Cooperative Program escrow study set to begin

An ad hoc committee of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee is set to begin its study of churches' escrowing Cooperative Program money. EC chairman and Florida Baptist pastor Stephen Rummage says the study was occasioned in part by the notable volume of contacts the EC has received regarding the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

ERLC President Russell Moore told Baptist Press the entity is "a servant of our churches" and is "happy to work with the Executive Committee."

Meanwhile, Jack Graham, pastor of Dallas-area Prestonwood Baptist Church, told BP the congregation will conclude its internal study of giving to SBC causes before the convention's June annual meeting in Phoenix. Prestonwood announced last month it would escrow CP funds over "various significant positions taken by the leadership of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission." Prestonwood plans to continue cooperating with the SBC in some form, Graham, a former convention president, said via text message.

Other churches have taken or are considering similar action over concerns related to multiple SBC entities, according to reports received by the EC.

Rolland Slade, chairman of the EC's CP Committee told BP on March 6th that the ad hoc study group will include 11 members, with Rummage the only Florida representative. Other members are: Slade, pastor of Meridian Baptist Church in El Cajon, Calif.; Rummage, pastor of Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon, Fla.; EC vice chairman Shane Hall, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church in Oklahoma City; Dave Bryan, pastor of Chisholm Heights Baptist Church in Mustang, Okla.; Daniel Carr, pastor of Canaan Baptist Church in St. Louis; B. Scott Davis, pastor of Pitts Baptist Church in Concord, N.C.; Dale Jenkins, pastor of Airway Heights (Wash.) Baptist Church; Mike Lawson, pastor of First Baptist Church in Sherman, Texas; Glynn Rhinehart, a member of First Baptist Church in Youngsville, La.; Hoyt Savage, pastor of Foothills Baptist Church in Las Vegas; and Jared Wellman, pastor of Mission Dorado Baptist Church in Odessa, Texas.

The group's initial meeting, Slade said, likely will occur via conference call. A date for the meeting will be calendared by March 18.

According to a motion unanimously adopted by the CP Committee last month, the study committee will "study and recommend redemptive solutions to the current reality in Southern Baptist life of churches' either escrowing or discontinuing Cooperative Program funds, with the report being brought back to the September 2017 Executive Committee meeting."

Slade said in an email the study committee "will discuss ways to discover whether escrowing CP funds is widespread and, if so, the reasons why; then we can begin to develop redemptive solutions to resolve the issues ... We'll likely look at this issue, share our findings with the [EC] officers and the CP Committee and then with the full EC."

Slade said he will "stress with the group" that "this is first and foremost a Kingdom effort, not an effort to single out an individual, entity or point of view. What affects CP affects the work of Southern Baptists. We must be about sharing the Gospel to the world."

Rummage told SBC This Week in a March 3rd podcast that the ad hoc committee, and a separate study of SBC entities to be undertaken by the EC officers, is necessary because "a lot of ... churches" have "concerns about some of the things that are happening in certain SBC entities. Specifically, some of the actions of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission have caused a lot of churches to respond and register concerns."

Rummage added, "In fact, our Executive Committee staff tells me that they have received more letters, more calls, more emails [from] people who are considering defunding or holding back CP monies" over "this issue" than "from any other issue in memory."

The ad hoc committee's study will examine "the way our churches are responding" to all SBC entities, Rummage said, even though discussion of the ERLC "has surfaced most strongly" in recent months.

Roger S. Oldham, EC vice president for convention communications and relations, told BP the EC office has processed dozens of requests over the past year from churches seeking to withdraw from the SBC.

"Pastors seldom call or write the EC offices to express concerns about an entity, so when they do it is notable," Oldham said in written comments. "Our practice is to refer them to the entity's leaders or its trustees. In addition to numerous conversations with pastors expressing frustration or even threatening to withhold CP funds this past year, our office processed requests from 49 churches to withdraw from the convention, up from the half dozen or so we usually process in a given year. We grieve each time we send a notice to our entities that a church has voted to leave the convention."

Moore told BP in written comments, "The ERLC could not do what it does without the sacrificial giving of churches, and there is hardly anything more foundational in our denomination than our Cooperative Program partnership, working together for the sake of Gospel advance.

"As a servant of our churches, we are happy to work with the Executive Committee, and more broadly, grateful to be able to serve our churches daily, whether by answering their questions, providing resources and assistance or standing alongside them in the public square contending for the fundamental issues of life, family and religious liberty," Moore said.

Rummage expressed hope that churches' concerns can be resolved.

A decision by Prestonwood to resume CP giving could indicate resolution of "most of the concerns that have been raised by the [Executive] Committee" because Prestonwood appears representative of other concerned congregations, Rummage said.

Graham told BP that Prestonwood Executive Pastor Mike Buster "is chairing a study committee to evaluate our SBC giving" and the committee has "nothing to report" at present.

According to data from the SBC's Annual Church Profile, Prestonwood has given $500,000 through CP each of the last three fiscal years for which data is available. The congregation has given approximately $500,000 each of those years through the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions and $100,000 through the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions, according to ACP data.

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service.

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