By Karen L. Willoughby
[EDITOR’S NOTE: October is Cooperative Program Emphasis Month in the Southern Baptist Convention.]
RENO, Nevada (BP) — It was no accident that the Nevada Baptist Convention increased its Cooperative Program percentage to 50 percent last fall of the offerings received from the 200 Southern Baptist churches in the state.
“I’m excited to say we’re in the game,” said Kevin White, the convention’s executive director since 2012 in the state he calls home. “The Cooperative Program enables us to be a part of the grand scheme of God to reach lost people for Him,” joining with other Southern Baptists to support state, national and international ministries and missions.
“God has called us to give all we can for His glory and His Kingdom,” White said of the increase to 50 percent in one year from the previous 35.75 percent allocation. “We’re giving it with a smile and leap in our heart for the Kingdom of God.”
The Nevada Baptist Convention has increased its Cooperative Program giving nearly every year since it was organized in 1979 with 74 congregations. In its first year, Nevada kept 90 percent of CP dollars to help grow the state convention and sent on 10 percent for national and international causes.
But the vision of early-day leaders was to continually increase Nevada’s CP giving, as evidenced by records showing sometimes the year-by-year increase was as little as a quarter of a percent, and sometimes an increase of 2 to 5 percent was made to “catch up” on years with a smaller or no increase. Within 36 years — by 2014 — the CP percentage leaving Nevada had grown to 35.75.
Pastors across the state had become impatient.
“When we talk about Cooperative Program giving, in most of our churches — particularly our churches in the West — the average person sitting in a pew or a seat does not comprehend that most of the money stays in the state,” said Michael Rochelle, pastor of Shadow Hills Church in Las Vegas, where about 3,000 people participate each week in Sunday morning worship. “Most people think it all goes to missions in America and around the world.”
Under the 2014-15 Cooperative Program Allocation Budget projection of $188 million, 50.41 percent supports nearly 4,800 overseas personnel with the IMB, 22.79 percent supports North American evangelism and church planting through NAMB, 22.16 percent helps provide low-cost ministerial preparation through the SBC’s six seminaries, 2.99 percent supports the SBC operating budget and 1.65 percent promotes biblical morality and religious freedom through the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
In other words, for every $100 a church gives through the Cooperative Program in a state that sends 35 percent of every CP dollar to national and international causes, only a few cents above $17.50 goes to international causes, part of which includes the IMB infrastructure, Rochelle said.
“Splitting Cooperative Program giving 50/50 between state conventions and national/international causes is the right thing to do,” said Rochelle, pastor of the largest Southern Baptist church in Nevada. He was on the state’s Restructuring Task Force started by former Executive Director Thane Barnes, who returned to the pastorate in 2010.
Led by the task force, messengers to the 2010 annual meeting voted to increase the Cooperative Program percentage by five points each year until there was a 50/50 allocation — despite an economy that had collapsed, with 14.5 percent unemployment statewide. Las Vegas had the largest number of foreclosures per capita in the nation for 30 consecutive months; Reno was a close second. CP receipts, meanwhile, had dropped by 20 percent over the previous three years.
“There are those of us in Nevada who do not want to be the mission; we want to be on mission,” Hoyt Savage, pastor of Foothills Baptist Church in Las Vegas and chairman of the Restructuring Task Force, said in a September 2010 article in Baptist Press.
“It was out of the box; it’s painful,” Savage continued. “But we want to not only survive; we want to thrive. We believed we could count on our churches, and we have to plan for that.”
The increase in the CP percentage leaving Nevada wasn’t implemented during the transition between executive directors. Unity across the state was broken as some advocated protection of CP dollars to maintain ministries in Nevada while others wanted to adhere to the 2010 vote of messengers.
“Having watched our state convention for 29 years as pastor of Shadow Hills and having grown up in Nevada, I have a great investment in the state,” Rochelle said. “When we were sending out of the state less than 30 percent of our CP dollars [prior to 2013], we were not getting the best return on our investment in Nevada missions.
“Some of us are going to answer for that,” said the Shadow Hills pastor, who led his church to send most of its CP dollars directly to the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention. Others did likewise. The state convention’s finances dropped 40 percent and fellowship had seriously eroded by the time Kevin White became the executive director in 2012.
White had been a Nevada resident since he was 3 and, following his self-taught father’s lead, a bivocational church planter/pastor in Nevada until he went to Longview, Wash., in 1994 to go to the Pacific Northwest Campus of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. He had heard of the turmoil and twice turned down an invitation to interview for the state convention’s top position.
“But I became brokenhearted for Nevada and the memories I had from growing up here and spending my first 10 years of ministry here,” White said. “This [turmoil] was far from what I remembered…. Back then our annual convention was a wonderful gathering for pastors to reconnect and discuss what God was doing in each region of this state. Now battle lines were drawn and the convention was crumbling.
“I began to relate to Nehemiah and his broken heart over the news of the destruction of Jerusalem,” White continued. He read Nehemiah to get a word from God and in Nehemiah 2:5 he heard it in the prophet’s yearning to go to the city “where my ancestors are buried, so that I may rebuild it” (HCSB).
“I began to cry uncontrollably as I began to think of my father and other faithful heroes who planted churches across Nevada and have since gone to glory,” White said. “It was this verse that I feel God used to return me to Nevada where my ancestors are buried, and rebuild.”
He started by listening to pastors who felt they hadn’t been heard as positions had become more polarized. This included a two-hour listening session at Shadow Hills Church, at the end of which Rochelle gave White five checks, each for $17,500, to show his renewed support for the Nevada Baptist Convention.
“I knew Kevin, knew his heart for the Cooperative Program, and I had a lot of confidence in him,” Rochelle said. “I’ve never been so proud of my state convention as I was the day we voted last October to immediately move to a 50/50 split in our CP giving.”
Little has changed in terms of ministry in Nevada except the loss of 10 staff members from the state convention’s high of 13. As a result of White’s trust-building listening sessions with pastors, church planting and church revitalization became the state convention’s main focus. Fewer dollars are spent on events, with associations and the state convention now sharing training opportunities.
In addition to good financial and personnel stewardship, income has rebounded in each of the last three years. “I came, and God has just given,” White said. “As people started seeing the fruit, they began giving again.
“I believe the Cooperative Program is the most missional thing Southern Baptists have,” the executive director continued. “We’re trying to do more with less so we can be faithful in giving to needs around the world. Our God is a lot bigger than I am and His world is a lot bigger than Nevada.”
Karen L. Willoughby is a national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.
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