“Everyone serves the churches” in new structure approved by SBTC Executive Board

GRAPEVINE—Madisonville rancher Craig Bailey drew from the New Living Bible translation of Romans 8 to encourage the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention Executive Board to view the “thorns and thistles” of life from a heavenly perspective. Before voting Aug. 18 on a 9.42 percent budget reduction for 2021 and rallying around a Vision 2021 task force report to restructure SBTC ministries, board members listened to Bailey address the temporary adversities of “sin, death and decay.”

“Thorns and thistles means more to me than it does y’all,” he said, speaking from his experience on a Texas ranch. Instead of being like “cringing, fearful slaves” referenced in verse 15, he reminded from verse 31, “If God is on our side, who can ever be against us?”

The perfect storm of four months of greatly decreased income from affiliated churches and the urgency of preparing a 2021 budget in time for the board meeting led SBTC Executive Director Jim Richards to enlist the help of an in-house task force to help solve the problem without compromising core values. Board members affirmed ministry team structure recommendations advanced by the 2021 Vision Team that will better position staff and ministries to serve the more than 2,600 affiliated SBTC churches.

The eight staff members evaluated the future of the SBTC in light of changes accelerated by the pandemic, Richards explained. Surveys were sent to over 500 individuals with 37 percent responding from a wide array of SBTC constituents.

Survey questions related to the purpose and effectiveness of the convention yielded 10 observations for action in regard to maintaining the mission statement, prioritizing church health, increasing digital communication, strengthening relationships with pastors, producing resources for smaller membership churches, engaging younger pastors, including greater diversity of thoughts and views through a cultural lens, realizing cost savings by downsizing the office, maintaining the EQUIP training and Empower evangelism conferences while suggesting a possible combination of one or both with the annual meeting, and distinguishing the differences between the two Texas state conventions to new Board members and younger pastors.

Set to begin in 2021, the restructured organization approved by the Board reduces the number of departments from seven to five and allows the Executive Director an allocation of $250,000 from reserves to cover additional transition costs of the new plan.

Many areas that had migrated to other departments over the last few years will be moved back to the Executive Director’s office under the umbrella of Cooperative Ministries. Among the assignments likely to fall under that department are partnerships with the North American Mission Board and International Mission Board, promotion of the Reach Texas State Missions Offering, relationships with associational strategists and various networks, ministry relationships, and the Annual Church Profile report gathering. Kenneth Priest will continue working as a senior strategist in this department.

Most of the remaining areas currently housed under Church Ministries and Pastor/Church Relations will fold into a new department named Church Health & Leadership led by Tony Wolfe, the current director of Pastor/Church Relations. Mark Yoakum, who has served the last eight years as director of Church Ministries, announced his retirement effective Jan. 31, 2021, to return as a consultant during 2021 to assist with the EQUIP conference.

 The department to be known as Missional Ministries represents a return to the original combination of both evangelism and missions assignments with a new senior strategist to be named at a later date. Doug Hixson will continue leading church planting efforts within that new department.

A new department known as Digital Ministries and Communications will be led by Lance Crowell, who currently serves as a ministry associate in Church Ministries. This department will build on the legacy of print communications, adding a variety of digital resources and media to host online training, provide information technology, research and development, event planning, and audio-visual support for churches. Gary Ledbetter, current communications and ministry relationships director, announced his retirement effective Dec. 31, 2020, when he will have completed 20 years serving the SBTC. He will continue editing the Southern Baptist TEXAN print newsjournal in a consulting role throughout 2021. 

Chief Financial Officer Joe Davis will lead a renamed “Business & Operations” department with a broader assignment that includes stewardship, tax seminars and business administration.

Richards emphasized that every person employed by the SBTC will live by the motto “everyone serves the churches” as they individually relate to a dozen or so churches each year while also carrying out assigned duties.

Board Chairman Danny Forshee of Austin thanked the team for their extensive research and recommendations over a two-month period. In addition to Richards and Davis, other members of the team included Tony Wolfe, Kason Branch, Lance Crowell, Randi Kent, Kenneth Priest and San Juanita Shelton.

With fewer staff based in Grapevine, the existing building would exceed the need for office space. Furthermore, an already-reduced workforce resulting from natural attrition, retirements and anticipated staffing adjustments in time for 2021 prompted the Executive Board to authorize the Board chairman to appoint a relocation committee to look into selling the current 30,000-square-foot office building and relocating to a smaller building in the same area.

Davis explained the need to formulate a budget that is more in line with actual receipts for March through June of 2020 when a downturn in giving by churches began.

The SBTC, like all state Baptist conventions, is dependent on undesignated Cooperative Program giving from affiliated churches in order to provide in-state ministries and fulfill the Great Commission mandate not only within Texas, but around the world. The proposed 2021 in-state CP budget calls for a reduction of $100,099 per month.

The proposed budget of $26,159,798 is $2,721,306 less than the 2020 budget and continues to allocate 55 percent of undesignated receipts to benefit Southern Baptist work around the world.

CP receipts for the first half of the year were $1,164,872 under budget—$720,000 less than reported at the midpoint of 2019. Davis projects the budget shortfall to increase by the end of the year. 

With tight restrictions imposed as early as March on discretionary spending, travel and hiring of new employees, as well as receiving a forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loan from the government, reductions in salaries and benefits for employees have not been necessary in 2020. Moving major events such as student camps and the EQUIP training conference to a virtual platform led to a net surplus for the first seven months of 2020.

The Board also modified the Executive Director Succession Plan originally approved in 2014 to provide “the potential for a period of time during which the transitioning Executive Director and the Executive Director-Elect work together.” The revised plan would allow Richards an opportunity to train and advise a successor elected by the Board once retirement plans are announced.

In other business, the Board approved 19 churches for affiliation, and removed 94 churches that have disbanded, merged or disaffiliated bringing the new total of affiliated churches to 2,669.

Credentials Committee Chairman Jason Gray, of Redeemer Church, Abilene, explained that the larger number of churches for removal was proposed after years of attempting to locate a spokesman for each one to verify its status. In the process of contacting every SBTC church during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gray said, “It became clear that an updating of rolls was necessary.” Research conducted prior to the virus verified that phone numbers and addresses were not correct and neither neighboring pastors and churches nor associational leaders believed the congregations to still exist.

“The decrease can seem disappointing, but I think it is the desire of all of us to have an accurate number of affiliated churches,” Gray added, calling for the SBTC to continue with “utmost integrity” in its credentialing process. Of the 94 churches removed only seven requested disaffiliation, returning to independent status, joining the American Baptist Convention or aligning exclusively with another state Baptist convention.

In other business, the Board:

  • approved the continuation of a Cooperative Ministry Relationship with Criswell College and Fraternal Ministry Relationships with the Conference of Texas Baptist Evangelists and the Korean Baptist Fellowship of Texas;
  • heard a report of an Executive Committee request that the Internal Revenue Service accommodate Baptist polity to allow churches to continue to be placed under group exemptions afforded the SBC;
  • authorized use of up to $40,000 of the Protection Benefit Endowment to cover protection benefit costs in 2021;
  • approved a change to the matching benefits offered by GuideStone Financial Resources to fund church employee retirement plans specifically for qualifying lead and senior pastors;
  • received reports from the Southern Baptists of Texas Foundation, Texas Baptist Home for Children, Jacksonville College and Criswell College; and
  • provided a means of changing the date and location of the Nov. 9-10 annual meeting scheduled at Hyde Park Baptist Church in Austin in case restrictions make that necessary.
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