Navigating Through Icebergs

Navigating Through Icebergs

An Open Letter to SBC Leadership

In the fall of 2019, I began discussions with leaders of the Executive Committee about building a stewardship platform for SBC churches. Then Covid hit, and then controversy came, followed by resignations, and all that talk was shelved. Last April, I was invited to speak at the Executive Committee’s Cooperative Program Retreat. That was where I issued my warning and challenge. My talk was well received, so much so that the SBC Executive Staff Member who planned the event wanted me to speak to every Executive Director of each state convention last fall. Then, another controversy hit the EC, and that never happened.

So, I have given up on the invitation and decided, like Martin Luther, to nail my thesis to the Online Door, praying SBC leaders will read it and heed its warning and advice. The following is what I would have shared with our state convention executives.

The future for funding churches is like navigating through a field of icebergs. Like the Titanic, we have hit an iceberg and the SBC ship is sinking, and we are rearranging the chairs.Part of the reason is because we are focused on issues that, while important, are causing us to be distracted by the hole in our ship below the water line. We are attempting to sail full speed ahead while taking on water that will ultimately sink us. Our denominational leaders are facing what I call The Great American Giving Shift. This shift and our lack of response is, in effect, like ignoring the gash the iceberg has made in our SBC ship. It’s time to stop talking about the problem and start doing something. Covid should have been a wake-up call.

Covid was The Great Reveal for the SBC. I will always remember March 17, 2020. My wife and I celebrated her birthday by walking at Folly Beach SC. My friend and long-time banking guru whom I turn to for advice, SBC layman Dennis Moses, called me. When he heard we were walking on the beach, he asked, “Is anyone in the ocean?” Amazingly, there were a few, so I said yes. I’ll never forget what he said next. “Mark, imagine that the ocean suddenly receded, revealing that all those people were without bathing suits! That’s what Covid is, a receding of the water revealing what was underneath. Covid is The Great Reveal of how fragile the church’s finances are.”

March 2020 showed us what 2030 will look like twelve months out of the year unless you do something to counter the current trends. At the present decline in giving, in less than six years, you will be freezing and cutting salaries, eliminating staff and programs, selling property, and presiding over the demise of your state convention.

One of the biggest hurdles I have to convince SBC leaders of the danger we are currently in is their belief that giving has stabilized. To some extent, it has. The question we should be asking is, how did giving stabilize? We specialize in church-giving data. We have observed that in a typical church, 15% of the donors give 50% of all that is given. Our data showed that these 15%, digging deeper, were the reason giving stabilized. It did not come from new donors. This leads to another alarming fracture in the SBC foundation, our aging donor base.

The SBC’s ticking time bomb. The typical SBC church currently sees the vast majority of the giving coming from members aged 60 and above. It is not unheard of because as much as 90% of all giving comes from those aged 60 and above. This segment, except for the youngest of Baby Boomers, is now in their retirement years. They remain, percentage-wise, faithful givers. But living on fixed incomes and, fearing running out of money, their best-giving days are behind them. If we face another crisis like we did in March of 2020, will your churches have a donor base to stabilize the ship?

Amount vs. Percentage. Another issue that often clouds leaders’ view of the future is the growth by dollar amount given to the church. You must think about giving from two perspectives, like the two sides of a coin. One side deals with the percentage amount given of the donor’s income. The other side looks at the amount in terms of actual dollar amounts given. So, while giving in terms of amounts has stabilized and, in some cases, increased, giving as a percentage of income is declining.

So, yes, giving is going up in terms of dollars. That fuels today’s ministry. It actually fueled yesterday’s ministries, as our reports are always look-backs. They don’t tell us what the future will be. Unless you can pick up trends. Trends help us have a better grasp of what the future might be. As Wall Street says, “The trend is your friend.” If we only look at the total amount of dollars given, we can feel the trend is upward. But again, that is based on a backward look. What might help us better predict the future? Looking at the other side of the giving coin.

John and Sylvia Ronsvalle of empty tomb, inc. are the authors of The State of Church Giving, which tracks American giving trends to the Church. They started their tracking in the year 1968 when Americans gave 3.02 %of their incomes to the Church. To arrive at whether giving is increasing or decreasing, they began looking at the percentage of Americans who give from their Disposable (after tax) Personal Income (DPI).

The Ronsvalles have shown that while dollars given to the Church have remained at record levels, the percentage that Americans give to their church is shrinking. Again, in 1968, Americans gave 3.02% of their disposable personal incomes to the Church. By 2020, the last year reviewed, that percentage had fallen to 1.83 percent—the lowest since 1968.

Each fraction of a percentage in decline equates to millions of dollars lost for ministry and missions. Consider that since 1968, Southern Baptists have decreased giving to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering by 54%. We say we are mission minded but our people only give 0.0215% of their disposable incomes to International Missions.

Percent giving matters, and the shift in our donor base towards younger generations spells trouble ahead unless we correct course. Consistent studies are showing the challenge churches have in attracting and keeping younger generations. They give significantly less both in percentage and amount than older generations. This gaping hole in our ship must be fixed.

What is being done? With declines like this, you would think Southern Baptists would be taking action. Again, we are all talk and no action. In preparation for my talk at the CP retreat last April, I researched what was currently being offered by state conventions in the area of stewardship. I went to 37 state convention websites to find any stewardship resources. I found that…

  • 21 conventions had nothing to offer.
  • 12 conventions listed only Cooperative Program or missional offering help.
  • I found only 4 conventions that had any attempt at providing churches real actionable help in how to increase giving and givers at their church.

So, if a pastor in one of our states goes to his state convention website, he will find very little help. Is it surprising, then, that giving is declining and churches are closing? If we don’t reverse the current decline, what will happen?

Here are my predictions…

We are entering challenging economic times that will put stress on church budgets. The cost of everything has risen, from our utilities to the gas we put in the church van. Inflation has eaten away any increases in giving we have seen. Our donors are feeling this pinch, and their giving reflects it.

Giving will continue to decline as our key donor group, Boomers, moves off the stage. 10,000 Boomers a day turn 65. We must address this shift in donor age demographics.

Government/Societal pressure will force churches to make difficult decisions. You only need to look at how countries like Canada, Australia and England treat Christians who disagree with the current societal pressures.

Denominational uncertainty will mean a decline in giving. No matter where the Convention lands on the current hot topic issues, there will be a drift in attendance, giving, and even the number of cooperating churches. All of this will continue to put stress on state convention budgets.

Deteriorating facilities built in the last century will cause the demise of many churches. One of our problems moving forward isn’t simply that the church is filled with “old people.” The facilities are old. Most of our facilities were built in the last century! They are often a barrier to connecting with the 21st-century world we now minister in. It’s time to bridge this gap and bring our facilities up to date.

What is the solution? We must change the conversation around giving and stewardship. How?

Here are my recommendations.

  1. Rethink how our state’s convention staff is structured. For most state conventions, if they have someone on staff assigned to stewardship, it is an added duty. As a result, stewardship rarely gets attention. This must change.
  2. Educate the NextGen of pastors and staff. We must change our attitudes and thinking. We need, from college through seminary, to teach a stand-alone course on biblical stewardship.
  3. Equip pastors—We need a source where every SBC pastor, staff member, and lay leader can go to find practical help. Several state conventions have led the way by participating in the Stewardship Journal. We need this to be Convention-wide.
  4. Lead our churches to get “God’s House” in order. I’m talking about structural order. We should make it a goal that by 2030, all churches will have updated HVAC systems, roofs, etc., to maintain ministry for the next twenty-five years. Refurbishing, redesigning, and redecorating all cost money, and now is the time to hold a national push to help churches raise the money they need to bring their facilities up to speed. At the Stewardship Journal, we will be giving away free capital campaign advice throughout the summer months. Are the churches in your state convention ready for ministry in the 2030s?
  5. Endow the futureLess than 10% of churches have an estate plan. We need to work to build endowments for churches’ long-term survival should Jesus tarry. Challenge Boomers to give back their Time, Talents, and Treasure—We need an aggressive estate planning emphasis with the goal of endowing as many SBC churches as possible. The church that prepares for the future now will be the church that survives into the future.

In the year since my April 2023 CP talk, I have talked with many state convention leaders. They politely nod in agreement and then fail to respond to further inquiries. A few state conventions have expressed interest but they can’t seem to find the money in their decreasing budgets. Every day you fail to act makes saving your convention and the churches in that convention more of a challenge. We are in a field of icebergs, each one poised to sink us. It’s time we stopped rearranging the chairs on our SBC ship while it sinks. It’s time to act!

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