A Dallas-area megachurch has decided to escrow Cooperative Program funds temporarily in order to evaluate future support of Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) causes.
At issue are what the congregation calls “various significant positions taken by the leadership of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission [ERLC] that do not reflect the beliefs and values of many in the Southern Baptist Convention,” according to a statement the church released to Louisiana’s Baptist Message.
Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, will escrow what would amount to $1 million annually, the Message reported Thursday.
[Editor’s note: Within the SBC, individual churches give to the Cooperative Program each year as a way of funding state conventions and denominational agencies and seminaries. Prestonwood, one of the biggest churches in the SBC, gave $500,000 to the Cooperative Program in 2015. The state convention splits the funding with the SBC, with 45 percent staying in Texas and 55 percent going to national ministry and missions.]
In a text to Baptist Press, Message editor Will Hall noted he had queried Prestonwood about its giving to SBC causes after pastor Jack Graham was interviewed in December by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ). Graham told the newspaper that the church was “considering making major changes in our support of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
At issue, Graham said in the interview, was alleged “disrespectfulness” by ERLC president Russell Moore toward evangelical supporters of Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Moore, who publicly opposed Trump during the primary and general election cycles, said in a December blog post he never intended to criticize all evangelicals who supported Trump.
Graham is a former SBC president and a member of Trump’s evangelical executive advisory board.
Some Southern Baptists also have criticized the ERLC for joining a friend of the court brief last May in support of a New Jersey Islamic society’s right to build a mosque. The International Mission Board (IMB) joined the brief as well, and president David Platt apologized Wednesday for the divisive nature of the action.
Graham told Baptist Press via text message that Prestonwood is engaging in “an internal evaluation” of its giving, “and our desire is not to seek publicity so we can make the right decision for our church and Southern Baptists.”
Asked whether Prestonwood also will escrow funds for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC)—the state convention with which it cooperates—Graham responded, “We're evaluating everything.”
Graham told the Message he is “not angry at the SBC, and neither are our people, and I'm not working to start a movement to fire anyone.” He wants Prestonwood to remain “a cooperating partner [with the SBC] as we have been for many years,” but cited “uneasiness” among church leaders about the “disconnect between some of our denominational leaders and our churches.”
SBTC executive director Jim Richards told Baptist Press in a statement:
In our fellowship of churches, Prestonwood Baptist Church has been a faithful ministry partner for many years. We love Jack Graham and his people. It is our hope that these concerns can be resolved in a way that strengthens the kingdom work of Southern Baptists and honors the autonomy of the local church. We stand ready to assist as we have opportunity.
Moore told Baptist Press in a statement, “I love and respect Jack Graham and Prestonwood Baptist Church. This is a faithful church with gifted leaders and a long history of vibrant ministry working and witnessing for Christ.”
Following Prestonwood’s announcement, a Texas pastor who serves on the ERLC’s Leadership Council, Bart Barber, tweeted, “I love and appreciate” Jack Graham “but am an ardent advocate for #ReligiousLiberty and for [the Cooperative Program]. I’m just heartbroken & conflicted.”
In related news, First Baptist Church in Morristown, Tennessee, announced last month it would escrow funds traditionally given through the Cooperative Program over concerns related to ERLC and IMB participation in the New Jersey mosque brief. Its pastor, Dean Haun, resigned as an IMB trustee in November over the brief.
Louisiana Baptist Convention executive director David Hankins and former SBC Executive Committee chairman Bill Harrell both told the WSJ that they know of churches considering a diversion of funds away from the ERLC.
Threats to escrow Cooperative Program funds have occurred periodically in SBC history. In the mid-1980s, some Southern Baptist conservatives threatened to escrow Cooperative Program funds if moderates regained control of the convention presidency, Baptist Press reported.