RICHMOND, Va. (BP) — The first phase in the International Mission Board’s “organizational reset,” completed this month, has led hundreds of missionaries to confront a question that, at some point, many in Christian service face: How do I know if God is moving me to a new place of ministry?
The IMB has not released the results of Phase One — a voluntary retirement incentive (VRI) offered to all staff and field personnel 50 and older with at least five years of service — because IMB officials say employees have been asked to focus on God’s will rather than on numbers.
“At every step, we have sought to guard the integrity of the process so as not to sway any IMB personnel as they make their decisions,” IMB spokesperson Julie McGowan told BP in written comments. “Instead of personnel looking at each other wondering, ‘How many more of us need or don’t need to make a transition?’, we want personnel looking to the Lord and asking, ‘Are You leading me to make a transition?'”
Results of the entire voluntary resignation program, designed to bring the IMB’s expenses in line with its income, will be announced in early 2016 following Phase Two, which will prompt all remaining IMB personnel to ask whether God is moving them to new fields of service, McGowan said.
The number of missionaries and stateside staff to accept the VRI was finalized Dec. 11. The IMB projects the two phases of its reset will yield a total reduction of at least 600 individuals.
Discerning God’s will
Consistent with the focus on God’s will, Baptist Press asked several ministry veterans, including two missionaries who accepted the VRI, how they have discerned the Lord’s leading in ministry moves. Missionaries Stewart and Lissa Roberson, who served more than a decade overseas in the Asia region, told BP God led them to accept the retirement incentive in a way that shattered their paradigm.
“We were just getting to the point where we had reached our language requirement,” Lissa Roberson said. “We felt like we were gaining traction in the community with some relationships we had built. We felt like things were just beginning for us. Then suddenly we were feeling this pressure [from God] to leave. We just could not understand that.”
The Robersons’ process of discerning God’s will involved Scripture reading and prayer, requesting prayer and advice from “committed prayer warriors” and thinking through the practical implications of their decision.
Though God typically has given them an inner sense of peace before they make a major decision, this time the peace didn’t come until after they accepted the retirement incentive. They did not sense taking it was wise from a human standpoint, they said, but felt a strong leading they believed was from the Holy Spirit.
The Robersons are in the process of moving from Japan to the Nashville area, where a local congregation has arranged housing and transportation. They are still seeking a ministry opportunity.
“When it came down to it, we knew we needed to take this” offer, Stewart Roberson said. “And we couldn’t really tell why at that point. We just believe the Holy Spirit was really influencing that decision.”
Leaving something good
Robby Gallaty, pastor of Long Hollow Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tenn., said it is not unusual for God to lead His people away from thriving ministries. That’s exactly what happened to him in October, when he moved to Long Hollow from Brainerd Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tenn.
“You don’t always have to leave a church when things are bad,” Gallaty told BP, citing advice from a mentor. “God could actually be calling you away at the peak season of ministry in preparation for the guy who’s coming behind you. Why do you always have to leave a church when it’s bad?”
At Brainerd, Gallaty said, “over the course of seven years, our disciple-making ministry grew from about 12-15 in discipling relationships to over 1,200 in discipling relationships” out of 2,100 worship attendees. Though Gallaty was not seeking to leave, he said God confirmed to him, “You have finished the task of creating a disciple-making DNA.”
To leave one ministry and begin another, a Christian should have both a sense of release from the old ministry and a desire for the new one, Gallaty said. “If you don’t have those two elements … then it’s probably best you stay.”
‘My work was not done’
For Fred Luter, God has never given a sense of release. Luter still serves as pastor of the first church to call him, Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans. Nearly 30 years ago, the congregation voted on him as pastor when it had 45 members. Today thousands attend worship each Sunday.
Christians in ministry “need to approach every position as though this is the place they’re going to stay forever,” Luter, a former Southern Baptist Convention president, told BP. “…Don’t despise small beginnings. You bloom where you’re planted unless God tells you for sure, ‘This is another place I want you to go.’
“I tell young guys all the time,” Luter said, “‘It’s unfair to go to a church that has called you as pastor with a resume in your back pocket for the next church that comes along.”
If it is God’s will for a minister to move to a new field, Luter said, He will provide “an inner peace” through wise counsel, full support from the minister’s wife if he is married and has a vibrant, personal relationship with Jesus.
Though Luter has been invited to leave Franklin Avenue on multiple occasions, “each time I just felt my work was not done,” he said.
Sylvan Knobloch, director of church leadership development at the Illinois Baptist State Association, advises ministers considering transitions to answer a series of questions:
— Why am I considering this transition at this time?
— Does my current ministry setting allow me to be a good steward of my spiritual gifts, passion for ministry, abilities, personality and experiences?
— Does the current ministry setting allow my spouse and me the opportunity to develop sustainable relationships? Are we able to develop comrades within the church and confidants outside the church?
— Do the current ministry setting’s organizational values and mission match my personal values and mission?
— What are the lessons I have learned in my current ministry setting that will allow me to be more discerning when considering future ministry opportunities?
“Change is a part of life. Our ministry settings change and the minister’s gifts, family and calling evolve,” Knobloch told BP in written comments. “Therefore, it is necessary for the minister to exercise discernment regarding their calling to a ministry. I suggest the pastor answer the above questions and pray, asking God for insight and direction.
“The second step in the discernment process is to set an appointment with a trusted friend to review the insights again. The counsel growing out of such a relationship will give the minister invaluable insight as he prayerfully considers his decision and calling,” Knobloch said.
‘Listen to God’
Roger S. Oldham, vice president for convention communications and relations at the SBC Executive Committee, told BP he did not want to leave his longtime pastorate in Martin, Tenn., when he was called to the EC in 2007. But “the dread of being out of God’s will outweighed my reluctance to follow His lead.”
Oldham said he has often returned to seven principles of knowing and following God’s will given to him by a mentor in college:
— Be sure your heart is in a neutral position, willing to go or stay or do whatever God guides you to do (Proverbs 3:5-6).
— Pray specifically for guidance and wisdom (Philippians 4:6-7).
— Meditate on the Word of God (Psalm 119:105).
— Seek godly counsel from trusted mentors (Proverbs 11:14).
— Trust the Lord for His inner conviction (Colossians 3:15).
— Don’t discount common sense (2 Timothy 1:7).
— Maintain a good conscience before God and others (Acts 24:16).
As Christians in all walks of life seek to discern God’s will, IMB missionary Stewart Roberson offered a final piece of advice: “Listen to where God is leading, and don’t limit God in our thinking.”