Thursday, January 25, 2007

Review of Spending God's Money

Branson, Mary Kinney. Spending God's Money: Extravagance and Misuse in the Name of Ministry. Lee's Summit, MO: Father's Press, 2006. 152 pages plus 41 pages of back matter. $14.67 with shipping.

Having watched Southern Baptists' most recent institutional scandal from a front-row seat, Mary Kinney Branson has shared her perspective with the remainder of the convention by authoring Spending God's Money. She has presented the book as "an answer. . . [offering] ways to bring joy and effectiveness back into giving." (back cover) Many, conditioned by tabloidism to do so, will read it less as a formula for future solutions than as an exposé of past misdeeds.

Simple Formula, or Simplistic Formula?

The book opens with Branson's thesis:
It all boils down to a simple formula: The extent of misuse is directly proportionate to the distance between the giver and the spender. (4)
Yet, this thesis hardly stands up to scrutiny. It reflects a naïveté regarding financial goings-on at levels pretty doggone close to the giver. The similarities between the case of Dr. Robert Reccord and the case of Dr. Claude Thomas are perhaps instructive here. I am not prepared to pass judgment upon either of these gentlemen—the story of Dr. Thomas is not offered in that vein. Rather, his story illustrates that the distance between giver and pastor is not close enough to prevent accusations of extravagance and misuse.

Of course, Thomas served at a megachurch, but as someone who has worked at close proximity with Baptist churches at the smallest end of the scale, let me disabuse anyone of the idea that all of the financial dealings at small churches are as pure as the driven snow—corrupt church treasurers, self-indulgent voting blocs, less-than-trustworthy pastors, and frequently non-existent accounting standards often add up to local churches rife with financial abuse. Such things are not the norm in our local churches, but neither are they the norm at our institutions. One wonders why Branson's milk-and-sewage analogies must apply to the situation of large entities but somehow do not apply to the corruption at smaller tiers. I know of no compelling statistical reason to conclude that any "directly proportion[al]" scale of abuse distinguishes one sphere of Christian work from the other.

Ultimately, one can get no closer to the giver than the giver himself; yet let us look at the stewardship practices of our MasterCard age and see whether we can truly affirm the notion that misuse shrinks as we get closer to home. One suspects that Branson has been through an ordeal that has jaded her, and that the trauma of her ordeal prevents her from seeing the rest of the world clearly.

Whither the Cooperative Program?

One wonders whether Branson's ideas about the Cooperative Program are well-formed and well-informed. First, the book suffers from a poor historical understanding of the Cooperative Program:
Iin 1845, when travel and communication were difficult, Southern Baptists began cooperating to send missionaries to the field. But most of the fundraising was done by the missionaries themselves. They took time away from their work, traveled halfway back around the world, and told their story in hundreds of rural churches. They sent churches' offerings back to a main office, where they were distributed according to need. What one individual or church couldn't do alone, an army of givers could do with ease. From that concept, the Cooperative Program was born.

By 1925, Southern Baptists had revolutionized their giving and multiplied their efforts by asking churches to simply send a portion of their undesignated funds directly to the main SBC office and take missionaries out of the primary fundraising strategy. Now more than 43,000 Southern Baptist churches give regularly to CP, to the tune of nearly half a billion dollars annually. (15)
The concept described in the first paragraph is the opposite of the Cooperative Program. The most amazing "Cooperative" in "Cooperative Program" is the fact that the different agencies and institutions began in 1925 to cooperate with one another on a combined budget rather than competing with one another for limited missions dollars in direct appeals. Southern Baptists did not adopt the CP until 1925 (the situation described in the second paragraph). Not only is the first paragraph of the quote not an accurate description of the Cooperative Program, but it also is not an accurate description of Southern Baptist efforts pre-1925. It presents a false dichotomy.

First of all, missionaries were not exactly the ones doing "most of the fundraising" prior to 1925. All of the mission boards, educational institutions, state conventions, tract societies, etc., in the universe of the Baptist Southland hired professional fundraising agents. These people canvassed the nation cultivating contributions. Each agent was authorized to keep a portion of funds raised as an incentive. These agents were the primary fundraisers for Southern Baptist missions before 1925. Also, a major portion of the public relations job for the mission boards was handled by board executives. A brief perusal of the minutes of state convention meetings and local associational meetings in the Reconstruction, New South, and Progressive eras quickly reveals that board agents and executives were omnipresent raising funds for their respective causes.

Consider the case of William A. Clark. During the 1880s and 1890s, Clark served a variety of positions in Arkansas, all simultaneously. He was a missionary for the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, the corresponding secretary for the ABSC (the highest executive position), a Home Mission Board missionary, an agent for the HMB, and the owner-publisher of the state Baptist newspaper. He got to keep whatever contributions he received for HMB until he had met his traveling expenses and had paid for half of his ABSC salary out of HMB contributions. After meeting this threshhold, he started to send contributions on to the HMB. Through all of his missionary travels and speaking engagements, he promoted his newspaper, which he personally owned. There was nothing unethical about this—this was the standard arrangement. This was the pre-CP system. Does this sound to you like an efficient system? Does it resemble at all what Branson described in the paragraph given above?

Second, missionaries did not cease to participate in fundraising after 1925. Our missionaries do go on furlough, and have for all of recent memory. During these periods, from what I can tell, most pursue a pretty active agenda of speaking at churches, camps, and other meetings. Even though our agencies are large, most Southern Baptists have ample opportunity to interact personally with IMB and HMB personnel. Most don't take full advantage of the opportunities before them, but that doesn't mean that the opportunity is not there. Branson's recommendations, if implemented, would take us back to the dark days of a bazillion different smaller agencies devoting ever-increasing percentages of their efforts toward the competition to convince American churches to entrust them with our largesse.

The implications of Branson's book are nothing less than the dismantling of the Cooperative Program. I'll gladly agree that hers is not the first chop of the axe against the health of the CP, nor is hers at all the most damaging action toward the future health of the CP. But these observations do not change the fact that Branson's recommendations will push people toward Independent Baptist polity and the society method of funding missions. For those who retain an appreciation for CP missions, the recommendations are not a very useful part of the book.

Bob Reccord and Clinton Carnes

So, ironically, those who read the book as an exposé will find its highest utility. As a tell-all story of NAMB misdeeds, it serves well. One walks away from the experience with the idea that NAMB had inept leadership at the helm, busily chasing irrelevancies while ignoring the major tasks of the institution. The book strongly urges the conclusion that insatiable desires for self-promotion contributed significantly to these problems. At times, the book gets a little petty—if NAMB is accomplishing its mission, I'm prepared not to care if Dr. Reccord has a Blackberry. In fact, there are probably few people who need a Blackberry much more than the head of an SBC agency.

Branson's comparison between the scandals under Reccord and the Clinton Carnes incident (the guy with the shell company whose seal was in the old HMB headquarters as a reminder of past scandal) far overreaches. Carnes was a criminal who deliberately concealed his identity in order to embezzle funds from Southern Baptists; Reccord is, if all of Branson's allegations are true, an inept, self-absorbed, failed agency leader who claimed far too many perks during his tenure. One is deliberate crime; the other is ethical lapse and executive mediocrity. Both are unexcusable, but they are not the same thing.

This is obviously a book forged out of personal disillusionment. Branson quotes Ronald Reagan to tell us that "Man is good..." Ronald Reagan was a great president and a rotten theologian. Man is depraved. This episode at NAMB is a good example of that depravity. Branson's book would be stronger if it were a little less surprised (but no less prophetic) at the depravity present in NAMB's leadership and a little more cognizant of the depravity the corrupts the alternatives the book recommends. One of my observations from trying to help people in their marriages is that every premarital couple thinks that their spouse-to-be is wonderful, while every married couple in danger of divorce sees all of the faults in their spouse and imagines greener grass across every fence. Likewise, Branson's book offers an unnecessarily harsh view of large mission institutions juxtaposed against a Pollyannaish characterization of small ministries, small churches, and direct missions. She has been through a tough breakup. I suppose we've all had some sort of a bad incident in ministry that soured us for a season, so I'm guessing that we all can relate sympathetically. We can also probably all have the wisdom to take what Branson has said with a grain of salt.


I direct readers to my previous post. The most disturbing attribute of Branson's book for me was what I didn't read in it. I read about a NAMB consumed with marketing, selling trinkets, producing magazines, etc. I'm hoping that some large part of this impression comes from the fact that Branson worked in marketing. Nevertheless, the fact that NAMB supports only 32 missionaries erodes that hope substantially. Maybe the reason why NAMB's executives are writing books, speaking on tours, forming companies, writing software, etc., is because NAMB isn't sure what NAMB exists to do. Southern Baptists would do well to remind them, because even a casual glance at the Northeast, the Northwest, the West Coast, and Canada shows the magnitude and urgency of our task...and more and more this is true of the South. We may need NAMB even more than we need the IMB. If there were no IMB, Southern Baptists would still probably be attracted to the exotic nature of international missions, especially in the form of short-term, quick-witted project-oriented strategies reaching to far-away places. Without a robust North American Mission Board helping us to do otherwise, I worry that our churches will fill Tanzania with $1 sandals while Cleveland quietly goes to Hell.

No comments: