Southern Baptists bleed 1,000 missionaries in voluntary exodus

by Joni B. Hannigan |

(Christian Examiner/JBH)

RICHMOND, Va. (Christian Examiner) – In a striking announcement six months after announcing plans to trim a minimum of 600 missionaries from the International Mission Board, its president David Platt yesterday told trustees nearly twice that many — 1,132 missionaries and staff — had already voluntarily retired or resigned, with incentives.

The exodus of missionaries and personnel sets into motion a "reset" Platt told trustees he envisioned, and ensures the IMB is on track for a balanced budget by 2017, according to an IMB news release.

It also reduces the missionary force on the field by 21 percent and the stateside staff by 33 percent.

The voluntary retirement incentive (VRI) and subsequent Hand Raising Opportunity (HRO) produced 983 missionaries and 149 stateside staff leaving the IMB over the last six months, Platt reported, with 702 missionaries and 109 stateside staff taking the VRI and 281 missionaries and 40 stateside staff taking the HRO.

The voluntary departures also prevented any involuntary terminations, except for the elimination of 30 personnel whose jobs were eliminated with the closure of the Richmond communication's office.

It also means the nation's largest evangelical denomination now has a missionary force that has dipped below 4,000 for the first time since 1993, with about 3,800 missionaries on the field.

"IMB is now in a much healthier financial position," Platt said during IMB's Feb. 22-24 meeting near Richmond, Virginia. "Due to increased giving from Southern Baptist churches, Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon Christmas Offering giving are trending upward."

BUDGETING CONCERNS

A massive budgeting oversight led to the 170-year-old agency's shortfall, with a six-year deficit that built to $210 million in overspending and severely impacted its cash reserves, according to news releases.

The IMB is an entity of and owned by the Southern Baptist Convention, and served by a board of nearly 100 trustees from various states, elected to 4-year terms. According to a Baptist Press document, members of the board of trustees give oversight to financial matters, and review and approve strategy, among other responsibilities.

SBC LEADERS RESPOND

Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, which reports a network of some 50,000 churches with more than 16 million members, said the churches should see this news "as a fresh calling to reaching the world for Christ" and making disciples of all the nations.

"This reset is not regress or retreat," Floyd told Baptist Press.

Frank S. Page, president of the SBC Executive Committee, said, "My heart is broken to hear of the large number of missionaries and staff who are leaving the IMB. My prayers are with them as they transition.

"However, most of all," Page said, "My prayers are focused on the fact of the massive lostness in our world. May God bless Dr. Platt as he leads us in a new strategy to see a new day of intentional evangelism around our world. God help us all!"

TRUSTEES RESPOND

Several Texas trustees responded to news of the agency reset with varying degrees of surprise and confidence. There are 12 trustees who are members of the IMB board.

Ron Phillips of White Settlement said he was surprised on hearing about how many missionaries stepped out. "The number was higher than I thought it would be," he told the TEXAN after the board meeting.

"It's disheartening," said Phillips who knows both those who are staying and those who are leaving. "I wish we could keep everyone on the field, but we have to live within our means. We can't keep selling properties and taking from our contingency funds.

"This was an inherited situation that Dr. Platt walked into with his leadership team. I'm grateful he tackled it," Phillips said.

Byron McWilliams of Odessa told the Texan he believes Platt has put the IMB "back on solid footing" despite being given an organization that was struggling financially.

"While all of (David Platt's) decisions have not been perfect, I feel strongly as a trustee that he is relying more heavily upon the Holy Spirit for guidance than anyone else, and he is leading the board forward with a strategy that remains positive and exciting for Southern Baptists worldwide," McWilliams said.

John Ross, a dentist from Judson, said he is concerned about "decentralizing communications," something at first he thought might be "counter intuitive."

He remains hopeful and encouraged patience, however, recalling Platt's vision of "sending limitless missionaries to the world."

"Thanks to various instant communications tools, there is deep appeal to millennials, and they are stepping up," Ross said.

INVOLUNTARY REDUCTIONS

Last week as Platt responded to concerns from Baptist state papers about how they would receive information following the closure of the Richmond Communications Office at IMB headquarters, and the loss of 30 seasoned Baptist missions communicators, he took time to caution the group about how to report on the "reset."

"As we announce a number next week" at a Feb. 23-24 IMB trustee meeting in Richmond, Virginia Platt said, "I know that the reality of so many IMB missionaries making transitions will set in in a fresh way across the SBC. And I know there's an adversary who would love to use that to breed discouragement and division and disunity. And I just want to ask you brothers and sisters for your help in encouraging the churches."

After discussing internal and external audits of the IMB communication's effectiveness, he it has "not kept up with our times."

Referencing a "digital mindset" necessary for a changing audience, Platt said, in part, "our field and stateside communicators struggle employing new methods."

Promising state papers a chance to learn more about new strategies the IMB will employ in reporting missions, Platt invited Baptist journalists to participate in an international trip later this year to visit IMB's global communications teams. He said some work also will be outsourced.

Ken Winter, a former vice president for the IMB, reacted strongly in a blog post following Platt's remarks. He said those communication staff members who were terminated were "grossly undervalued and maligned" by the remarks.

Bob Stith, a Texas pastor and specialist on gender issues, thanked Winter for his blog and in the comments section said he is distressed by the number of churches that no longer support the Cooperative Program, but instead, "do their own thing."

About the downsizing of the IMB, and especially the termination of the communications team, Stith wrote: "This is definitely a tragedy and many great people have been thrown under the bus."

Tina Guthrow, a former web developer for the IMB, in a comment on Winter's blog, said for many on the team who accepted the VRI last year, before the rest of the team was terminated, their "choice" was made for them in that "the work that had been accomplished wasn't being recognized or appreciated."

Guthrow wrote: "Now, having read the article reporting how the mobilization team was not 'responsive,' which is inaccurate, it's a rather hollow victory to realize that when we made the 'choice' to leave, we were right – sadly so."

The news received pointed reactions on social media from some who have speculated as to why the IMB has continued to appoint new missionaries while asking others to voluntarily retire and resign.

David Worley, on the 316 Roundtable Facebook page, wrote: "I just can't understand why new missionaries were being appointed, year after year, when this was true. We should've put a hiring freeze on, until the problem was worked out. But instead, we just kept appointing new missionaries."

Brad Jones wrote: "Thats 1000 missionaries off the field! That's staggering, to have that many leave in a short time to me says we are retreating. I understand we cannot continue to spend money we don't have but that's a huge hole left in the mission field."

Thomas Littleton said: "Again - I say this about re-branding - out with the old folks in with the new paradigm 'Missional' social justice ideals. 988 people sidelined or looking for a new covering."