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Amid drawdown, IMB still sending full-time missionaries

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Southern Baptists are seeking to deploy as many missionaries worldwide as resources will allow, amid reductions in personnel due to lower Cooperative Program receipts and the U.S. recession. The International Mission Board’s interim president, Clyde Meador, told the Southern Baptist TEXAN he expects the anticipated end-of-year missionary count of 5,000 to be maintained into next year.

With 57 new long-term missionaries slated for appointment this month, the number of IMB personnel serving around the world will total 5,189. Attrition through short-term personnel completing their two- and three-year terms, career personnel retirements and the routine resignation by about 5 percent of the force will cause that number to decline by the year’s end, combined with budget restraints that had already been put in place to lower the number of new personnel appointed.

Meador expressed great enthusiasm at the depth of commitment among new recruits. “There’s something about these young 20-somethings who exhibit a deeper commitment than I’ve ever seen,” he observed.

In years past, Southern Baptists have appointed between 850 and 900 personnel annually, then slowed the process down in light of economic projections to this year’s level of about 550 new long- and short-term missionaries.

But to blame all of that on the economy would be inaccurate, Meador told the TEXAN. In addition, he said, individual Southern Baptists need to evaluate whether they are giving as much as they should.

IMB chairman Jimmy Pritchard of Forney, Texas, echoed that theme in his report at the trustees’ September meeting in Tampa, Fla., stating, “The issue is not that we [Southern Baptists] can’t afford it, but that we just don’t want to foot the bill. What will solve our problem is a good dose of spiritual awakening in our churches.”

Meador, asked by the TEXAN whether the board is still appointing full-time career missionaries, offered a resounding affirmation. “We do continue to send new personnel — lots of them — each year, but not as many as we would like to send.”

Long-term personnel remain the priority, though the budget constraints required a cutback “from the usual 400 or so new long-term folks” to this year’s target of 300.

Two factors caused the projected number of new career personnel deployed in 2010 to dip even further to about 250 — the inability of many candidates to sell their houses and an over-adjustment in the appointment process for those who were in the pipeline.

“We overdid it” in restricting the career missionary appointments, said Meador, explaining the difficulty of projecting anticipated income while at the same time deciding how many prospective personnel should advance toward appointment, both of which must be decided over a year in advance.

Having to sell a house before a missionary appointment is approved delays many qualified candidates. “Three or four couples are delayed for that reason at every appointment service,” Meador said. “One of the couples appointed … in Tampa had waited two years for their house to sell.

“Still, we are clearly sending out long-term missionaries,” Meador said, countering the misperception that global evangelism efforts have been shut down by a lack of resources. When the IMB sees an increase in giving to the Cooperative Program combined with a rise in Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions, consideration can be given to increasing the headcount to pre-recession levels.

“If finances continue to fall, we might have to reduce that further — which we do not want to do!” Meador said.

While making career personnel a priority, significant cuts have been made among short-term personnel. Typically, short-term personnel include:

— Journeymen: 20-something college graduates who can commit to two years of international cross-cultural missionary service.

— International Service Corps: singles, couples and young families who can commit to two to three years.

— Masters: single or married, these “over-50” missionaries meet a particular need and commit to two to three years of service.

Budget cutbacks in recent years led to suspension of the International Service Corps and Masters programs with the exception of missions degree programs offered through some Southern Baptist seminaries and appointment of short-termers to meet critical needs where long-term personnel are not available. The number of journeymen being deployed has been cut in half from 200 to 100 new missionaries each year.

Despite having to reduce the mission force from 5,656 to 5,000 over the course of 2009-10, Meador said newly deployed missionaries are “the cream of the crop.”

“In fact, 65 percent of the journeymen we’ve deployed recently said, ‘I’m in it for the long haul,’ intending to eventually return as career missionaries once their two years are over. The young people we’re sending out are sold out.”

No reduction has been made in the appointment of seminarians who finish their degrees on the mission field. “We’re sending all that the seminaries can give us,” Meador said.

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, for example, has 80 students enrolled in that program, allowing interested students an opportunity to speed up the process of heading to the field.

Requirements for appointment through the IMB remain higher than most mission-sending organizations. Applicants are screened for doctrinal fidelity and given background checks related to financial integrity, standards of morality and emotional, physical and mental health. They must be between the ages of 21 and 50 years of age at the time of appointment, never divorced, active members of a Southern Baptist church and trained and involved in personal evangelism.

In addition to selling any house they might own, prospective missionaries must eliminate debt. Most career candidates in church planting, evangelism and theological education must complete a graduate-level seminary degree and enter a 36-month apprentice term before being approved for long-term service. Spouses must complete 15 hours of similar coursework in addition to at least 60 hours of bachelor’s-level studies. Assignments in business, medical, agriculture and education require 20 hours of graduate-level biblical, theological and missiological studies.

Meador expressed concern that the false impression that Southern Baptists can’t afford to send out more missionaries might prompt some young people to turn to independently funded avenues for service or encourage churches to put such para-church ministries in their budget to the neglect of the more traditional approach of supporting the Cooperative Program which, along with the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering (LMCO) contributions, keep the 5,000-plus IMB personnel on the field.

“They need to understand what they’re saying no to when they say yes to something else,” Meador said. Now is not the time for churches to reduce their Cooperative Program giving, he reminded.

The number of annually deployed short-term personnel soared a decade ago when 1,000 new missionaries were sent to the field for two consecutive years, but now-retired IMB President Jerry Rankin announced in late 2002 that the board would have to restrict the flow of appointments if receipts did not increase by another 10 percent, calling it “absolutely tragic.” That projection came at a time when CP and LMCO funding was steadily increasing for the IMB, and investment income was more predictable.

“Southern Baptists are giving. But the growth doesn’t begin to compare to the growth that we are experiencing in the missionary force,” Rankin told the Florida Baptist Witness, having grown at that time to 5,480 overseas personnel.

By early 2006, Rankin told state Baptist editors he decried the inability of financial support to keep pace with the vision of deploying 8,000 to 10,000 missionaries. “For three years now, we’ve kinda plateaued,” he said. “We haven’t kept the momentum of growth.”

However, in 2007 Southern Baptists exceeded the LCMO goal. This success led Meador, then-IMB executive vice president to say, “We are prepared financially to support a significant increase in the number of missionaries on the field.” Meador also echoed Jerry Rankin’s call earlier that year for a larger pool of missionary candidates.

As Southern Baptists began to respond to that call, they ran headlong into the financial recession and a weakening dollar overseas. Even though giving to the LCMO continued to increase for the next two years, the increases were overshadowed by significantly decreased buying power. The result was more candidates somewhere in the appointment pipeline, particularly short-term workers, than the IMB could send.

What began as an acknowledgement of negative economic factors soon became a call for church members to give more. President Jerry Rankin, during a 2009 board meeting, laid the problem at the feet of Southern Baptists who do not tithe and later that year was more pointed in asking if the problem could be “distorted priorities and hearts that are not aligned with our Lord’s passion to be glorified among the nations and peoples of the world.”

As churches head into a season of promoting the world missions offering, the IMB can assist in making stateside personnel available to speak to congregations. This year’s theme of “Are We There Yet?” shares the challenge of finishing the task of reaching the 4,743 people groups not yet engaged with the Gospel and the 6,426 unreached people groups (those with less than 2 percent of people who profess to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ). Promotional materials were mailed to every church in September, with more information available at imb.org or by calling 1-800-999-3113.

After the IMB announced the need to suspend crucial missionary endeavors in 2009 due to a $30 million shortfall in the 2008 LMCO offering, a number of churches and Baptist entities collected a “Christmas in August” offering benefiting LMCO.

“Southern Baptists simply cannot allow the mistakes of Congress and the monetary establishment to curtail our missionary enterprise, regardless of the financial hardships thrust upon us,” Southwestern Seminary President Paige Patterson told students in calling for the offering at the Texas campus.

The 100 new missionaries typically appointed each November would have been cut to 30 had it not been for the generosity of those Southern Baptists nationwide, noted IMB Vice President David Steverson. The late boost to the offering allowed the board to appoint 51 new missionaries at the appointment service held in Louisiana last November.

Among the other adjustments that made it possible for IMB to cut its 2010 operating budget by about 7 percent were a hiring freeze at the board’s offices in Richmond, Va., slicing the IMB retirement contribution amount in half to 5 percent with a matching contribution of 3 percent, changes in co-pays for medical insurance, and eliminating salary increases for all personnel.

“If finances improve significantly,” Meador said, “we would hope to be able to see our missionary count go back up — because every number in that count is someone else seeking to spread the Gospel to every people group in the world, and see that every person in the world has an opportunity to hear, understand, and respond to the Gospel.”
Tammi Reed Ledbetter is news editor of the Southern Baptist TEXAN (www. texanonline.net), newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

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