Cooperation or Kickbacks? LifeWay 'Partners' With State Conventions

LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, with $412 million in annual product sales, provides $3.6 million a year for "cooperative work" with Baptist state conventions, according to the most recent SBC annual.

Today's LifeWay materials reflect the theology and values of the so-called "conservative resurgence" that holds power in the SBC. That has prompted some in moderate-dominated state conventions to question whether accepting LifeWay "kickbacks" compromises the integrity of state staffs by putting denominational loyalty ahead of serving the needs of churches.


Two years ago the moderate organization Texas Baptists Committed urged the Baptist General Convention of Texas to "begin to divest" itself of funds both from LifeWay and the SBC North American Mission Board.


The BGCT had sufficient concerns about the content of LifeWay materials to launch its own curriculum line, BaptistWay Press, three years ago. Yet the BGCT is budgeted to receive $116,000 from LifeWay this year, partially funding eight ministry areas. The largest is Bible Study Discipleship, which receives $54,000 from LifeWay, or about 3 percent of a department budget of $1.5 million.


In return, the BGCT "helps churches understand resources available from LifeWay Christian Resources, formerly known as the Baptist Sunday School Board," according to a description of relationships with other Baptist entities on the state convention's Web site.


BGCT spokeswoman Becky Bridges said the Texas convention's Bible study leaders don't promote LifeWay materials, but they have to be familiar with them in order to do their jobs. She estimated that 90 percent of BGCT churches use LifeWay products. She said the money from LifeWay comes with no strings attached, meaning it doesn't have to be used for marketing or promotion of LifeWay material.


LifeWay spokesman Rob Phillips said "cooperative work agreements" with every state convention allow the publishing house to "return a portion of our revenues to each state so they can work with their churches through their associations and state events."


"We value these relationships, which help maintain the historic partnerships between LifeWay, the state conventions and the churches we serve together," said Phillips, LifeWay's director of corporate communications.


Smaller state conventions are most dependent on national funding. The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, which formed in 1998 to protest the BGCT's moderate stance, doesn't break out funding from LifeWay in its convention annual but reported $219,000 in support from "national organizations," which include LifeWay.


Another breakaway convention, the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia, received $84,000 from LifeWay in 15 months between October 2000 and December 2001, according to its annual. That helped support three consultants and two support staff in a church growth and health department with a total budget of $497,542.


The established Virginia convention, the Baptist General Association of Virginia, receives $6,556 per month, or $78,672 per year, from LifeWay for salary and program supplements "that have been mutually agreed upon," said Eddie Stratton, treasurer and business manager at the Virginia Baptist Mission Board.


For all their talk about autonomy of the local church, Southern Baptists might in practice be one of America's most connectional denominations. Someone once described the Tennessee-headquartered Southern Baptist Convention as 40,000 autonomous congregations, choosing autonomously to do exactly what Nashville tells them to do.


A lot of credit for that loyalty goes to the Cooperative Program, a unified budget plan founded in 1925 by which churches write one monthly check to fund not only foreign missionaries but also home missions through partnerships between national and state conventions, theological education in both SBC seminaries and state-sponsored colleges and a variety of other state and SBC entities simultaneously.


But an earlier initiative, establishing a denominational publishing house, was arguably even more influential in forging a denominational identity in the 20th century. During what moderates recall as the SBC's pre-1980s golden era, a visitor to any Southern Baptist church nationwide could reasonably expect to sing from the same hymnal, read from the same bulletin, study from the same Sunday school literature and check off boxes on the same offering envelope as back home.


That didn't happen by accident. Just a year after establishing the Baptist Sunday School Board, founding president J.M. Frost in 1892 saw promise in the SBC's publishing arm as "a unifying element in our denominational life and enterprises." It didn't take long for Frost's prophecy to be fulfilled. Four years later he termed the Sunday School Board "the very life of our convention." When he retired after 25 years of service, Frost allowed, "We have grown so big we don't know what to do with ourselves."


An early strategy was to hire "field secretaries" to spread the word about the SBC's publishing venture to constituent churches. As the denomination grew, those jobs morphed into state Sunday school directors, who trained churches in proper use of the denomination's curriculum. Since the Sunday School Board had funded the original positions, they naturally continued support when they turned reins over to personnel employed by state conventions.


The Sunday School Board once depended entirely on state conventions to promote its materials, but the renamed LifeWay Christian Resources in recent years has moved into more direct marketing strategies that bypass the state office, said Mike Harton, retired leader of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board's Church Ministries Group.


Still, LifeWay has a virtual monopoly in most state conventions. Some have policies that forbid convention workers from even mentioning other publishers. Other states, like the BGAV, show other products alongside LifeWay at convention-sponsored events, such as those produced by Smyth & Helwys, a privately owned publisher formed in 1990, and the Baptist Center for Ethics.


The partnership funding arrangements have also moved from percentage-based allocations to performance-based formulas that reward state conventions with incentives for using LifeWay programs, Harton said.


"Loyalty is more and more becoming the litmus test for who gets funding," said Harton, who now works with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship's Initiative for Ministerial Excellence and is on the board of directors of the Baptist Center for Ethics.


Bob Allen is managing editor of

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