As Southern Baptists seek to discern the magnitude and urgency of the current IMB financial crisis, I would like to share some thoughts as a former IMB missionary and current missions professor. I led one of the IMB field administrative regions for six years with about 325 missionaries under my charge. During an eighteen-year career with the IMB, I also served as a church planter in Tanzania and an unreached people group strategy coordinator in a limited access country in North Africa. Currently I am the professor of missions and dean of students at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri.
I knew each of the past four presidents of the IMB. Each brought a unique skill set to the IMB presidency and grew into their presidential roles, leaving a lasting mark on missions. Baker James and Eloise Cauthen met with Kathy and me during a ministers’ retreat in 1980, counseling us about our missions call. Adrian Rogers once told me he’d never heard a greater missions preacher than Cauthen.
In 1984, Kathy and I were appointed IMB missionaries by Keith Parks. The current emphasis on unreached peoples is part of his enduring legacy.
In 1997 Jerry Rankin asked Kathy and me to move from Africa to South America to lead a newly created administrative region as part of his “New Directions.” Rankin was one of the hardest working leaders I’ve known and was extremely accessible to his reports.
I met Tom Elliff in 1987 while I was serving in Tanzania. Elliff was a caring leader who pastored the IMB flock in an exemplary way. His four-year presidency brought new initiatives in theological training and marketplace ministries. Rankin and Elliff continued Parks’s unreached peoples emphasis.
As a missions veteran, I must admit to having some reservations about David Platt’s election as IMB president. After fifteen months, I no longer have these doubts. I believe only an outsider could have taken a fresh look at the procedures, positions, and roles that have evolved over the organization’s 170-year history. I applaud Platt for examining missions through different eyes and adjusting strategy, structure, and personnel to fit the twenty-first century.
In one sense the IMB is not in a financial crisis. Despite the budget shortfall these last six years, the organization did not incur any debt. Nobody has been dismissed. The IMB has kept its personnel on the field by selling unneeded properties overseas, spending down cash reserves, and not spending discretionary items in the budget. The mission entity is in the black and has received a clean audit every year.
I know something about managing a Southern Baptist entity during a financial predicament. When I became interim president of MBTS in February of 2012, many in the SBC thought Midwestern Seminary was in a fiscal crisis.
We were and we were not. We did not have to borrow money or go into debt. However, for about six months we operated month to month without significant cash reserves. Due to some actions my leadership team took in early 2012 we finished the academic year with a surplus. Under the capable leadership of Jason Allen, MBTS has continued to grow while rebuilding its necessary cash reserves.
Managing the personnel and financial resources of the IMB is a daunting task. Unlike institutions that receive tuition and housing income, the IMB relies principally on gifts from Southern Baptists for its proceeds (Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon Christmas Offering). The IMB is not in a crisis currently but would be soon without Platt’s actions. The IMB financial picture is complicated and unlike any other SBC entity, institution, or church.
The status of field missionaries and stateside staff differs greatly from one another. In the case of stateside non-missionary staff, the spouse is not counted in the personnel tally. On the other hand, spouses of overseas field personnel are counted as missionaries. Of the 4,780 missionaries, there are approximately two thousand couples and about 780 single missionaries. In IMB terminology this amounts to about 2,800 “units” on the field. Of course, not all of these missionaries are on the field at the same time. At any given moment, 20 to 30 percent of the units are in the USA. They may be on stateside assignment (furlough), recently appointed but not yet deployed, receiving training, undergoing medical treatment, or debriefing in anticipation of retirement or resignation.
This is why Platt is trimming the budget in layers. The reason the IMB has forecast the need to reduce personnel by six hundred to eight hundred persons is not because they are inexact. Rather, it is because the personnel reductions will come from a combination of field and stateside personnel. A unit of two persons may retire (net two) or there may be a unit of one (a single missionary). Also, Platt has wisely chosen to seek voluntary retirement as the first alternative rather than reduce benefits to field missionaries.
Each field missionary unit has a financial “package” that varies from country to country. A missionary unit receives a small salary based on five-year longevity increments plus a cost of living supplement depending on their country of assignment. Missionaries receive a house or apartment, paying only utilities. Missionary units receive transportation either by way of a mission-owned and maintained car or a transportation supplement for bus, taxi, or subway fare. A few missionaries in remote areas operate boats in lieu of a car.
Missionaries with children receive an education allotment, which varies by locale. Those with college-age children receive an allotment for their children’s education, often matched by Baptist colleges in the USA. Each missionary unit has a communications budget for telephone and Internet and missionaries receive a retirement contribution the IMB pays into their GuideStone accounts.
Last but not least, overseas missionaries and their children receive reimbursement for medical and dental care, including psychological, psychiatric, and counseling services for all members of the family if necessary.
Besides these things, the IMB provides travel for the missionary family to and from the field and within the USA. Usually, the head of the household has work travel and conference and office budgets for his or her missionary endeavor. Field missionaries and their families travel to some IMB meetings together.
Platt could have cut some of these benefits to squeeze as many current field personnel within available funds as possible. He wisely has chosen to voluntarily reduce personnel by offering a generous retirement incentive so those who remain can be fully supported.
I applaud Platt’s administration for looking at the worldwide situation with fresh eyes and determining the jobs that need to be done in this new age of missions. I am not privy to the internal discussions by leadership, but in the coming restructuring many jobs will probably be combined and consolidated, rather than missionaries being laid off.
Missions has fundamentally changed since my wife and I departed for the field in 1984. I believe Platt will make every effort to ensure that every missionary who desires to stay on the field remains. They may have to accept new positions and serve in other parts of the world. For example, when we lived in North Africa, my wife and I were the only SBC missionaries in the country where I was the strategy coordinator, field evangelist, business manager, and treasurer. This may be God’s timing for another reset and recalibration.
In Judges 7, the Lord reduced Gideon’s forces from thirty-two thousand down to three hundred. In some fields today, fewer missionaries may be as effective as many. Some missionary roles may change. After the stock market crash of 1929, the Foreign Mission Board could not pay many of their missionaries. The missionaries in Brazil obtained secular jobs so they could stay on the field. Such was their calling. Our current missionaries are cut from the same cloth. If need be, most of them would be willing to find jobs and stay on the field if the funds are not available from their sending agency.
To my missionary friends on the field, former colleagues in the States, and pastor friends: let’s give David Platt a chance to chart a new course at the IMB. He is being advised by men like Zane Pratt, John Brady, and Clyde Meador who have long missions experience and great wisdom.
As this team rethinks twenty-first century missions by refocusing IMB strategy and personnel, let’s support their efforts by increasing our gifts to the Cooperative Program and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering so the world may be won to Christ.