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Baptist communicators trek to mission board headquarters

Offices for support and coordination of Southern Baptists’ global missions enterprise are housed in this building in Richmond, Va. Photo Submitted

RICHMOND, Va. – Imagine, this is a story about a fairly nondescript building.

Even so: “This is a holy place where missionaries around the world are supported and encouraged,” Sharon Mager said after being at the International Mission Board’s headquarters in Richmond for the Baptist Communicators Association annual workshop.

The contemporary-style entrance to Southern Baptists’ International Mission Board features a fountain with water encircling the earth. IMB Photo

It’s where:

  • Prospective missionaries undergo in-depth interviews and screening in order to join Southern Baptists’ 3,502 missions personnel worldwide.
  • Writers, videographers, social media specialists, photographers and graphic designers use their skills to tell people in the pews the missions story.
  • Southern Baptists’ financial support is transmitted to missionaries in an array of currencies, such as Japan’s yen, Kenya’s shilling, Mexico’s peso and the European euro.
  • Cutting-edge technology pinpoints flashpoints around the world to alert any nearby missionaries to steer clear of danger.

Mager, communications specialist for the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware and editor of its BaptistLIFE journal, also told of speaking with an IMB staff member whose family formerly served on the field and who now monitors prayer requests from missionaries in faraway places.

“Those requests are then shared with the staff and intentionally, specifically prayed for,” Mager said in an email after the four-day communicators workshop. “That is special.”

Sweeping photographic views of world missions grace the lobby of the International Mission Board and its hallways and conference rooms. IMB photo

The IMB building on Monument Avenue, which houses 271 staff members, welcomes visitors from churches across the country as well as Baptist leaders from abroad. It’s the mission board’s eighth location since settling in Richmond in 1847.

The current facility, with hallways and conference rooms accented by large-scale photos and video displays from global mission fields, opened in 1959 with two floors. A major three-story wing was added in the late 1970s. An auxiliary learning center near Richmond opened in the mid-1980s as the hub of several weeks of orientation for new missionaries.

The first location of the then-Foreign Mission Board, according to a 1959 recap in its magazine, The Commission, was in the basement of one of First Baptist Church’s early sites. Subsequent Richmond locations were three upper-floor rooms in a bank building; one floor in a building owned by Presbyterians; at a former hospital – with trustees holding their meetings in the operating room; and, closer to downtown, two Monument Avenue houses joined together by erecting a chapel.

‘Front-row seat’

Brandon Pickett of the Southern Baptist Convention of Virginia spoke in chapel at the International Mission Board during the Baptist Communicators Association’s annual workshop in Richmond, Va. IMB Photo

Current IMB President Paul Chitwood took note of the Baptist Communicators Association’s presence at the mission board, commenting that his role in the SBC “has given me a front-row seat to Southern Baptists’ work among the nations. Through the photos, videos, and written stories of the media teams of the IMB and Baptist Press, Southern Baptists have been given that same seat” – “from our work among refugees in places like Uganda, Venezuela and Ukraine, to the celebration of 50 years of medical ministry through Bangalore Baptist Hospital and teaching the Bible to unreached indigenous tribe members in South America.

“One of the many benefits those of us who are a part of the Southern Baptist family of churches enjoy,” Chitwood continued in an email following the meeting, “is awareness of the impact of our cooperative ministry and mission work, here at home and around the world. That awareness not only increases our praying, giving and going, it increases our worship of the One who has called us to the work and gives us success in it, all for His glory among the nations.”

‘A treasure and a joy’

Laura Erlanson, among the 60 BCA workshop attendees, said her role as managing editor of Baptist Press, and formerly operations coordinator, “has meant that I have read every single story released by IMB for the past 20 years. What a treasure and joy that has been … hearing missionaries share their love for the people they serve or a new believer express his joy and gratitude at the new life he’s found.

“I’ve also handled what must be thousands of photos from the field – each one beautiful and poignant,” Erlanson said via email, encompassing “photos of families in their primitive homes in a remote village, photos of busy young adults navigating bustling megacities. The one thing they have in common is their need for a Savior. Each one has pulled at my heart and made me thankful to be a tiny part of telling the story of those who are telling THE story to the ends of the earth.”

Sharon Mager of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware described the International Mission Board as “a holy place” after attending the Baptist Communicators Association’s annual workshop at the IMB headquarters in Richmond, Va. Photo Submitted

Mager has had multiple contacts with IMB staffers over the years “mostly to ensure I’m not putting missionaries at risk in my writing. For example, recently, one of our pastors visited several senior-level seafarers on one of the international ships stranded in the Port of Baltimore following the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse. The pastor joined the men for lunch, shared his testimony, prayed with the seafarers and even offered Bibles.

“Because the ship was from a country hostile to the Gospel, I checked what I could or couldn’t include or share in the article. Had I used the name of the country, as well as other details, I could have been potentially endangering these dear men.”

Mager added that she was impacted by the IMB’s sending ceremony for new missionaries at last year’s SBC Annual Meeting in New Orleans, including a young man from Delaware headed to Sub-Sahara Africa, whom she later interviewed and wrote about.

“To put faces on these heroes following God’s calling all over the world, leaving family, friends and familiar surroundings, and trusting in Him alone was amazing,” Mager said. “Some shared from behind a curtain, shielding their faces, so we all knew they were going into potentially dangerous areas and situations — yet they chose to go.

“And it was awe-inspiring to be part of the large group of Southern Baptists from across the country in that auditorium being introduced to these missionaries, young and older, men and women, praying for them, knowing they would deploy soon – with the awareness also that it is our money, through giving to the Cooperative Program (Southern Baptists’ funding channel) and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering that is part of making it possible.

“All of this has given me an urgency to do even more to make our churches aware of these missionaries and make connections through stories and one-on-one conversations,” Mager said.

Keynoters, awards & officers

Featured speakers during the April 22-25 Baptist Communicators Association workshop were Bobby Ukrop, chairman and CEO of Ukrop’s Homestyle Foods, a longtime leader in the national Lead Like Jesus movement and a fifth-grade Sunday School teacher for 40 years; Cynthia Price, associate vice president of communications and media relations at the University of Richmond and presidential adviser for the National Federation of Press Women; and Drew van Esselstyn, director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ Virginia Capital Region, former sports editor at The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., Sunday sports editor at The Miami Herald and sports assignment editor at The Washington Post.

Breakout sessions included AI in Evangelism and Discipleship; Communicating Compassionately; and Photo and Video Tips and Tricks. Brandon Pickett, director of strategic initiatives and communications for the Southern Baptist Convention of Virginia and vice president of Innovative Faith Resources, was the IMB chapel speaker on Wednesday, followed by sessions grouped by skill sets and a prayerwalk of the IMB headquarters’ nearby residential neighborhood.

BCA’s annual awards competition reached its 60th milestone this year. Among 300-plus entries, grand prize winners for “exceptional achievement” were:

  • Public Relations and Development – University of Mobile Office for Marketing & Public Relations.
  • Radio, Television, Film and Video – Chrystelle Thames, The Baptist Children’s Village, Mississippi.
  • Interactive Communications – GuideStone Staff, GuideStone Financial Resources Ministerial Resources Center.
  • Photography – Max Power, International Mission Board.
  • Religious News Writing – Eric Reed and Lisa Misner, Illinois Baptist State Association Communications Team and Illinois Baptist newspaper.
  • Feature Writing – Ben Jones, Illinois Baptist State Association’s Illinois Baptist newspaper.
  • Print Media and Design – Caleb Arndt, Texas Baptists/Baptist General Convention of Texas.

Baptist Press’ work recognized

Baptist Press received three BCA awards for work in 2023:

In related news, Baptist Press received a top prize at this year’s Evangelical Press Association awards – the Award of Excellence for digital denominational coverage. BP also received two awards from EPA for individual stories:

BCA’s 70th annual workshop will be April 21-24, 2025, in San Antonio, Texas.

Ty McIntyre, project archivist at the International Mission Board, contributed to this article.