptist Convention’s Cooperative Program Crumble?

Southern Baptist Convention Cooperative Program
The Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, Wednesday, June 14, 2023. (RNS photo/Emily Kask)

(RNS) — Put two Southern Baptists in the same room and before long they’ll find something to fight about.

For most of their history, members of the denomination have fought over the Bible, politics, race, sex, gender roles, music, dancing, Calvinism and almost anything else they can think of.

All that feuding has overshadowed their surprising ability to work together. For nearly a century, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Cooperative Program — which pools money to fund missions, evangelism and seminaries — has been a remarkable success, collecting more than $20 billion since 1925 and becoming the lifeblood of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

But as the Cooperative Program approaches its 100th anniversary in 2025, the trust that made the program possible has frayed. Southern Baptists have faced a sexual abuse crisis that has undermined confidence in denominational leaders. Feuds over politics, race and the role of women in the church — which parallel the polarization of American culture — have dominated recent denominational meetings and caused some churches to withhold their mission giving.

More may follow suit, angered at a proposed rule change — known as the Law Amendment — that would bar churches with any women leaders who hold the title of pastor, whether they are a children’s pastor or a church’s senior pastor. Passing the amendment could lead hundreds of churches to be expelled or to leave because they disagree.

Not passing it could also lead to an exodus.

“We are going to lose some people regardless of what happens,” said Adam Wyatt, a Mississippi pastor and member of the SBC’s Executive Committee. “What does that mean long term? I don’t know.”

Whatever happens will likely affect the Cooperative Program, which is already facing pressures as churches have reduced the percentage of money they share with the denomination.

In the 1980s, SBC churches gave about 10% of their income to the Cooperative Program. Today, they give less than 5%, meaning national ministries like the SBC’s seminaries and mission boards — which get about a quarter and a third of their income from the Cooperative Program, respectively — have had to rely more on direct giving that bypasses the denomination.

For example, in fiscal year 1982, the SBC’s national entities received $102 million from the Cooperative Program, or the equivalent of more than $300 million today, when adjusted for inflation. In fiscal year 2022 — reported in the SBC’s 2023 annual report — those entities received $195.9 million from the Cooperative Program.

Giving to the Cooperative Program for this year is currently down about 2% — and 3.6% under budget, according to the SBC Executive Committee. A pair of special offerings that go directly to the denomination’s missions board have also dropped, resulting in a combined decrease of about 4% in giving from last year.

The number of Southern Baptists has also declined significantly over the past two decades, from a high of 16.3 million members in 2006 to 13.2 million members in 2023. That decline includes nearly half a million members from 2022 to 2023 and 1.5 million since 2018. Fewer members means fewer givers.