RICHMOND, Va. (BP) — A few days before Tom Elliff’s inauguration as the 11th leader of IMB (the International Mission Board), three bite-size packages of Butterfinger chocolate appear on a table at the entrance of his office.
Elliff offers one to a visitor, pops another in his mouth. His eyes crinkle at the edges as he savors the morsel — they are a favorite. Finally the grin that quickly became famous around the office when Elliff arrived seven months ago breaks across his face.
“This is the only kind of bribe I get around here,” Elliff quips — he suspects one of the women at the front reception desk — “and no one ever asks for anything.”
It’s easy to get this far into the president’s office. When you do, you invariably get invited around the corner, past the formal sitting area, into a small room off to the side.
[QUOTE@right@150=View a bio video of Tom Elliff here]It’s a spare room, decorated with a couple of photographs of and some artifacts from Africa where Elliff and his wife Jeannie served as missionaries. A chair in one corner, and a simple kneeling rail with cushions against one wall on which a map of the world hangs, complete it.
He will ask you if you would like to pray — and you say, yes. He is, after all, the president. And somewhere in the midst of all this you realize this is not a superior conferring a blessing on a subordinate — this is brother praying with brother, that the heart of the international arm of the Southern Baptist Convention is not where the president sits, it is where he kneels.
Tonight, Nov. 14, at the western edge of the city, the crowd tests the capacity of Grove Avenue Baptist Church, one of the landmark churches of metro Richmond. There are few seats to be had on the main floor; even the balcony takes its measure.
The crowd includes four seminary presidents, entity heads and representatives, the president of the convention, IMB trustees and staff, local pastors and their people and 100-plus missionaries, some of whom will be appointed Nov. 16 at a service in Hattiesburg, Miss. Others will scatter across the globe in a few days to their areas of service.
It is the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia — they have given their missions night to the inauguration — though representatives of Baptist General Association of Virginia, the other convention in the state, also are present and on the program.
“Everyone likes Tom,” someone whispers.
Mark Becton, SBCV president and pastor at Grove, quickly turns the evening over to Jimmy Pritchard, who served as chairman of the presidential search committee and is the current IMB board of trustees’ chairman.
Pritchard talks about the committee’s approximately 18-month search for a new president. There were a lot of candidates — and a lot of suggestions for candidates. But none seemed right. At one point it seemed like they were on a voyage in a rough, turbulent sea. “We decided Jesus was asleep in the boat,” he said, “and He won’t wake up.”
During their search, Bryant Wright, SBC president, would talk with Pritchard periodically. He would invariably ask if they had someone yet. “I wouldn’t lie to him,” Pritchard says. “I’d just say, ‘We’re coming along.'”
He knew Wright wanted a young gun for president of the missions entity. When they settled on Elliff as their candidate, “I didn’t know what he was going to do with this,” Pritchard says. “Tom is many things, but he’s not a young gun.”
When the phone rang in the Elliff household Dec. 14 last year, “No one was more surprised than Jeannie and me,” Elliff said earlier. He was 66 years old. He had already retired twice — first in 2005 from First Southern Baptist Church of Del City, Okla., where he was pastor for 20 years, then in 2009 from IMB as senior vice president for spiritual nurture and church relations under Jerry Rankin.
He had settled into a life of speaking and writing, authoring a number of books on prayer, spiritual awakening and family life, enjoying his four grown children and 25 grandchildren. He had stood by Jeannie while she successfully battled cancer twice.
Life was good.
Elliff wanted to be sure this new challenge was of God before he accepted it. He knew something of the demands it would place on him — in his last year as senior vice president, Elliff spoke at 54 churches in 52 weeks. He asked the committee to take a second vote. It had to be unanimous, he said, or he wouldn’t consider it.
On the drive home from meeting with the committee in early January 2011, Elliff’s mobile phone rang somewhere between Denton and Dallas. The vote was unanimous. Later votes taken by the entire board of trustees also were unanimous.
The moment of inauguration comes when Jerry Rankin — Elliff’s predecessor as IMB president — places two chairs side by side on Grove Avenue’s podium. He invites Tom and Jeannie Elliff to sit in them. Soon the podium is filled as denominational leaders, seminary presidents, IMB trustees and missionaries lay hands on them while Rankin prays for the new president.
Elliff’s remarks at the end of the service are brief. He reads from 2 Corinthians 4, focusing on verse 5.
“There are some issues God doesn’t want us to forget,” Elliff says, noting that God asks us to remember who we are. “We are bondservants,” he says. “We are brothers and sisters. Let’s not confuse our roles with who we are. You know what will kill us? Thinking we’re something we’re not.
“I am introduced as president of IMB, but I am a brother and a bondservant serving the lost of this world. That is who we are.”
Elliff reminds us of what we do. “We preach. We preach Jesus Christ is Lord,” he says. “What we do is not just for the lost; it’s for Jesus’ sake.
“Do not forget who you are and what you do.”
When Tom Elliff finishes speaking, he kneels in prayer. All the brothers and sisters in the auditorium kneel with him.
Bill Bangham is a photojournalist and writer for IMB in Richmond, Va. A photo gallery and video of the inauguration are available on imb.org