RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Trustees of the International Mission Board have overwhelmingly approved the selection of prominent Southern Baptist pastor Tom Elliff as senior vice president for spiritual nurture and church relations.
In his new role, Elliff, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church in Del City, Okla., will teach and nurture missionaries, mentor IMB staff and relate to Southern Baptist pastors and churches. Elliff told the Del City congregation Aug. 7 of his decision to resign the pastorate and join the IMB leadership team.
Elliff, 61, has been pastor of the Oklahoma church for the past 20 years. In denominational life, he served two terms as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, as president of the SBC Pastors’ Conference and as chairman of the Southern Baptist Council on Family Life. He also has led in a variety of association and state convention responsibilities.
“We are thrilled that Tom and Jeannie Elliff have felt God’s leadership to join the IMB team at this point in their ministry,” IMB President Jerry Rankin said. “God is moving in unprecedented ways through the work of the IMB to reach a lost world and the Elliffs will make a very significant contribution to our mission efforts.
“The Elliffs have reflected a call to missions throughout their ministry. They each have been an adviser and encourager to our leadership and have already been involved extensively in ministering to our missionaries and training national leaders around the world.”
A third-generation Southern Baptist pastor, Elliff has been in the ministry 43 years and has been a pastor all but two of those years — when he and he wife served as IMB missionaries. The Elliffs were appointed to Zimbabwe in 1981 but after an automobile accident injured their eldest daughter they returned to the United States. Two of the Elliffs’ three daughters have served as IMB missionaries. Another daughter is a member at First Southern, where her husband is a deacon and teacher. The Elliffs’ son also serves at First Southern as associate/teaching pastor and works with students. The Elliffs have 21 grandchildren, with another on the way.
As part of his IMB role, Elliff will: nurture missionary families and encourage their spiritual growth in U.S. conferences and in overseas settings; teach ecclesiology and Baptist doctrine to new missionaries in training; and promote missions involvement among Southern Baptist pastors and churches. He also will help train and equip overseas Baptist leaders, advise in IMB mobilization efforts and mentor the board’s administrative leadership team.
“God is blessing our strategy as reflected through increased baptisms and church growth on the mission field, but if we are to stay on track with what God is doing, it is important that our missionaries and staff continue personal spiritual growth, strengthen their families and be well-grounded in sound doctrine,” Rankin said. “Dr. Elliff will be an asset in these areas as well as influencing pastors and churches throughout the Southern Baptist Convention to give appropriate priority to missions beyond the local church.”
Elliff said his decision to leave the pastorate “in one sense is a change, but in another it is not. When you speak of spiritual nurturing, an emphasis on doctrinal training and strengthening families, that’s what I’ve done all my life.”
He added that he constantly encourages his congregation to think through where God wants them today.
“Jeannie and I believe in walking our talk, and we are excited to believe that this transition is God’s plan at this juncture in our lives,” Elliff said.
When he went to Zimbabwe in 1981, many people asked Elliff what it was going to be like to leave the pastorate of a large church — Eastwood Baptist Church in Tulsa, Okla. — and go to the mission field.
“I can’t change my gifts, so whatever gifts I have I’ll have to utilize those in this new position,” he recalled saying at the time. “Now as I again assume a new role, I’ll simply be taking my pastoral calling and gifts and placing them at God’s disposal for His Kingdom purposes through the IMB.”
The 10,000-member Del City congregation is recognized as a strongly missions-oriented church. Seven families and two singles associated with the church are serving overseas as IMB workers. The church participates in several overseas partnerships every year, most recently sending 65 of its members to Southeast Asia to assist in the annual meeting of missionaries in the Pacific Rim region. In recent years, the church has been involved in more than 130 different types of partnership missions efforts. The Elliffs have led worship in eight regional IMB missionary gatherings — usually accompanied by a team from their church.
“Missions is in the DNA of First Southern,” Elliff said. “We have been with, ministered to and worked alongside our folks with the IMB for many years. Every time people go on a mission trip, lives are radically changed. Of course that is true for those to whom you minister the Gospel, but it is equally true of the participants.”
First Southern, in conjunction with Oklahoma Baptist University, once sent 39 college students overseas for an entire semester of missions involvement in Europe and Africa. The majority of those students have now graduated and are serving in ministry positions in the United States and abroad.
“You get what you ask for, and if pastors are constantly asking for young men and women, middle-aged couples and senior adults to consider serving on mission, ultimately people will respond,” Elliff said. “We need to keep encouraging pastors to make missions something they talk up, participate in and call for a commitment to.”
IMB trustee chairman Tom Hatley — himself a pastor — said Elliff’s selection “is going to allow us to be more understanding of our churches than anything we could have possibly done. We’re not only bringing in the pastors’ perspective, but Tom Elliff is known as a pastor’s pastor, and he’s going to allow us to bring understanding to the board about how pastors think and what church needs are in relation to the International Mission Board.
“Bringing someone from outside the organization to a senior vice president position is rare for us,” Hatley continued. “We almost always promote from within. Showing that openness is a good move; it’s showing we’re developing some flexibility and recognizing our own needs better than ever before. It’s going to be a ‘win-win’ situation all around for the board.”
Hatley called Elliff “the best-known missions pastor in the nation over the last three decades. You can’t go wrong when you talk about Tom Elliff and his love for international missions. Tom brings that heart for missions a pastor can have, and hopefully through him we’re going to duplicate that heart in thousands of other pastors.”
Elliff said he grew up around strong doctrinal teaching and preaching. His father and grandfather were first pastors, then associational directors of missions.
“My grandfather often initiated his brush-arbor meetings [outside revival services] with a one-week doctrinal debate with the Campbellites [followers of Alexander Campbell who believe baptism is essential for salvation],” Elliff recalled. “He was the ‘questioner’ at my ordination and, boy, did he ever make me squirm. His contention was that doctrine is to the body of Christ what the skeleton is to the human body — not always so visible but, in terms of integrity, absolutely essential. Now I am thrilled at the prospect of sharing on key doctrinal issues at our training conferences.”
In addition to their ministry at First Southern, the Elliffs have been involved in leading Kingdom Family Conferences in many churches, associations and state conventions, as well as with missionary and national leaders overseas. Among his nine books, Elliff wrote “The Seven Pillars of a Kingdom Family” and in conjunction with LifeWay Christian Resources has developed resources for an eight-week Kingdom Family emphasis.
He said the goal of the conferences “is to develop families that are Great Commission conscious — to see the family as a winsome, compelling argument for the Gospel in every community and to raise up a generation of Southern Baptists for whom mission participation is a given assumption.
“If we take the Great Commission seriously, we must prepare for massive waves of participation from Southern Baptists,” said Elliff, who accompanied a large contingent of short-term volunteers from his church to Southeast Asia in July. “The recent, tragic tsunami in Southeast Asia was generated by a major shift beneath the surface, and that is what it will take to send equally forceful waves of missionaries across the earth. Where must that shift occur? Deep within the hearts of Southern Baptists who realize this world is in desperate need of Christ — so desperate, in fact, that it is worth the sacrifice of all that we are and have for His cause.
“In a sense, it is just that kind of shift beneath the surface of our own hearts that has brought Jeannie and me to the conclusion that this is how God wants us to spend up our lives. God brought us to First Southern as He spoke to our hearts by His Spirit and through His Word. Now, He has spoken again and in the same way. We are absolutely thrilled at the opportunity, awed by the prospect and encouraged by the prayer support of our friends and family.”