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Newspaper story criticizes NAMB; entity calls story inaccurate

ATLANTA (BP)–A Baptist state newspaper’s critical analysis of the North American Mission Board’s operations has drawn a pointed response from the entity, which calls the newspaper’s report inaccurate and unprofessional.

The Christian Index, newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention, published a 4,500-word story Feb. 16 about NAMB, the Southern Baptist entity responsible for North American missions. Written by Managing Editor Joe Westbury, the story criticizes NAMB’s evangelism and church planting strategies. Using anonymous sources, it also is critical of NAMB’s method in counting missionaries, the entity’s relationship with a private media firm and its president’s speaking engagements.

The lengthy critical piece comes just weeks before Southern Baptist churches nationwide prepare to give to the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering, which funds North American missions.

In a five-page, 2,500-word response, Georgia-based NAMB criticizes the story for a lack of balance and for not including NAMB’s responses to key charges. Officials at the entity have known “for several weeks” that the Index was working on the story, the statement says.

“The North American Mission Board is extremely disappointed,” the statement says, “that the (Georgia) Christian Index would by-pass accepted journalistic standards by running a story about NAMB that (a) hides behind anonymous ‘critics’ conveniently labeled as ‘observers’ or ‘onlookers’ or ‘some who assert’; (b) fails to include NAMB responses to these criticisms as provided by NAMB Executives during a recent two-hour interview; (c) contains inaccuracies and innuendoes even after being told the facts by NAMB representatives; and (d) times the release of the article for maximum damage to North American missions.

“Labeling the story as ‘an analysis’ does not exempt its author from the standards of fairness and disclosure Baptists expect from their reporters.”

The North American Mission Board was formed in 1997, essentially as a replacement for the old Home Mission Board and two other entities. Expectations were high in ’97 about the future, the Christian Index story states, but “Georgia Baptist pastors are wondering if those expectations have been met.”

“More importantly, new initiatives in evangelism and church planting have failed to produce the anticipated results -– and the denomination’s total of funded career missionaries has declined by 10 percent,” the story states, under the headline of “North America: Hanging in the balance.”

Among the charges by the Christian Index (along with NAMB’s responses) are:

— That NAMB launched two campaigns — “What Now?” and “Who Cares?” — that have been poorly executed and poorly communicated.

The “What Now?” campaign was launched in 2003 in the months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It was set to be, the Index reported, a “million dollar extravaganza of television, radio, periodicals, and Internet advertising designed to get the attention of millions who do not attend church or are not immediately receptive to the Gospel.”

“But the campaign failed to coalesce and –- halfway into the effort –- funding was pulled,” the Index story states. “The only problem was that this important decision was not uniformly communicated to state conventions. And some state papers, like the Index, continued to publicize the national campaign for nearly a year after its demise.”

According to NAMB, “What Now?” was discontinued “at the behest of state conventions” in order “to avoid confusion for the local church caused by a number of SBC national initiatives.” NAMB representatives have apologized for “any confusing communications,” the NAMB statement says.

The “Who Cares?” campaign was launched in the summer of 2005. The Index said the campaign, a “new, improved evangelism initiative,” was scheduled to roll out a series of TV commercials by last fall “dealing with life” issues.

“But as of next week -– eight months to the day when it was announced on June 21 –- there is still no sign of a campaign,” the Index story states.

Although NAMB Chief Operating Officer Chuck Allen told the Index that NAMB’s response to the Gulf Coast hurricanes had delayed the launch of “Who Cares?”, the Index noted that the TV commercials were being produced with a private company, InovaOne. NAMB coordinates the Southern Baptist Convention’s disaster relief response.

NAMB, though, says that the TV commercials required NAMB involvement — even if a private company was doing them.

“[A]s we explained to the writer, NAMB staff would be involved in every step of Who Cares implementation and the unprecedented response to the Hurricane Katrina victims required an ‘all hands on deck’ focus by NAMB staff [last] fall with many putting in 15-20 hour days,” NAMB statement says.

NAMB also says that “Who Cares?” was not meant to take the place of the “What Now?” campaign.

“It is, instead, a response to the requests of NAMB’s state partners and churches that NAMB provides evangelistic television and print ads (along with the telephone volunteers to share Christ and direct people to SBC churches),” the NAMB statement says. “This is a tool that can support the current SBC convention-wide emphasis on reaching a million baptisms and not, as the writer asserts, just another theme ‘in the crowded marketplace of themes.'”

— That 45 percent of NAMB’s missionaries are self-funded but are nonetheless included in NAMB’s total missionary count.

“According to information supplied by NAMB based on the most recent headcount as of Dec. 31, there are 5,364 North American missionaries,” the Index story says. “However, only 2,942 are funded by [Annie Armstrong]. The remaining 2,422 -– or 45 percent –- are self-funded volunteers serving through the Mission Service Corps.”

NAMB, though, says that the information about its missionary total breakdown is available on its website (at www.namb.net, under the tab “sending missionaries”) as well as in its annual report to the Southern Baptist Convention. There are three broad categories of NAMB missionaries, the entity says: career, limited term and Mission Service Corps.

“There is absolutely no deception in the way these missionaries are categorized or reported,” the NAMB statement says.

The Index says the inclusion of volunteer missionaries in the headcount is a throwback to pre-Cooperative Program days, when missionaries had to raise their own money.

“[T]he old adage that Southern Baptist missionaries are more effective because they don’t have to return home to raise their support is no longer absolute truth,” the Index story says. “At least, not as long as Mission Service Corps are included in their ranks.”

Yet NAMB says Mission Service Corps missionaries deserve to be included in the total count.

“MSC Missionaries serve in many of the same mission roles that career and limited term missionaries do, but often in areas where salaries and benefits are not available,” NAMB says in its statement. “… We are proud of the fact that we recognize these dedicated servants’ commitment and calling by referring to them as ‘missionaries.’ NAMB’s and IMB’s definition of a missionary is a person who, in response to God’s call and gifting, leaves his or her comfort zone and crosses cultural, geographic or other barriers to proclaim the gospel and lives out a Christian witness in obedience to the Great Commission.

“We thank God that Mission Service Corps missionaries stand in the gap when funding is not available.”

— That under NAMB (1997 through 2005), the number of funded career missionaries has dropped 10 percent.

NAMB agreed with the accuracy of that statistic, but says three factors have impacted the total: “an early retirement option that some missionaries chose in 2004 and 2005 as part of a change in post-retirement benefits;” “the fact that many of these missionaries are jointly funded with state partners who cannot currently afford their percentage of the cooperative budget funds, resulting in a vacancy” and “a 91% increase in health care costs since NAMB’s inception, which NAMB has not passed through to its missionaries.”

— That InovaOne’s Steve Sanford conducted an audit of NAMB’s media strategy in 2003, and then benefited when the audit concluded that NAMB should outsource its communications unit. Several NAMB employees lost their jobs.

“(B)y coincidence or not” the Index story says, it was a “perceived conflict of interest for a consultant to directly benefit from an audit he conducted.”

Said NAMB: “We deeply regret the necessity of eliminating any positions that affect NAMB staff members, but the reader is left with the impression that something underhanded was involved when we’re simply trying to be more efficient and effective in the ministries assigned to us by the SBC.

“… InovaOne, as we explained to the writer, is one of many vendors helping us through a transition period as we prepare comprehensive Requests for Proposal for all of the outsourced work. InovaOne is paid in the same way and on the same basis as any other vendor.”

— That church plants have been “less than stellar” under NAMB, given “the efficiencies that were expected.”

“SBC church planting increased slowly yet consistently for the eight years prior to NAMB’s launch,” the Index story says. “Under NAMB, congregational starts have been on a roller coaster ride. Its most recent year shows an increase of 132 church plants from the Home Mission Board’s final year of 1996.

“The most significant increase was for the years of 1999 and 2000 following Reccord’s announcement of providing an additional $2 million for church planting and evangelism. When those one-time funds were put on the field, results were almost immediate –- church plants jumped 258 to a record 1,747 in the first year and baptisms jumped 12,078. But when the funds were depleted, the momentum ceased and growth came to a standstill.”

NAMB, though, says the number of church plants has been noticeably more than the pre-NAMB days.

“NAMB has averaged 277 more church plants per year than in the eight years prior to NAMB’s existence. (Pre-NAMB average was 1290. Since NAMB’s inception, the average has been 1567),” the NAMB’s statement says. “Five of the last eight years of church planting represent our highest years in the history of the convention. In addition, as NAMB representatives explained during their interview, NAMB studies document increased health for these church plants (measured at five and 10-year marks), an increased emphasis on church plants at our Southern Baptist seminaries due in part to the NAMB-initiated Nehemiah Project and an increase in the number of sponsoring churches.”

— That NAMB President Robert Reccord regularly takes part in speaking engagements and interviews that are not a part of the entity’s “primary objectives.” The Index story says Reccord will speak at all 19 Promise Keepers rallies this year.

“According to the [NAMB] policy manual in relation to when honoraria can be accepted, ‘… messages on marriage, general leadership issues, ethics, sexual purity, etc. may be good topics but are not considered a reflection of NAMB’s six MMOs (Major Missions Objectives),'” the Index story states.

NAMB, however, says the speaking engagements are part of NAMB’s larger Kingdom objective.

“From NAMB’s beginning, Dr. Reccord and our board of trustees have asserted that if Southern Baptists are to reach North America for Christ, we cannot rely solely on pastors, missionaries and other paid staff — we must mobilize Southern Baptist laity,” the NAMB statement says. “With that message, Dr. Reccord has challenged every Southern Baptist to be on mission in sharing Christ. That message includes a challenge to parents to build an on mission lifestyle into their children and a challenge to every Christian to maintain purity in order to avoid immobilizing their impact for Christ.”

Reccord’s engagements with Promise Keepers, the NAMB statement says, present “a chance for an agency president to give the main evangelism message at all 19 Promise Keeper events and to meet with Southern Baptist leaders in that area the following morning. It is incredible that the writer finds fault even with this.”

— That NAMB has lost money on a series of collegiate leadership conferences dubbed “Elevate.” According to figures provided to the Index, the conferences lost more than $600,000 in 2004. It held another Elevate conference in 2005 that also lost money, before canceling the rest of them.

The programs, NAMB says, “frankly … didn’t do as well as we had planned.”

“We admit we’re not perfect,” NAMB statement says. “We freely admitted our mistakes during the two-hour interview –- mistakes that we have learned from. But there are incredible stories and statistics showing God’s great work in North American missions though the writer deemed none of them worthy of focus in a 4,500-word article.”

The Christian Index article concludes by saying “NAMB remains the primary agency to lead the denomination forward in implementing a national strategy in evangelism and church planting.”

“And while the missionary force continues to grow through volunteer labor –- the future of its funded career force may continue to slide without increased giving to the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering,” the article says.

In fact, the Index story accompanies a sidebar from newspaper editor J. Gerald Harris encouraging its readers to give to the Annie Armstrong offering this year.

“This special report, written at the request of many pastors over a several month period, seeks to address some concerns of how the agency is working to reach the lost for Christ,” Harris writes. “We want to affirm our commitment to NAMB and especially to our missionaries.”

NAMB’s statement says the entity is “extremely disappointed” that the story was “rushed to press … so that it would be distributed three weeks before the annual North American Missions Emphasis.”

“We pray that it will not have a detrimental affect on Southern Baptists’ prayer and financial support of the missionaries we jointly support with our state convention partners,” the statement says. “… The article clearly was not intended to be an objective review of NAMB and its accomplishments and disappointments, but a highlighting of a few programs where we failed.”

The Christian Index story is available online at www.christianindex.org. NAMB’s response is available at www.namb.net.

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