By Karen L. Willoughby, Managing Editor
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (BP) — M.O. Owens Jr. was still in knickers on May 13, 1925, the day his parents took him to a pivotal session of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting. That was the day the Cooperative Program was born.
Now 99, Owens recalls the vote that ushered in the CP as a system of financial support for the missions and ministries of Southern Baptists within state conventions and throughout the nation and world.
“I was there but I was only 11,” Owens told Baptist Press. “I don’t have a keen memory of specifics. There wasn’t any great opposition, but it was a new idea to the pastors.
“I remember very vividly how excited my dad was, how delighted he was, and I do remember so well he was concerned about enlisting the other pastors,” Owens said of his father, the late Milum Oswell Owens Sr., who pastored two churches. “He was the only pastor from that association [Orangeburg County, S.C.] who attended that convention.”
His parents must have realized the historical significance of the vote because Owens was allowed to stay with relatives during the other sessions of the five-day event, which took place in a brand-new convention hall in Memphis.
It was hot that day, Owens recalled; other reports say air was “oppressively muggy” in the convention center with about 5,600 people in their Sunday best. Owens recalls his father wore a suit and his mother, her best dress plus hat and gloves.
The SBC had space enough, with an 11,000-seating capacity, in what was known as the Memphis and Shelby County Auditorium and Market House, which had just opened in 1924. For “air-conditioning,” it had seven large fans to cool the entire auditorium, along with heat-escaping ceiling vents, said Eric Elam, director of operations for the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce.
Owens’ father apparently had planned for months to attend the SBC annual meeting, because he had purchased a brand-new 1925 black Plymouth that spring, replacing his 1916 black T-model Ford.
“Before that day [of the CP vote] there were very few Sundays there wouldn’t be someone appealing for an offering,” Owens said. “I remember my parents talking about it, Dad saying we needed to figure out a way to lump some of these appeals together – foreign missions, home missions, Indian missions, orphanages and more. And then he heard about [what is known today as the Cooperative Program] and he was tickled pink when it happened.”
Owens Sr. wasn’t alone in his pleasure that the Cooperative Program was approved. An article by Todd Starnes written in 2000 for SBC LIFE noted that “the messengers heartily approved the report [by what was known as the Future Program Commission] with the following recommendation: ‘That from the adoption of this report by the Convention our co-operative work be known as ‘The Cooperative Program of Southern Baptists.’”
The fundraising strategy was created with a dozen working principles, including that the CP would be an equal partnership between state conventions and the SBC and that “money given by the churches was to be evenly divided between the state convention and SBC,” according to the establishing document.
“It was all brand-new to the local pastors, and my dad’s job, he felt, was to tell them about it, the reason for it and … he was, I think, fairly successful,” Owens said of his father, then pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Cordova, S.C., and Two Mile Swamp Baptist Church, some eight miles down a dirt road. “The two churches together, as I remember, said they would pay him $2,000 a year, but it wasn’t guaranteed.”
Owens also became a pastor, serving churches in South Carolina, Florida and Georgia before starting Parkwood Baptist Church in Gastonia, N.C., as a mission in 1963. Beyond his retirement in 1980, Owens has continued to serve Parkwood as pastor emeritus, preaching there weekly in a ministry now spanning 50-plus years.
“Money was scarce [in 1925], actually,” Owens said. “There had been a period right after World War I when there was a sort of a boom and money was sort of plentiful, but then came a recession and that was right at the time the trip was made to Memphis.”
The Owens family drove over dirt-packed roads to get from South Carolina to Memphis, staying with relatives when possible to save money.
“It took us four days, because the front wheels of the Plymouth were not aligned properly,” Owens recalled. “Somewhere between Birmingham and Memphis the tires were worn out and Dad had to buy new ones.”
Nothing was going to keep them from that important vote, however, so Owens’ father dug into his wallet and paid for two tires and an alignment, about $100, the equivalent of nearly $1,000 today. In not having to pay for lodging in Memphis, it was possible for the family to drive 700-plus miles from South Carolina, through Atlanta and Birmingham, to go to the meeting and to pay for the tires and alignment, Owens said.
“The agencies and institutions were not happy with the new plan at first, but in only a few years they realized how fortunate they were in the benefits of the plan,” Owens said. “They no longer had to go begging, and their financial benefits began to increase. … It was only a few years until it was recognized by the churches as a divinely-oriented concept.”
Owens said he has watched for years the strength of the CP his father was so pleased to help pass.
“It is a beautiful arrangement,” Owens said. “The churches are not plagued by appeals for money. Each church can choose to participate – or not. Each agency and institution can feel fairly secure in anticipating its designated share.”
The CP has enabled the SBC to develop a well-organized worldwide missions thrust that reaches into more than 160 nations, with missionaries trained by six of the “largest and most effective seminaries in the world,” Owens said. “Each state has had the privilege of using its share of CP funds for colleges, children’s homes, hospitals, homes for the aging, or whatever its apparent needs might be.”
The CP method of pooling mission dollars for maximum effectiveness “is not perfect, but its advantages are great,” Owens said. “There are biblical reasons why it is good, and there are compelling logistical reasons why it works so well.
“Through the Cooperative Program, we Southern Baptists are supporting thousands of missionaries here in America and all around the world. And these missionaries are specially trained to plant the Gospel in whatever area they are working,” Owens continued. “In 2011 … they planted more churches and baptized more people than all the 45,000-plus Southern Baptist churches here in the USA.”
Owens received the 2011 Heritage Award from the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina and the North Carolina Baptist Foundation for his exemplary service, philanthropy and leadership in missions and ministries within the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina over the years. At Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, an academic post was named in his honor last year – the Dr. M.O. Owens Jr. Chair of New Testament Studies.
In the years after the vote to establish the CP, Owens Sr. went on to pastor First Baptist Church of Taylors, S.C., where he was followed some decades later by Frank Page, current president of the SBC Executive Committee.