RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–They had said goodbyes to their neighbors, friends and church family. They had resigned from their jobs and sold their home and furniture. They had even given away the family dog, a miniature collie named Q-tip.
When Tim and Audrey Shepard* decided to answer God’s call to share Jesus in Asia as Southern Baptist missionaries, they knew there could be obstacles. But the couple never expected that the obstacle would be a shortfall in missions funding.
The Shepards are two of the 69 candidates in the pipeline to serve as long-term missionaries through the International Mission Board who have been told they can’t be sent to the field at this time. That’s in addition to an estimated 350 short-term candidates who also have been turned away from missionary service this year.
In May, the IMB announced it would severely limit the number of missionaries sent in 2009 due to reduced giving through the Cooperative Program and a $29-million-dollar shortfall in the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. More than half of the mission board’s annual budget comes from the Lottie Moon offering to sustain the 5,600-plus Southern Baptist missionaries serving overseas. The goal for the 2008 offering (which funds the 2009 budget) was $170 million, but only $141 million was received, $9 million less than received for the 2007 offering.
The Shepards previously served 15 years with IMB but left the field in 2004 and moved to Jacksonville, Fla., so their daughter Nora* could attend high school in the United States. They planned to return to the mission field when she entered college and began that process in the fall of 2008. They were on track to arrive in Asia by the end of 2009 to partner with another IMB missionary couple working to spread the Gospel among some of Asia’s minority people groups.
But all that came to a screeching halt July 27 when an IMB representative called the Shepards to explain that their missionary appointment had been put on hold because there wasn’t enough money to send them.
Audrey says the news has left the family discouraged and confused.
“You feel sort of directionless — we really don’t know what to do now,” she says. “It’s tragic that money is holding back God’s work around the world…. There are people dying every day that are not going to have the opportunity to hear about Jesus because so many missionaries are being held up.”
So far the Shepards haven’t been given a firm date when they will head to the mission field. Spring 2010 has been mentioned, but no promises have been made. That means the Shepards will be on hold for at least six months. Right now they don’t know where they’ll live or what they’ll do. They’ve decided to stay temporarily in their church’s mission house. They’re not even sure where to register their 8-year-old son Eric* for school this fall because that depends on where they’ll live.
There’s a chance Tim and Audrey will be able to keep their jobs in Jacksonville, Fla., but since they didn’t renew their contracts, there’s no guarantee. Tim taught middle school math and science; Audrey was a school psychologist.
“We’re ready to go to the field,” Tim says. “My mind is already on ministry, and going back to secular jobs just to pay the bills doesn’t excite us too much.”
The Shepards’ delay also is having serious repercussions in Asia, at least for the team they were set to join.
Sam and Elizabeth Hughes* are Southern Baptist missionaries on the edge of exhaustion. They run a handful of ministries focusing on 24 minority people groups, 18 of which are untouched by the Gospel. Without the Shepards, that’s more than a million lost people divided between one husband-and-wife team with three young children at home.
Sam was counting on the Shepards’ arrival to provide some much-needed relief — helping with ministry logistics, training national partners and following up with new believers or those who’ve expressed an interest in learning more about Jesus. God has blessed the work to the point where it is more than Sam can handle alone. He says news of the Shepards’ delay — and of the Lottie Moon offering shortfall — hurts morale.
“It’s time for a gut check. Are we serious about reaching the world or not?” he says. “I’ve got a list as long as I am tall of things I need them [the Shepards] to be doing.”
Though it’s a serious inconvenience and fraught with logistical nightmares, the Shepards say the delay hasn’t subdued their passion for reaching Asia. In fact, they’re so committed to their calling to be Southern Baptist missionaries they’re considering moving to Asia on their own dime so they can start learning the language and be more prepared when they begin their assignment.
“Communism has destroyed souls of the people — there’s no hope,” Audrey says. “We want to be a part of sharing Christ where there are so many who are dying without Him.”
The Shepards say that if their delay, and the delay of 67 others in going to the mission field, helps Southern Baptists realize the importance of lost souls overseas, “so be it.”
“I’m happy if that’s what will come of this,” Audrey says. “That people wake up and realize that they need to give their money to support missions.”
*Names changed. Don Graham is a writer with the International Mission Board.