RICHMOND, Va. (BP) — There are three qualities that many would say characterize former IMB president Tom Elliff: boundless energy, a passion for prayer and a heart broken over lostness.
When IMB trustees unanimously elected Elliff to lead the missions agency in March 2011, the then 67-year-old former missionary, pastor, two-time Southern Baptist Convention president and IMB vice president made it clear that he had big plans.
“I’m coming with a vision,” Elliff said at the time, “and I will serve as long as God gives me grace and energy.”
On Aug. 27, IMB trustees elected David Platt, pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala., to succeed Elliff as IMB president.
In February 2014, when Elliff asked IMB trustees to begin the search for his successor, he promised to “run through the finish line, until such a successor is found.”
Heart for ministry
Born in Texas, Elliff is a fourth-generation Oklahoman and third-generation pastor. He served with his wife Jeannie as an IMB missionary to Zimbabwe in the early 1980s. They resigned in 1983 after their daughter Beth was seriously injured in a car accident there.
He was twice elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention, in 1996 and 1997. He shepherded several key churches in the denomination, including First Southern Baptist Church of Del City, Okla., where he was pastor from 1985-2005.
Elliff then served as IMB senior vice president for spiritual nurture and church relations from 2005-09. In that role, he taught and counseled missionaries and helped mobilize churches throughout the convention for missions involvement. From 2009-11, he led Living in The Word Publications, a writing and speaking ministry he founded in 2005. He is the author of numerous books about prayer, spiritual awakening and family life.
In his years as International Mission Board president, Elliff never seemed to slow down. He introduced a number of initiatives at the missions agency, including Embrace, in which churches commit to make disciples among previously unengaged, unreached people groups; Ready Reserve, which allows former field personnel to volunteer for overseas missions; Marketplace Advance, where business leaders and other professionals leverage their skills for the sake of the Great Commission; Global Connect, in which IMB partners with churches who are fully funding and sending out their church members as a part of their ongoing work among a people group, and the School of Prayer for All Nations, which equips churches in prayer for the nations.
Chasers of darkness
“We are chasers of darkness,” Elliff often said, “looking for the black holes of sin in our world and thrusting into that darkness the Light of the glorious Gospel of Christ.”
Elliff’s urgency and passion for the lost grew from an experience he had as a young pastor and swim coach. After a particularly grueling practice with his swimmers, Elliff jumped into the pool to relax. Floating on his back, he heard a voice: “I hear you’re a preacher.” Elliff opened his eyes and saw one of his swimmers standing on the edge of the pool. The boy had questions about God, Elliff recalled, and asked if they could talk.
“I didn’t take the time to talk with him then,” Elliff said. “Instead, I told him that we would set up a time.”
That meeting never happened, and later Elliff learned the boy took his own life. That experience instilled in the young Elliff a deep sense of urgency to make Christ known at every opportunity. It also drove him to his knees in prayer.
Passionate in prayer
In remarks at a farewell luncheon for the Elliffs on Aug. 27, IMB executive vice president Clyde Meador noted Elliff’s passion for prayer.
Shortly after arriving at IMB as president, Elliff asked that a portion of his office suite be converted into a prayer room. Outfitted with a kneeling bench and a map of the nations on the wall, he spent time on his knees every day interceding for a lost world and those working to share the Gospel of Jesus with them.
“You prayed for 10 IMB staff members every day and devoted so much of our meeting times to prayer,” Meador told Elliff during the luncheon. “Thank you for praying.”
David Uth, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Orlando, Fla., and former IMB trustee board chair who led the search for Elliff’s successor, also noted Elliff’s passion.
“I’ll never forget the day we sat together … and I watched as you wept for the nations,” Uth said. “Your passion for the lost is greater than any I’ve ever seen in anyone.”
At his final SBC annual meeting as IMB president, in Baltimore, Md., in June, Elliff thanked Southern Baptists for the opportunity to serve but acknowledged that God was leading him to step aside.
“We believe people support what they help create,” Elliff said. “And it seems we have an entire generation of Southern Baptists who’ve yet to have an opportunity to help us create who we are. There comes a time when leaders need to be cheerleaders.”
During the Aug. 27 IMB trustee meeting, amid cheers and applause, Elliff, 70, handed the reins of Southern Baptists’ international missions organization to Platt who, at 36, is the youngest president in the history of the 169-year-old institution.
Fighting back tears, Elliff called Platt’s election one of the most exciting moments of his life, adding that he and his wife Jeannie have been praying for Platt and his wife Heather since before Elliff became IMB’s president in 2011.
The next day, Elliff sent a parting email to IMB personnel.
“I’ve never been a fan of long goodbyes,” Elliff wrote, as he welcomed Platt to his role. “There is a world of darkness awaiting the arrival of folks like us who chase darkness away with THE Light … Let’s all join him in his fervent determination to take the Light to the ends of the earth.”
Tess Rivers is an IMB writer. Erich Bridges contributed to this article.
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