RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Thomas (Tom) D. Elliff, longtime Oklahoma pastor, Southern Baptist Convention leader and former missionary, is the unanimous recommendation of a 15-member trustee search committee to be the next president of International Mission Board.
The nomination of Elliff — who served as a missionary to Zimbabwe with his wife, Jeannie, in the early 1980s — will be presented to the full board of trustees for consideration and a possible vote when they meet March 15-16 in Dallas.
If elected, Elliff would succeed Jerry Rankin as leader of the mission board, which coordinates the work of more than 5,000 Southern Baptist missionaries worldwide. Rankin retired as IMB president July 31, 2010, after 17 years at the helm. Veteran missionary and Executive Vice President Clyde Meador currently serves as interim president.
IMB trustee chairman Jimmy Pritchard, who has led the presidential search committee throughout its selection process, announced the nomination Feb. 17. He said Elliff emerged as the committee’s clear and unanimous choice in January.
“Throughout the process, we talked to some great and godly men, but we just could not get a sense of God’s peace about any one of them,” said Pritchard, pastor of First Baptist Church in Forney, Texas. “When Dr. Elliff’s name came before us, we had a subtle sense of God’s Spirit speaking to our hearts. That may sound mystical, but that’s really what happened…. Every one of us senses that God spoke and said, ‘This is the moment you’ve been praying for. Here is your man.'”
Elliff, 66, a Texas native, was twice elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention, in 1996 and 1997, and also served as president of the SBC Pastors’ Conference in 1990. He has led several key churches in the denomination, including First Southern Baptist Church of Del City, Okla., where he was pastor for 20 years.
From 2005 to 2009, Elliff served as IMB senior vice president for spiritual nurture and church relations. In that role, he taught and counseled missionaries and helped mobilize churches throughout the convention for mission involvement. Currently he leads Living in The Word Publications, a writing and speaking ministry he founded in 2005. He frequently speaks about spiritual awakening and family life in churches and conferences through the United States and abroad.
Elliff brings a wealth of gifts and experience to the challenging task of leading Southern Baptists’ international mission work in the coming years, and has lived in “many different worlds” in Southern Baptist life, Pritchard said.
“He has heard God’s call to missions as a field missionary. He has pastored some of our best churches. He was president of our convention for two years. He worked at the vice presidential level with IMB,” Pritchard said. “So he is uniquely prepared, his integrity is unquestioned, and I believe that he will be able to help connect all of our entities together. He has great relationship with our seminary presidents and with the North American Mission Board.
“We just see so many indicators that he is God’s choice. Through the process God has spoken to him also, and we are enthusiastic. We are standing with complete and total unanimity,” Pritchard added. “We are very confident that God’s hand is on Dr. Elliff at this time to lead IMB. We’re excited, and we can’t wait for March to get here to make our presentation to the full board.”
Reached for comment, Elliff asked Southern Baptists to pray for him, his wife and family — and for IMB trustees as they consider his nomination.
“Both Jeannie and I were incredibly humbled when the search committee approached us,” he said. “Obviously, we would not have moved forward to this moment had we not spent a great deal of time in prayer seeking the face of the Lord. Now we feel humbled once again that they are going to present us to the board. Along with all the members of the board, we would just encourage people to pray with us during these days.”
Elliff said his discussions with the IMB presidential search committee initially came as a surprise.
“We love missions and we’ve given our hearts to it, but this was not on our radar screen,” Elliff said. “It has just driven us to our knees in prayer. We certainly couldn’t do this if we didn’t sense the Lord’s leadership to do it. But we recognize that God speaks not only to individuals but to groups of people. We’re confident that He will have His way as the board deals with this.”
Born in Paris, Texas, Elliff is a third-generation Southern Baptist pastor. The Elliffs, who married in 1966, have four grown children and 25 grandchildren.
He received a bachelor of arts degree from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark.; a master of divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas; and a doctor of ministry degree from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
He led several churches while in college and seminary and was pastor of Eastwood Baptist Church in Tulsa, Okla., for nearly a decade before being appointed with his wife as missionaries to Zimbabwe in 1981. They served in the East African nation for about two years, but resigned in 1983 after their teenage daughter, Beth, was seriously injured in a car accident there. After they returned to the United States, Elliff led Applewood Baptist Church in Lakewood, Colo., before being called to First Southern Baptist Church of Del City, where he was pastor from 1985 to 2005.
He is the author of several books about prayer, spiritual awakening and family life.
Erich Bridges is an International Mission Board global correspondent.