America's economic woes, a drop in investment income, and perhaps a declining interest in denominational entities have left many religious groups struggling to make ends meet, Baptists among them. A series of articles from Baptist Press (summarized in this one) has cataloged the damage among Southern Baptists: New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary is cutting the budget, cutting salaries, and expanding the teaching load of its professors to make up for a shortfall of more than a million dollars. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is eliminating 20 full-time and 15 part-time staff positions and cutting back on travel and other expenses in an effort to keep all its professors while dealing with income that's $3.7 million less than its $30 million annual budget. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary has closed its child care center and made other budget cuts totaling $3.5 to $4 million, about 10 percent less than originally budgeted.
Meanwhile, employees of the North American Mission Board have been instructed to operate on 90 percent of what they had originally planned to spend, and staff members in the national Woman's Missionary Union offices will share the pain by each being required to take a four-week unpaid furlough sometime between January and August. That and other cuts should trim $1.4 million from the organization's budget, now adjusted to $9.6 million for the year. Last fall, LifeWay Christian Resources announced that it was reducing its workforce by five percent along with other cost-cutting measures to make up for lagging sales.
Closer to home (for those who live in North Carolina, at least), year-end reports for the Baptist State Convention show that income was a whopping $4.5 million, or 11.5 percent, below the approved budget for 2008, and $1.7 million, or about five percent, beneath the previous year's giving. With the state convention's elimination of giving options preferred by moderates, some of that money has been shifting to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina, one of the few religious organizations with a growing budget. We can be sure that more churches will shift funding from the BSCNC to CBFNC in the future -- but most of the disappearing funds are staying at home, or not being made at all.
It all sounds like troublesome news, until you consider that, though they may be giving less, American believers remain completely free to support their churches and favored denominational or institutional entities as much and as often as they want to. They may have fewer dollars, but their freedom is unhindered.
Meanwhile, we read that a missionary couple in Gambia has been been sentenced to a year's hard labor for criticizing the nation's dictator-president in an e-mail, authorities in Burma/Myanmar are cracking down on Christian gatherings in homes, a pastor in Bangladesh was attacked and his wife was gang-raped, while in Eritrea several people imprisoned for their faith have recently died while in jail, and authorities in Tajikistan are closing down houses of worship all over the capital city of Dushanbe -- and that's just a small sample of stories about religious intolerance and persecution in many parts of our world.
Believers in America may be tightening our belts, but we can thank God we don't have to worry about being beaten with them.
While giving thanks, we can pray that religious freedom may ring for others, too.