The Cooperative Program: The Genius of the SBC

This week is sort of my “Ode to the SBC” week with their annual gathering in Houston. Today, I want to focus on what I believe is the genius of the SBC that rarely isn’t talked about enough.

W.W. Barnes1 once wrote, “The Cooperative Program is the greatest step forward in Kingdom finance Southern Baptists have ever taken.”

The Southern Baptist Convention (also SBC) was founded in May of 1845 as a group of autonomous churches who voluntarily cooperated to do missions and spread the Gospel from their local communities to the ends of the World. For many years following its founding, the Convention used established forms of designated and undesignated giving, as well as a former society based model of giving to fund missions and denominational ventures. This society model proved ineffective and was part of the demise of early boards and agencies (Bible Study Board and first Sunday School Board are examples) along with some other logistical issues.

In 1917, the SBC initiated a program called the “Seventy-Five Million Campaign” that sought to fund  ministry initiatives and expand receipts. The Campaign was a mixed result, but also led to some financial challenges related to a debt burden it carried. So in 1925, the SBC adopted a Co-operative Program of giving that sought to provide a systematic framework to support and fund the denominational ministry.

JE Dillard was named the chair and the program moved forward. Since that time in 1925 the Cooperative Program has remained unchanged in its fundamental principles and operations. It is also the genius of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The Cooperative Program provides the funding arm from each of the local churches (all 45,000 of

This is how the CP works out as percentage of giving.

This is how the CP works out as percentage of giving.

them) to missions and denominational agencies. As our chart shows, the process is fairly straightforward and funds move from the pew to the field with little hindrance.

Since the primary focus of the SBC has always been Gospel centered missions, the Cooperative Program has provided a stable funding source that scaled with the growth of the Convention itself. In keeping with the intent of the founders of the Convention, “The Cooperative Program brought the goal of the original constitution of 1845 closer to realization…”2 The Cooperative Program also provides a linking of the local church to the state conventions and the larger denominational programs and agencies that facilitates a growing unity and focused purpose.

Regardless of the challenges and controversies that have gone on within the Convention over the years, the steadfast commitment to the Cooperative Program has been a point of unity within the denominational work. It allows churches to see how their dollars go straight to funding the missions and ministries that they value.

This is the process of funding. Click for more detail.

This is the process of funding. Click for more detail.

Another aspect of the funding is that it has enabled Southern Baptists to create seminaries to train their pastors and missionaries at a reasonable cost. When I was considering seminary, it was an easy decision to choose an SBC seminary over other attractive options as I knew I would receive a qualified education at a cost that was reasonable and allowed me to graduate with no student loans. Most seminarians in the ATS system cannot say that; Southern Baptist should be reminded and be proud of this.

In the latest stats on the Cooperative Program, in 2011 the Cooperative Program received $500,410,514 in funds with $308 million going directly to Convention interests. That money is divided up according to an allocation budget (affirmed by the Convention meeting.) For the 2012-2013 year the proposed budget saw $94,376,000 go to International Missions and $42,845,200 go to North American Missions for a total of $137,221,200 dedicated to missions. I don’t know of a Protestant denomination that provides a more secure method of funding their missionaries. Along these lines, the seminaries (all six of them) received $41,209,600 for theological education.

These numbers, which are all public, aren’t meant to brag about size but absolutely meant to show how God’s people provide and remind us of the task before us. The Cooperative Program is a genius system that allows each member of our churches to directly fund the work of God at home and abroad. 

From a strategic vantage point (since that is a focus of this blog), the Cooperative Program provides a consistent and scalable funding arm to support and sustain prioritized ministry activities. Its simplicity (relatively speaking) is its genius. For the many new missions and church networks that are growing, mostly among free church ecclesiological models, this is the kind of funding program that would help them grow.

One of the many things that I am proud of as a Southern Baptist is how the Cooperative Program works. I remember to this day putting my $10 bill into the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering envelop, placing it in the offering plate, and knowing it went directly to funding missions across the world. That is a great thing for the Kingdom of God.

  1. 1. The Southern Baptist Convention 1845-1959, 1954 pg 230 

  2. 2. Robert Baker The Southern Baptist Convention and Its People, 1974 pg 404 


State of the Plate Thoughts

For those of us in the biz (…showbiz…I mean church biz…) we’ve heard a bit about this report which has recently been called The State of the Plate. This is a study of 4,413 self-identified tithers on their habits in giving, reasons for giving, impact of their giving, and other important data. It was release a couple of weeks ago and available from The State of The Plate’s website in a downloadbale ebook for $24.95.

After purchasing and downloading a copy, I read through the report over lunch yesterday and have a few thoughts.

  • The data in this study is very well put together and will aid the pastor and teacher.
  • From the report, I am impressed with how different families who tithe are better off financially. (see the chart)
  • We can draw a direct correlation (I believe) between higher levels of spiritual maturity, or at least practices indicating maturity, and those who give at a high level. From the report: 96% of tithers attend services once a week. 
  • Those who tithe start early and have parents or grandparents as models of giving. This is how it worked in my family. My $10/week allowance always required me to put $1 in the collection plate every Sunday.
  • The 80/20 rule was confirmed in their research. 20% of our churchgoers support 80% of the budget. Yet that 20% is highly committed to the strength and growth of our churches, we should honor them appropriately. (note: not lavishly.)
  • If you couple the data from this report with another, recent Barna Report, you will have quite the statistical data set for understanding giving patterns in the local American church world. The Barna Research report was reported in April.
  • One of the points of the survey discusses how only 25% of tithers (committed givers) have an estate plan in place which gives to their local church. I made a note on my copy that, while not surprising, should provoke us to think more strategically about how we can talk to individuals and families about afterlife bequests. (Honestly, in all my years of attending church, I’ve never heard a pastor or leader mention this to their people.)
  • Though I’m all for calling something by its biblical name, perhaps a more apt term for churches to describe this giving is committed giving.
  • In the back of the study there are charts with links, a strategy for incorporating teaching on generosity (the new watchword for giving), and plenty of charts. This is a well rounded survey.

The data in the report is rather eye opening and it has been arranged in some great charts that are eye catching and informative. It is certainly worth you read.

It isn’t a perfect survey by any stretch. One key piece of statistical data I would like to see is the average age of tithers, committed givers. If the Barna, and other surveys, data is correct our most committed givers are growing older and older and not being replaced by younger families. This should be concerning for us.

All that said, I am definitely encouraged by the trend in discussing “generosity” in our churches. Leadership Network has some great resources and best practices on this. So, go and get this eBook and dig into its data. You’ll be encouraged and challenged.


How are you incorporating teaching/preaching on generosity in your church? Have you read this survey? What did you think?

As a note, I did not receive this survey or any other consideration in reviewing the materials. This is a completely objective review.

May 2013