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Rankin: ‘It is time to press forward’

EDITOR’S NOTE: Following is the text of International Mission Board President Jerry Rankin’s report to trustees, meeting in Jacksonville, Fla., announcing his retirement for July 2010. Rankin has led Southern Baptists’ international missions for 17 years.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–While my life is one driven by vision and a constant focus on the future and what could be, when I pause to reflect on the past I realize life’s journey is marked by a sequence of transitions. From high school to college, from college to seminary, from seminary to church ministry and missionary appointment, each change and location is a transition that indelibly marks one’s life with both accomplishments and opportunities for growth. In my own experience these steps were each characterized by challenges, new and enlarged responsibilities, and a deeper resolve to more dedicated service. Each successive role was accompanied by a sense of inadequacy for the task, a greater awareness of the need for God’s strength and guidance, and a renewed devotion to prayer and seeking Him.

Every change was preceded by what I have come to characterize as God stirring my nest. Like the eagle stirring the nest to disrupt the comfort and security of the young eaglets when it is time for them to fly on their own, there has been an inevitable stirring in my heart and life. You know the feeling that precedes a new job offer, the call to a new church or a change of direction vocationally. Sometimes it is a sense of a task or ministry being accomplished, perhaps a changing family situation or a vision for greater significance. Whatever the circumstance, and however God chooses to speak and reveal His will, there is a sense of rightness and divine timing that confirms the change and new direction.

Bobbye and I found that unmistakable when it was time for us to move toward missionary appointment in 1970. The call had come earlier in life. We had been diligent to get the educational preparation needed and were obedient as God led us to gain valuable experience in youth ministry, student work and the pastorate. After nine years in our church planting assignment in Indonesia, the stirring came at the point of moving into a field administrative role, relocating to Bangkok and later to Singapore. Our leadership and influence was later expanded into India and South Asia, and then after 23 years we reluctantly recognized that God was managing the sequence of events that brought me into this role as president of the Foreign Mission Board.

I think all of us would understand and agree that a convicting sense of God’s will and what He would have us to do isn’t always consistent with our personal desires nor is the timing necessarily convenient in terms of personal preferences. But obedience and the willingness to trust God is an exciting pilgrimage of faith as we face the future confident He is leading and His hand is upon us with a providential knowledge of the future.

With these comments and observations, it should come as no surprise to the discerning listener that I am leading to an announcement some have anticipated, others want to deny and defer, and some may celebrate, but one that we all know is inevitable. With conflicting emotions that are running rampant but with absolute confidence this decision comes from God, whom I have always aspired to follow and serve faithfully, the time has come for me to reveal my plans for retirement, effective July 31, 2010.

It will have been 40 years since Bobbye and I were appointed as missionaries. I will have had the privilege of leading the International Mission Board for 17 years, the second-longest tenure of any president in the last century. I will be 68 years old and am confident that God has a significant role of ministry and influence for me in the years to come, but I believe the appropriate time has come for a new, younger generation of leadership to guide our global mission efforts into the future.

This final year will enable me to oversee our new structure and organization, to help bring stability to the radical changes being implemented and prepare our staff and missionary personnel for the transition to a new president. I have shared these plans with our chairman, Paul Chitwood, in anticipation a search committee will be appointed and a successor identified before my tenure lapses next summer. It would be my desire that there be a time of overlap and transition with the new president so that a change could be implemented without disruption and loss of momentum.

For those of you who know me, you can be assured that this comes from prolonged and intensive times of prayer and fasting in seeking confirmation of God’s will in this decision as in others throughout my life. Knowing the eventuality of this time was inevitable, it was only a matter of discerning God’s timing. I clearly recognize the danger and debilitating impact on an organization to hold on to a leadership role too long. But neither would I dare lay aside this responsibility prematurely out of preference for my own plans and desires contrary to God’s permission. There have been times when I would have readily relinquished this role and walked away to return to the mission field or a less burdensome responsibility. In times of criticism, misunderstanding and personal attack, I thought, “I don’t have to put up with this.” But inevitably there would come that still, small voice saying, “Yes, you do!” In this role I have discovered God’s faithfulness, experienced the depth of His grace and had the incredible privilege of having an overview of His providence at work around the world.

I do not have any specific plans to announce at this time, but I am confident that retirement with the IMB will not mean a cessation of activity and involvement in serving God for many years into the future. He has blessed us with health, energy and vision, and we anticipate being used in a number of significant roles as we are released to pursue opportunities for speaking, writing, ministry and mission involvement. So why step down at this time? Why not stay on a few years longer? I am confident I have your support and could well do that, except for the fact God has indicated that this is the appropriate time, and we dare not forfeit the future that He has prepared for the IMB and for us in the next stage of life.

Also, while not being factors precipitating this decision, there are a number of trends that confirm it is an appropriate time for new leadership to take the IMB into the next phase of its long and distinguished history. We have always been a missionary-sending agency with unlimited capacity to send and support the missionaries being called out of our Southern Baptist churches. That is no longer the case as appointments are being restricted and strategies must be changed to more effectively deploy and utilize limited numbers of personnel. The next president must deal with economic realities that will not permit us to presume upon unlimited financial resources as we have in the past. Southern Baptists are at a point of crisis in deciding whether to continue a bureaucratic legacy, supporting a comprehensive plethora of ministries and programs, or focus resources on fulfilling the Great Commission. We have already initiated significant efforts in mobilizing church partners in the task of overseas missions, but we are at a crucial stage at which it is imperative that we become a different type of organization — a denominational entity that is not doing missions on behalf of Southern Baptists but is essentially serving and facilitating churches in taking responsibility for the task. But especially, it should be recognized that we stand on the verge of unprecedented opportunities to complete the task of engaging every nation, people and language with the Gospel. We need a leader who can identify with the next generation, one who has credibility to mobilize Southern Baptists, creative vision to implement new strategies and faith to provide the spiritual leadership that will keep us aligned with the mission of a sovereign God.

This is a role and responsibility for which I never aspired and accepted with great reluctance 16 years ago only because it was evident it was of God. It made no sense for a field missionary who had been overseas for 23 years to be selected over others who were far more qualified and at a peak of controversy regarding control of leadership roles among Southern Baptist Convention entities. I had not even attended a Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting until the year prior to my election.

This is not a time to reflect on the factors God used to bring me to this position. Neither is it the appropriate time to review my tenure, acknowledge the many failures and note a few accomplishments. There will be occasions for that later, but there are a couple of relevant perspectives worthy of mentioning at this time.

I quickly gained an increasing appreciation for my predecessors and realized whatever God chose to do in my tenure of leadership was due to the vision and effectiveness of those who have gone before. This realization brought into focus the reality that the mark of my leadership would not be measured by what was accomplished by the IMB during my years as president, but by what the organization was positioned to do in the future. For the second time in my tenure we are implementing a radical paradigm shift in organization and strategy. This is not because of past failure and ineffectiveness but a vision of the changes needed to ensure relevance and effectiveness in the future. I look forward to continuing to lead this transition over the next 10 months to help assure that things are on track and we remain positioned to focus on an unprecedented impact on lostness and global advance in a rapidly changing world and uncertain denominational future.

It has always been my desire to step down from this role in the midst of God’s blessings and while the IMB was riding a wave of effectiveness rather than under a cloud of controversy and discouragement. I could enumerate the many times of being confronted by my own inadequacy and failure. I learned that obedience always must pre-empt personal desires and convenience. Faithfulness does not come without sacrifice. It would be easy to claim some degree of credit and take pride in the growth the IMB has experienced and the global impact we have made, but it has been my desire that no one will be able to identify anything Jerry Rankin has done. It will simply be recognized that I had the privilege of filling a necessary role and bearing a title when God chose to work among us!

Books on management say that one mark of successful leadership is nurturing a successor. Unfortunately, I don’t have that prerogative. However, we have in place a stable and extraordinarily capable executive leadership team along with a vast network of new, younger leaders throughout our staff and around the world devoted to carrying out our mission. Never in my experience have we had a board of trustees so unified, supportive and sensitive to the spiritual nature of our task. You own the vision and share a passionate devotion to the success of our mission task. I want our staff, missionaries and Southern Baptist constituency to be assured that you can be trusted and deserve their prayers as you seek the heart and mind of God in choosing the one to serve and lead the IMB into the future.

It is going to be difficult and emotional to express at this time and over the coming months the appreciation I feel for our leadership team, our staff and missionaries serving around the world. When I walk through our offices and pass staff in the corridors, I am conscious of feeling a deep love and respect for each one. I am constantly reminded, without exception, of their commitment to our mission. I have been blessed by their support and confidence in me and enriched by their love and devotion to the Lord. Those who stand beside me in positions of executive leadership are the ones who have done the work and made possible that for which I get credit. The transparency in our relationships and the example of their lives have shaped and influenced who I am today.

Sixteen years ago I was often reminded by our trustees and others that I would never have been considered for this role were it not for Bobbye. No one would question the fact that I would not have survived had it not been for her love and support. The hours she spends in intercessory prayer and tactful, sensitive admonishment — you husbands know what I mean — have kept me anchored in the Lord. It hasn’t been easy for her to share the burden, endure the criticisms that inevitably accompany a leadership role and tolerate the intense travel schedules, incessant program responsibilities and times of separation. But she would affirm with me that the blessings, the gratification and reward have been worth it all.

I would not presume to equate my devotion to the Lord and passion for His mission with the Apostle Paul nor with that of Lottie Moon, who adopted Paul’s testimony in Acts 20:24 as her life verse, but it expresses what we want to communicate on the occasion of this announcement.

“I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, in order that I may finish my course, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the Gospel of the grace of God.” I do not consider the course of my life and God’s purpose complete, but at this stage of the journey it is time to press forward in the calling of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    About the Author

  • Jerry Rankin