RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Southern Baptists set another record in giving to their Lottie Moon Christmas Offering in 2002, the International Mission Board announced June 5.
However, the offering fell short of the $125 million goal, complicating a financial situation already stressed by declining investment income and a rapidly increasing missionary force. As a result, the IMB will be forced to move ahead with plans to restrict the number of new missionaries appointed to overseas service.
Southern Baptist churches gave $115,015,216 to the offering, an increase of $1.3 million (1.15 percent) over 2001 but almost $10 million short of the goal.
“We are grateful that Southern Baptists have a heart for missions and continue to give so faithfully and generously to the Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon Christmas Offering,” IMB President Jerry Rankin said. “Southern Baptists continue to set new records for giving to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, as well as through Cooperative Program Missions, which is the foundation of cooperative support for our convention to fulfill the Great Commission.
“Because of the amazing growth in missionary personnel and unprecedented new opportunities all over the world, however, all of the $125 million goal was included in the operating budget. As a result, we are having to restrict the approval of available missionary candidates for the first time since the Depression years of the 1930s.”
In each of the past two years, the International Mission Board has sent out more than 1,000 new missionaries — a sharp upturn in an already extraordinary growth curve for the entity, Rankin said.
“It took 14 years for the IMB to grow from 3,000 to 4,000 missionaries under appointment, but only seven years to grow from 4,000 to 5,000,” he said. “The past two years have taken the board halfway to another thousand with 5,545 fully supported workers serving among 1,497 people groups worldwide.”
While the board’s missionary count grew 8.7 percent from 2000 to 2002, combined income from the Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon offering increased 1.5 percent.
Every dollar given to the offering is used exclusively for missionaries and their ministries. None of it is spent on stateside administration or promotion. The offering is named after the venerable 19th-century missionary who gave her life taking the Gospel to the people of China.
NEW WORKERS ON HOLD
In addition to budget cuts announced in May, board leaders will limit the number of new workers being sent overseas by deferring appointments and putting candidates on hold, said Lloyd Atkinson, IMB vice president for missionary personnel.
“About 100 candidates who hoped to begin their missionary careers this year have been deferred to next year or put on hold,” Atkinson said. “That is a tremendous disappointment to them personally, as well as to missionaries on the field who hoped these urgent strategic needs would be filled.
“We had anticipated sending another record number of long-term missionaries this year, but that number is being limited to about 400,” he said. “In 2004, we will approve only 300 new long-term workers. This compares to 412 workers appointed in 2002 and 387 in 2001.”
The board also will restrict the number of short-term missionaries being sent out, Atkinson said.
“Two of the remaining three ISC/Journeyman conferences this year have been cancelled, and the number of short-term workers being approved will be limited to 400,” he said.
“This means that in 2004 Southern Baptists will send out less than 60 percent of the number of new missionaries sent out in 2002, unless Southern Baptists respond with the needed support.”
The net growth of 239 new missionaries appointed in 2002 exceeded by 59 percent the 150 anticipated by the board’s budget, said David Steverson, IMB vice president for finance. The situation has been compounded by the impact of the stock market’s downturn on IMB reserves.
“This is not the first time in IMB history that growth has exceeded budget projections, but in the past we have been able to draw from unrestricted reserve funds to send and support the missionaries God is calling to meet the needs of a lost world,” Steverson said. “However, the performance of the stock market over the last two years has resulted in investment income being seriously diminished.
“Most of the board’s remaining reserves are designated for retirement, pensions, medical provisions, benefits, missionary housing, and other restrictions designated by donors.”
In addition to restricting the number of new missionaries being sent out, the board has taken action to reduce overseas work budgets by $2 million and the home office support budget by $4 million, the latter mostly through staff reductions and suspending some products and services, Steverson said.
“Since 78 percent of the total budget is for staff and missionary support, remaining fiscally responsible requires us to send only the number of missionaries that can be supported with the gifts of Southern Baptists,” he said. “Giving has not declined but has in fact continually increased. It simply has not kept pace with the growth in the number of missionaries God is calling out from Southern Baptist churches.”
IMB missionaries, employees and leaders are not the only ones tightening their belts these days, but it wouldn’t take an economic miracle to solve the board’s budget dilemma, said Larry Cox, vice president for mobilization.
“Last year, Southern Baptist churches reported a total of $9.4 billion received in their offering plates for all causes,” Cox said. “Less than 2.5 percent was channeled through CP and LMCO to reach 95 percent of the world’s population overseas. The average percentage that churches contribute to CP Missions beyond their own programs is about 7 percent.
“God has blessed Southern Baptists in numbers and resources, as God said to Israel in Isaiah 49:6, ‘to be a light to the nations and His salvation to the ends of the earth.’ In the same way, He has blessed and prospered Southern Baptists to be an instrument to fulfill His mission and make Him known among all peoples.
“It would be sad if we failed to find ways to channel more of the financial resources with which God has prospered us to reach a lost world.”
Avery Willis, the board’s senior vice president for overseas operations, said it was a painful irony that a budget shortfall will restrict missionary appointments at a time when there is great openness to the Gospel around the world.
“The tragedy is that we now have unprecedented opportunities around the world to share the Gospel and fulfill the Great Commission mandate of our Lord,” Willis said. “A few years ago, we could not have imagined we would have opportunities to send hundreds of personnel into what was then the closed countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
“Now we are seeing a harvest among Gospel-deprived people that parallels the Book of Acts. Current events are creating opportunities throughout the Muslim world. God is breaking down barriers of access, and unreached people groups are being systematically engaged with the Gospel for the first time.”
God is at work in astonishing ways among Southern Baptist missionaries, Willis said, pointing to reports that in 2002 Southern Baptist missionaries and their national Baptist coworkers registered leaps of more than 40 percent in the number of new churches, new outreach groups and new believers in discipleship training.
“The harvest is accelerating everywhere,” he said. More than 421,000 believers were baptized in 2002, and 8,369 churches were started. It’s tragic that Southern Baptists are not giving more to seize the opportunity to join God in what He is doing when the missionaries are available to send.”
IMB leaders are looking for what God wants to accomplish through the budget challenge, Rankin said.
“We are seeking to use this challenge beneficially by tightening our belt and assessing those ministries and services that are most essential to our task,” he said. “Lack of funding will help us to refine overseas strategies and methodologies, to practice better stewardship and to give more emphasis to ensuring that the missionaries appointed are going to the most strategic assignments.
“We are also praying that this will be a wakeup call to Southern Baptists to give a higher priority to our missions task and impact a world beyond our local budgeted programs,” he said. “This should challenge us to evaluate our lifestyles and give more sacrificially to things of eternal value, to rethink our church budgets and allocate more to Cooperative Program Missions.”
God has used reports about the budget challenge to stir some congregations to action, Rankin added. And the board is asking churches to catch a vision for giving in the same sacrificial spirit as prospective missionaries are giving their lives — candidates who for now are being held back from service.
“Many churches are making supplementary gifts to the Lottie Moon Offering to cut into the current deficit,” he said. “Others are setting even more challenging goals for this year’s offering.
“The Lottie Moon goal for 2003 is $133 million,” he said. “But we are challenging Southern Baptists to give $150 million as a more realistic amount for what it will take to stay on track in reaching a lost world.
“We need to realize that one day we will be accountable. I hope Southern Baptists don’t have to stand before God and try to explain why so many did so little when He had blessed us with so much!”
2003 Lottie Moon Christmas Offering
2002 IMB statistical report online
Praying for IMB missions
Giving to IMB missions
Serving overseas through the IMB
Making missions your church’s priority
More about Cooperative Program Missions