At far right in 1909, Georgia Baptist State Mission Board auditor H.R. Bernard stands near a table, in center, holding posters of The Schedule Plan waiting to be mailed. Georgia Baptists adopted “The Schedule Plan” in the 1890s to spur missional giving. Standing at center, right is Joseph J. Bennett, the corresponding secretary of the State Mission Board. Photo courtesy of Charles Jones
Vance Havner described circumstances as “the fingers on the hand of God.”
As uninspiring as it may seem, most changes in the way Baptists have supported missions did not begin as a response to fasting and prayer. They were from each generation responding to circumstances surrounding economic crisis (panics, recessions, and depressions).
Today we find ourselves facing a new set of circumstances. They were accelerated by the giving decline during “The Great Recession” and have been further impacted by the COVID19 pandemic.
As Baptists struggle to discover a “new normal,” will we allow circumstances to manage us or will we be good stewards by recognizing God is working through those circumstances; then prayerfully discover new ways of working together in the future.
An overview of Baptist stewardship may prepare us to respond as we realize that stewardship has changed and “we have not always done it that way before.”
The beginnings of Baptist stewardship
As Baptists in America began to support Burma missions in 1814, the first real need for sustainable stewardship was created. Sending missionaries abroad required ongoing (sustainable) support. As the number of missionaries grew and other new ministries developed, the need for sustainable stewardship grew with them.
Baptist stewardship was remarkably different in 1814. For example, rarely were pastors paid. Sunday Schools were new to Baptist life – the first in Georgia was established in 1815 in Augusta And, there were no missionaries to support. Nor were there Bible and Tract Societies, publication houses, or any Baptist educational institutions in the South. Baptist Associations existed, but their focus was on fellowship, maintaining doctrinal integrity, and encouraging (voluntary) itinerant preaching in areas without churches.
Tithing as we understand it was not taught and practiced. The “tithe” was the name of the tax in colonial America supporting the state (Anglican) church. Post-Revolutionary War Baptists seemed to reject the concept of tithing as legalistic. In Virginia and Georgia, Baptists opposed legislation to re-establish state support for churches after the war.
Church minutes of this era reflect few expenses outside the occasional construction of a “meeting house,” building maintenance, and candles for evening services. Basically there was no need to take up a collection. The few urban churches in Augusta and Savannah who did pay their ministers typically generated funds by an annual “pew rent,” a practice which continued in many churches until the early 20th century.
Stewardship began developing over the course of one generation (ca. 1810 to 1850) when “benevolence” was introduced to Baptist life. “Benevolence” was a term that encompassed missions (foreign and domestic); education; Bible, tract, and publication societies; temperance societies; and Sunday School Unions. All of these benevolent ministries were dependent upon outside income to operate.
Baptists in America chose to adopt the “society model” used in Great Britain to fund benevolence. Societies, which became trendy in Great Britain in the 17th century, were organized by likeminded people to support causes. Societies charged members “dues” to raise support. Most early societies in Great Britain were not religious, but promoted various causes like the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. British Baptists organized a society to support William Carey as a missionary to India in 1792 and Congregationalists in America did the same in 1812 when their first missionaries were sent abroad.
Giving in Georgia
Early support for Baptist missions in Georgia came from individuals (not churches) who organized Missionary Societies including the Powelton, Sunbury (Savannah), and Georgia missionary societies. After its organization in 1822, representation to the Georgia Baptist Convention came from either Associations or Societies. Individual churches were not represented by messengers until the late 19th century.
A shift from Societies to Associations (absorbing the function of societies) began in the late 1820s following a financial panic and as the Missions/Anti-Missions parties were heading towards division. Local churches began collecting funds, sometimes forwarding them through the Associations to fund missionary work or sending them directly to other benevolent institutions like Mercer. These collections were typically deacons soliciting funds from individuals, not through an offering plate.
The practice of employing “agents” soon followed in Baptist life. Agents were fundraisers who typically received a percentage of the receipts. Agents for various benevolent boards and agencies competed with one another to make their appeals in local churches and associations.
Following the 1857-1858 financial panic, Georgia began discussing the need and creation of a State Mission Board in 1860. The Civil War and Reconstruction delayed further discussion until a major panic (lasting from 1873 to 1877) stimulated its creation in 1877. State Mission Boards were a major step towards promotion, management (centralization), and accountability of competing mission concerns.
One of the biggest developments in Baptist life was the adoption of the tithe as a biblical model for stewardship by the SBC. This did not take place until 1895. It followed a major shortfall in mission giving after one of the country’s worst financial panics in 1893.
During the same decade, Georgia adopted and began the promotion of “The Schedule Plan” a percentage-based monthly missions giving program to provide sustainable monthly income (most ministries depended upon a single annual special offering). Furthermore, during the 1890s Georgia Baptists created “The Committee on Cooperation” to coordinate offering appeals by competing mission and educational institutions.
Finding a better, more cooperative, way to give
John G. Gibson was the Corresponding Secretary Treasurer (Executive Director) of the Georgia State Mission Board when these changes were adopted in the 1890s. When recommended for the position in 1891, it was noted that he was effective in raising financial support in his churches. For several years his churches did this by preparing a budget and accessing all male members an amount to give based on their wealth.
Tithing was not a part of the plan. Nor was the plan well received in his churches. The 1890s saw the introduction of major innovations towards sustainable stewardship and cooperation, driven in large part by the “progressive” belief that there had to be a better way to sustain benevolent ministries.
In 1915 the Georgia Baptist State Mission Board organized “The Half-Million Campaign” (launched in 1916) primarily as a response to a financial debt crisis. Shortfalls in mission giving were created in 1912 associated with “The Judson (foreign) Centennial Memorial Offering,” the assumption of the Tabernacle (Baptist) Hospital debt, and an international recession in 1914 at the outset of World War I. Two keys to its success were the participating agencies agreeing to promote a unified plan and secondly agreeing not to add any new debts during the campaign.
In 1918 the SBC launched the five-year “75 Million Campaign” to address ongoing debt crisis (which was a reflection Georgia Baptists had experienced in the previous years) and provide for future ministry expansion.
In 1925 the SBC adopted what became the Cooperative Program (single year extensions of the 75 Million Campaign). This was in response to debts created by the shortfalls of the Campaign (largely due to the impact of the boil weevil and a series of post-WWI economic recessions lasting from 1920-1924). It also came about due to the fact that stewardship had proved to be much better under a unified (cooperative) approach than under the previous competitive society system.
It should be noted that each of these changes up to this point were steps towards stronger denominational centralization and cooperation and conversely moved away from competitive societal giving models.
CP during times of crisis
The CP sustained the denomination during the Great Depression. Then following WWII the U.S. entered into the longest period of economic growth in history. Consequently, “circumstances” did not dictate changing the way Baptists supported missions. The “Greatest Generation,” “The “Bridgers” and their children, the “Baby Boomers,” were raised and taught the biblical concept of tithing. Furthermore, Baptists had largely moved from farms to urban settings with employment providing more stable incomes.
Per-capita giving to missions when adjusted for inflation grew until 1986, when it peaked at about the same time that the Greatest Generation (at their peak earning capacity) were beginning to retire. By this time the last of the Baby Boomers had completed educations and were in the work force. Although there was a decline in per-capita giving (when adjusted for inflation), overall giving was still fairly stable for the next 20 years as Baby Boomers’ income and giving grew.
The 2008 Great Recession accelerated the decline in per-capita and actual mission giving for several reasons. Income (including savings) was lost to the poor economy. Most of the Greatest Generation (arguably the most committed to tithing and with highest level of denominational loyalty) had passed on. At the same time Baby Boomers were beginning to retire in large numbers, a trend which should peak around 2022. Many churches cut mission giving to maintain local church ministries. Overall, mission giving has not returned to the pre-2008 levels.
A generational responsibility
One response to the circumstances of the 2008 recession was the SBC adoption of “The Great Commission Resurgence” in 2010. This plan was unique in that the previous innovations were moves towards stronger centralization of denominational structure (cooperation). This represented the first move towards a more societal (decentralized) approach to giving. It seemed to reflect a loss of confidence by some in the distribution of mission funding through the CP.
Today Baptists are once again at a juncture as economic circumstances impact stewardship. The COVID19 pandemic has impacted mission giving and there is uncertainty as to how long that will last. Meanwhile, a large portion of SBC church membership will continue to retire in the next few years. At this point, a new normal in giving has not been established.
What we do know is things will not be the same going forward.
This should be seen as an opportunity to “reset,” explore, and discover new ways of working together or revamp and affirm some of the old as we go forward. This will be true at every level of Baptist life – church, association, state, and nation.
The premise is basic. As uninspiring as responding to circumstances may seem, they are not when one considers that each generation must determine how to work together to share the good news in their era. This is where we are today and to be responsible stewards requires Southern Baptists to reestablish our passions, recast our vision, reevaluate our stewardship models, and move forward … by faith, together, to share the good news.