By Margaret Colson
USED BY PERMISSION OF THE ALABAMA BAPTIST
Numerous Southern Baptist entities, including state conventions, seminaries and national entities and auxiliaries, are implementing budget and staff reductions in response to the economic downturn resulting from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
State conventions were among the first entities to take significant budgetary action during the pandemic. While approaches have been varied, the focus of reducing expenses has been the common factor among state conventions, including the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions and other contiguous state conventions.
GEORGIA BAPTIST MISSION BOARD
Thomas Hammond Jr., executive director of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, chose what he labeled a “proactive” approach to decision-making when he announced a 43% reduction in mission board expenses, effective April 9.
Hammond, in an exclusive interview with The Alabama Baptist, said that, just as the pandemic was beginning to ramp up in Georgia, he called approximately 50 Georgia Baptist pastors to discuss anticipated church-giving patterns. The pastors represented churches of all sizes in varied settings. While some pastors reported giving had increased, many other pastors expressed a significant downturn in giving. If churches were experiencing as much as a 35% reduction in giving then those churches might be “less likely” to remain at the same percentage of giving to the Cooperative Program as they had been pre-COVID-19, Hammond explained.
“We knew we needed to move quickly,” he said.
Through extrapolating the numbers, Hammond said GBMB leaders determined the mission board could anticipate a possible 60 percent reduction in CP receipts, at least temporarily. Those projections, he said, were the basis of the 43% reduction in mission board expenses — “an emergency plan of cost-cutting measures.”
The plan resulted in a multi-pronged approach, including the cancellation of Georgia Baptist camps through June, restricting all staff travel expenses and furloughing some Georgia Baptist staffers while cutting the salaries of those remaining on staff.
“We had to make some difficult decisions,” he said, adding, “Everyone (on the Georgia Baptist staff) has been impacted, either through salary reduction or furlough.” Currently, GBMB full-time staff stands at 146 people including those who are furloughed, he reported.
With so many unknowns related to the pandemic, Hammond stated, “We would love for (these measures) to be temporary; we just don’t know.”
The current significant financial reductions are not the first for Hammond, who led the mission board in a previous transition soon after accepting the helm of the GBMB in January 2019. At that time 20 state missionary positions were dissolved after a $1.2 million decline in CP funding in 2018 from the previous year.
Those 2019 changes, he said, better positioned the mission board to respond to COVID-19 challenges.
Georgia Baptist staffers have been “understanding,” Hammond noted. “Morale is good, but it could and it will be better. We are making these moves now to save as many jobs as possible.” Today’s decisions, he said, “will help us in the long haul.”
Even in the downturn, some churches have increased their giving to the state convention, he added. “We celebrate all gifts.”
And the mission of the GBMB has not changed, he said. “Pastors are our heroes. Churches are our priority. Georgia is our mission field.”
While COVID-19 has presented challenges and led to difficult decisions, Hammond is hopeful. “We will get through this, and we will be better because of it,” he said.
FLORIDA BAPTIST CONVENTION
In an open statement on the Florida Baptist Convention website, Tommy Green, executive director-treasurer of the FBC, said, “Just as churches are making financial adjustments, we, as a convention, must proactively make adjustments as well.”
Green outlined the following steps, approved by the administrative and finance committees of the Florida Baptist State Board of Missions:
—Compensation to both salary and benefits for all Florida Baptist Convention staff reduced immediately.
—All Florida ministry-related budget line items reduced by 30 percent to include the convention’s contributions to the Cooperating Ministries of the Florida Baptist State Convention.
“These immediate adjustments are designed for the utilization of resources which allows the convention to continue to be ‘right beside’ our local churches,” he said. The convention committed to the following programs established for financial relief to Florida Baptist churches in financial crisis:
♦ Interest free COVID-19 emergency loans to churches as bridge loans to aid them in meeting immediate financial obligations over the next two months.
♦ A two-month moratorium on payment on all current loans administered through the Florida Baptist Convention for the months of April and May.
Additionally, convention leadership affirmed its continued promise to funding, without reduction, church planting efforts through SEND Network Florida.
LOUISIANA BAPTIST CONVENTION
Meeting virtually May 5, Louisiana Baptist leaders reported an increase in CP gifts from March to April, according to an article in the Louisiana state Baptist newspaper The Message. However, Steve Horn, executive director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention, said the state’s CP budget was 5% behind through April. Horn said the convention is “holding the line with regard to expenses” and has been able “to avoid drastic cuts and staff reductions.” He noted funds from the Georgia Barnette State Missions Offering would be used to help churches and associational ministries.
MISSISSIPPI BAPTIST CONVENTION BOARD
“Like most of our counterparts, the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board has put a hold on hiring, will limit travel for all employees and will be prorating budgets to balance with receipts,” reported Shawn Parker, executive director-treasurer of the Mississippi Convention Board.
He stated that state convention leaders are “using technology to stay in touch with our churches, and we are continuing to support churches with the needed resources to do ministry in this new environment. The MBCB is blessed today by decisions of prior leadership so that we are as well-positioned as could be under the circumstances to weather the storm.”
Parker expressed that he was thankful for Mississippi Baptists’ faithfulness in supporting the CP and that he expects that commitment to the CP to remain strong.
TENNESSEE BAPTIST MISSION BOARD
“Our journey with the COVID-19 crisis began with an emergency leadership team meeting at 10 p.m., March 11, when we made the decision to cancel our Youth Evangelism Conference that was less than 48 hours from beginning. At that time, we also canceled our WMU Get Together scheduled for the following weekend,” said Chris Turner, communications director for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board.
On March 17, TBMB staff were dispersed to work from home, with April 30 set as the initial date of return, pending further evaluation. Additionally, sweeping travel restrictions were implemented. Initial budget reductions of 20 percent were established for the TBMB ministry budget, with other potential cuts based on incremental projections through the end of fiscal 2020 (Oct. 31), Turner said. “We have not furloughed or laid off any staff but have temporarily adjusted staff responsibilities based on our most pressing strategic needs. We also froze all hiring of open positions,” he explained.
“Two weeks ago, our leadership team made the decision to extend the dispersed staff arrangement until May 31, again with frequent evaluation of the fluctuating situation. Our goal is to return our staff to our building as quickly as we can but as safely as we can,” Turner said.
ALABAMA BAPTIST STATE BOARD OF MISSIONS
In Alabama, State Board of Missions Executive Director Rick Lance moved quickly to cap expenditures to 80% of the budget, suspend state missionary travel indefinitely and institute a hiring freeze.
And because of his 20-year intentional effort in streamlining staff to a mission-critical size — currently 62 — Lance did not have to face the tough decision other groups and entities have had to make regarding staff positions.
“We are half the size we once were and were already understaffed when COVID-19 hit,” Lance said, noting the years of streamlining allowed the staff to be nimble and adaptable enough to move quickly into a new setup with the current restrictions.
“We are doing everything online and continuing to prioritize and stay in touch with the churches,” he said. “We are staying focused on the next best thing to do to keep us all moving forward.
“We have yet to determine how much we will need to reduce the 2021 budget.”
While current expense reductions are hitting close to home for state convention leaders, other Southern Baptist entities are facing similar difficult decisions in response to COVID-19. Southern Baptist seminaries have announced budget reductions or the postponement of budget adoptions in the past few weeks. Those entities include Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, which announced a 30% budget reduction; Gateway Seminary, which announced a slight budget reduction of 2.1% in the 2020–21 budget approved by trustees on April 28; and Southwestern, New Orleans and Southeastern seminaries, which have postponed budget adoptions. Midwestern Seminary included this statement in an update on its website: “We will be proactive in managing the 2019–20 budget and will seek to steward funds in light of new needs and ministry opportunities presented to us.”
INTERNATIONAL MISSION BOARD
International Mission Board senior leadership initially directed all personnel to postpone hosting any ministry volunteer groups through June 30. This date was reevaluated May 1 and remains in effect. It will be assessed again on May 15. IMB recommends that all Southern Baptist volunteer teams postpone travel during this time.
IMB President Paul Chitwood shared with The Alabama Baptist on May 7 that revenue totals for March and April dipped $2 million below budget.
“Moreover,” he said, “we have made a significant investment in evacuating and relocating IMB personnel from certain places around the globe for a host of reasons related to the pandemic. These were unbudgeted expenses that are coming in at about $2 million. That amount includes getting our missionaries back to the field or, in some cases, getting them established in new places. Some of our missionaries were required to leave everything behind and will need to start life anew in another harvest field.”
Because of “this combined negative impact of $4 million,” the IMB has cut spending and established a hiring freeze for stateside staff positions.
“IMB missionaries are eternally essential workers, and their witness is needed more in the midst of this pandemic than ever before,” Chitwood said, in calling on Southern Baptists to pray and give.
With a goal of keeping all missionaries on the field, the North American Mission Board has reduced its overall budget by 40%, reported Mike Ebert, NAMB’s executive director of public relations. He stated that funds going to church planters and other missionaries as well as funds earmarked for evangelism have not been reduced.
Events such as the Who’s Your One Tour and church planter training have been transitioned to online events. All NAMB missions trips have been canceled through the end of June, and travel is on hold until the end of the summer, Ebert stated. Missions trips and travel will be re-evaluated prior to their scheduled dates to be reinstated. NAMB has also put into place a hiring freeze.
“We hope these proactive steps will allow our missionaries to continue ministering throughout the crisis, however long it lasts,” NAMB President Kevin Ezell stated in a March 19 Baptist Press article. “At this point we just don’t know how severe the financial impact will be on our churches, but we want to do everything we can to keep serving them and keep supporting our missionaries.”
GuideStone Financial Resources is “on a strong footing to weather the current crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic,” stated Roy Hayhurst, GuideStone’s director of denominational and public relations in an April 30 press release. That strong footing is the result of preparation over the past several years that anticipated an economic downturn.
“While we never could predict anything along the lines of the events of 2020, we knew that we must control spending in the good times so that we would be able to continue to serve the pastors, churches and other organizations we serve during a downturn,” said GuideStone President O.S. Hawkins.
GuideStone receives no CP allocation for its services to Southern Baptists.
Most of GuideStone’s staff members are now working from home during the COVID-19 crisis, and there should be “no interruption in service to participants,” according to the press release. Staffers are also working closely to cut or delay discretionary spending. The organization has not laid off any employees, though some positions vacated through natural attrition may be left unfilled temporarily, the press release stated. Current budget forecasts indicate GuideStone’s 2020 operating expenses could be at the lowest level since 2013.
“We have no way of knowing how long the impacts of COVID-19 will be felt by the churches and ministries we serve, and by GuideStone itself,” Hawkins said. “Our executive team, our staff and our trustees are working diligently to ensure we remain on a strong financial footing so we can continue to serve our participants well and are putting our trust solely in the Lord to grant His wisdom as we navigate these days.”
Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has suspended travel and events and “worked diligently to identify any and all spending that can be reduced, delayed or frozen,” said Daniel Patterson, ERLC executive vice president. The ERLC has not laid off any employees as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic but recently vacated positions will not be filled, with responsibilities from those roles reassigned among current staff.
“In all times, the ERLC strives to be lean in our operations and scrupulous with our spending,” he noted. During the pandemic the ERLC will continue to provide “resources, counsel and content to our churches to help them think through this moment” and will advocate “on issues related to the pandemic and our churches, including advocacy regarding relief through available programs as well as advocacy for the sake of religious liberty when conflicts arise.
“The ERLC will continue to be diligent in managing the current operating budget with the greatest wisdom and care in the hope that these measures will enable the ERLC to carry out the mission the Southern Baptist Convention has entrusted to us with faithfulness and effectiveness,” Patterson said.
LifeWay has experienced five consecutive weeks of steep revenue decline across all sales channels, and the trend is expected to continue, according to an April 29 press release.
“LifeWay stands to lose tens of millions of dollars of revenue that the organization would normally generate over the summer months from camps, events, VBS and ongoing curriculum sales,” Ben Mandrell, LifeWay CEO explained, adding, “LifeWay is mitigating these losses as much as possible through various expense reduction plans, including staff reductions and cuts in non-employee expenses. Additionally, LifeWay will likely have to use money from its reserves to cover a portion of the lost revenue.”
Effective May 1, LifeWay reduced staff, froze all hiring and discretionary spending, and suspended salary increases and matching 401K contributions for all employees. In making these reductions, LifeWay committed to providing a comprehensive package of benefits to those impacted by the staff reductions, including severance pay where applicable. Additionally, members of LifeWay’s executive leadership team gave up one month’s salary beginning in May.
LifeWay expects to cut $25–$30 million of recurring expenses from its operating budget.
Additionally, LifeWay announced recently that it is exploring options for the sale of Ridgecrest Conference Center and Summer Camps in North Carolina due to changes in organizational strategy, rising costs and uncertainty surrounding COVID-19.
LifeWay will also begin a feasibility study of its corporate office building in downtown Nashville, which LifeWay moved into in November 2017.
National Woman’s Missionary Union has been in the process of “right-sizing” its organization for several years, said Julie Walters, WMU communications specialist. “After two years of back-to-back downsizings, our staff and budget have been reduced by approximately 30%. Salaries have been frozen for three years, and all vacated positions are vigorously evaluated to ensure roles are in place to advance WMU’s mandate of making disciples of Jesus who live on mission,” she explained.
The missions organization has suspended travel until further notice and it has canceled events. Moving forward, WMU leaders will “need to consider budget reductions,” Walters said, but no details have been determined.
Sandy Wisdom-Martin, executive director of national WMU, said, “My heart aches for all in leadership in the Southern Baptist family who are making gut-wrenching decisions. Yet I reflect on what a colleague told me this week: ‘There IS an easier path. I just don’t feel called to that path.’ It’s humbling to think God entrusted us with this sacred season. I know we will never go back to ‘normal.’ I pray daily God will reveal the ‘new’ and we will run toward it.”
(Jennifer Davis Rash contributed)
EDITOR’S NOTE — This article was updated May 7 to include information from the Louisiana Baptist Convention and update the International Mission Board information.