Still grappling with declining Cooperative Program receipts and other troubling financial realities, the Georgia Baptist Mission Board is downsizing its staff for the third consecutive year and will eliminate a health care supplement provided to retirees after the end of 2022. GBMB staff are considered state missionaries for Baptist work in Georgia.
The number of positions being reduced has not yet been released, but media reports indicate each person received a three months’ severance package including pay for unused vacation hours.
“We have been in the process of right-sizing our organization to match our current and future financial realities,” said Thomas Hammond, GBMB executive director, in a Sept. 14 article by The Christian Index announcing the decision. It’s a process that started in 2019, continued through 2020 and now is expanding into 2021.
In early 2019, 20 state missionary positions were downsized after financial receipts from churches declined by $1.2 million in 2018.
Then, in late 2020, 35% (49 of the 140) GBMB staff were offered voluntary retirement incentive packages and some employee and retiree benefits were eliminated. The number of staffers who took the 2020 VRI was not initially disclosed, but a Baptist Press article today (Sept. 15) reports the number as 26.
Additionally, in 2020 GBMB cut employee salaries by 5%, furloughed some staff members, restricted travel and canceled all Georgia Baptist camps.
CP receipts declined in Georgia from a high of $49.5 million in 2007 to $37.8 million in 2020, an overall decline of $11.7 million or 23.6%.
With the fluctuating CP numbers, GBMB budgets also have shifted from a record high of $53.3 million in 2008 to various ups and downs through the years and landing with a 2021 budget of $37.835 million, an overall decline of $15.465 million or 29% during the past 13 years. The proposed 2022 GBMB budget, to be approved by messengers at the 2021 annual meeting in November, is $36.7 million, a decline of $1.135 million from the 2021 budget or 3%.
In addition to challenges resulting from CP declines, Hammond, who began serving as GBMB executive director in January 2019, and David Melber, who was named GBMB chief operations officer in July 2020, shared in a 2020 interview with TAB Media and The Alabama Baptist two other factors leading to the troublesome financial realities for the historic state convention. Those factors are decades of what they described as overspending prior to their tenure and more recent challenges resulting from the pandemic.
Hammond also noted “external reasons” for the continued decline in CP giving in the state in the Sept. 14 Christian Index article, and explained in the BP coverage those reasons include a negative perception of the SBC among many Georgia Baptists. Pastors whose churches have stopped giving indicate they don’t feel they have a voice, Hammond told BP.
In 2020 Georgia Baptists were not alone in their budget concerns. Amid the pandemic challenges, three of six southeastern Baptist state conventions studied by The Alabama Baptist indicated budget reductions for 2021: Georgia, Florida and Mississippi. Three state convention budgets remained unchanged in 2021: Alabama, Louisiana and Tennessee.
Tightening budget with multi-pronged approach
Along with downsizing and eliminating some state missionary retiree and employee benefits in recent years, the GBMB leadership also has been able to sell two convention properties — Toccoa Baptist Conference Center in North Georgia and the GBMB office in Duluth, Georgia.
TBCC was purchased by GBMB in 1963 for $235,000, listed for sale in September 2020 and sold in December 2020, after operating at a loss for 20 years, The Christian Index reported.
The sale of the GBMB office building is expected to close in April 2022. The GBMB office building, dedicated and first occupied in 2006, was a $42 million project — $23 million for the building, $10 million for the land and $9 million for technological advances. On March 10, 2015, The Christian Index announced that the Georgia Baptist Mission and Ministry Center property had been paid in full by a $25 million gift from the Georgia Baptist Health Care Ministry Foundation. The announcement of the gift relieved the convention of an annual $1.6 million debt obligation.
The sale price of the GBMB office building has not been disclosed. Messengers to the 2020 Georgia Baptist annual meeting voted to earmark 75% of the proceeds from the upcoming GBMB office building sale “for strengthening churches, encouraging pastors and pushing back lostness in Georgia and around the world,” The Christian Index reported, with the additional 25% used “to cover the cost of relocating the staff offices to a smaller, less expensive building.”
“The collective sale of these properties will lower our operating costs, greatly contribute to the financial health of the Mission Board and enable us to continue providing ministry and resources to our pastors and churches,” Hammond told The Christian Index.
‘Progress made,’ ‘still serving Georgia Baptists’
Still, those cost-cutting measures appear to have helped alleviate the financial challenges but not eliminate those challenges altogether, which has resulted in the Sept. 14 announcement of further GBMB staff reductions.
“At the end of 2020, while going through personnel reduction, we informed staff that this may not be the final cut,” Hammond told The Christian Index. An independent financial review “revealed some incomplete accounting practices with unbudgeted expenses,” he said, providing a “clearer picture of our financial situation.”
The number of staff to be cut or the final staffing target number has not been disclosed publicly.
“As a result of previous decisions, progress had been made,” Hammond said in The Christian Index article. “We are currently debt-free. We’ve been able to forward our Cooperative Program and designated gifts on schedule [to the SBC]. We’ve been replenishing designated accounts and building toward appropriate operating reserves. And we’ll soon be in a position to build back stronger.”
Hammond further pledged ongoing commitment to serving Georgia Baptists.
“Even with this reset, we remain resolved to fulfill the Great Commission. Our commitment to reach Georgia with the gospel, encourage pastors, strengthen and plant churches will not change,” he said. “And we’ll still be serving Georgia Baptists with one of the largest state convention staffs in the Southern Baptist Convention.”