I was born in central Missouri at the very northern edge of the Ozarks. I grew up attending a small country church in an area where the prevailing religion was Baptist. I didn’t know whether we were Southern Baptists or what. My Dad always simply said that we were missionary Baptists, which was likely the best definition he had ever heard. The church we attended was called a quarter-time church, meaning that we had worship services one Sunday per month, and the pastor was called for one year at a time. The Cooperative Program was six years old when I was born.
Probably the first time I ever heard about the Cooperative Program was when I first attended Vacation Bible School. Part of the daily events was a sharing of stories of missionaries and being told that their work was financed through giving through the Cooperative Program.
After I was saved and married, I began to be concerned about my life’s work. At about the age of 20, I realized that God was calling me to the Gospel ministry. At that time I seriously considered my need for some education, and with the aid and encouragement of family I entered Southwest Baptist College (now named Southwest Baptist University) in Bolivar. As there was little secular work available there, I decided to move to the Kansas City area where work was plentiful. From there I attended William Jewell College in Liberty. As a ministerial student, I found that the college gave a ministerial student discount provided by the Baptists of Missouri through the Cooperative Program.
At this point the Cooperative Program put on a new face for me.
While a student in college, I worked in a factory job nearby and pastored a small country church. When time came to enroll for a new semester, I did not have enough money to pay the entire amount due, so I went to the vice-president’s office to apply for a short term loan. This man took two cards from his desk, wrote on them, and handed them to me with this explanation. “James, this card is a loan which you may repay. This other card is a gift to you from Cooperative Program money given by Missouri Baptists to help ministerial students get an education.” This settled the position of the Cooperative Program in my life.
Following my college graduation, I determined to go to seminary. Again I found Cooperative Program playing a most important role in my life. When Southern Baptists decided to build Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, I made plans to attend and enrolled in the first class. And who paid my tuition? Why, Cooperative Program, of course. And in Seminary I heard hundreds of testimonies of what Cooperative Program had done in the lives of others.
Upon completing my seminary work, my family and I went to Ohio to serve in a mission situation. When we were able to purchase a property for our church, we financed it with a loan secured by the Home Mission Board (now known as the North American Mission Board or NAMB), as Southern Baptist Convention churches in Ohio had not established themselves and their credit well enough to buy much real estate or to build. Again, Cooperative Program had come to the rescue. Later on, I was able to become a full-time pastor through a program of church pastoral aid provided by, you guessed it, the Home Mission Board and Cooperative Program of Southern Baptists and Ohio Baptists.
During my final church pastoral ministry in Ohio, I had the privilege of seeing the Cooperative Program in one of its finest applications. I was elected to serve as trustee of the Annuity Board of Southern Baptists (now known as Guidestone Financial Resources), and served four years on the Relief and Annuity Committee. This was the only place where Cooperative Program money was used by the Board, and it was only to supplement the income of ministers and/or their wives who had not made sufficient preparation for old age, retirement or ill health. To read some of the letters we received was both heartbreaking and glorious to know that through the Cooperative Program we had been able to help lift one of life’s burdens.
I recently spoke to a young person of another religion who with her husband is in the process of trying to raise funds to become missionaries in South Africa. When I told her about the Cooperative Program, she said it would be wonderful to have such a blessed program.
I have seen it work, I have been blessed by it, and firmly believe that God gave it. May He continue to use it in our world!
JAMES L. BUNCH / contributing columnist