RICHMOND, Va. (Christian Examiner)—Southern Baptist state newspaper editors are expressing concern over what they have said is a lack of transparency from the denomination's international missions agency during its recent staff and missionary force reduction.
Last August, in what was designated as a first phase of the International Mission Board's organizational "reset," the IMB announced the need to eliminate 600 to 800 positions—both staff and missionary—in an effort to turn around a $210 million shortfall since 2010. On Jan. 14 the IMB announced that it was eliminating its Communications Center and 30 staff communications positions.
At least two state Baptist newspaper editors published editorials this week questioning the way the moves have been handled by IMB President David Platt, particularly challenging his perceived lack of transparency and openness.
"I'm troubled by the lack of communication coming from the IMB especially with the news last week that the Richmond Communications Center has been eliminated, and 30 of 40 people lost their jobs," wrote Lonnie Wilkey, editor of the Tennessee Baptist and Reflector, a publication of the Tennessee Baptist Convention.
Wilkey noted the IMB had not yet released the names of missionaries who accepted the voluntary retirement offers by the agency at the end of last year. He asked why the IMB needed to eliminate the 30 positions at all if the reports are accurate that the number of people who accepted the retirement offer relieved the financial burden proposed as the reason for the RIF.
"That's just one of the questions that IMB President David Platt has not shown a willingness to answer. His absence is disturbing to a number of people including myself," Wilkey wrote. "He is the face of the IMB. Since the announcement was made, he has not been available to Baptist state paper editors."
Bob Terry, the longtime editor of The Alabama Baptist, expressed similar concerns. He noted that while Platt has the authority to reorganize the IMB's structure and complete communications tasks "in the way he deems best," he has the responsibility to do it "transparently" before Southern Baptists.
"IMB may be a corporation, but it is not like a private business," Terry wrote. "At its core Southern Baptists are a volunteer body which demands transparency and open communication in order to function effectively."
Terry noted that the IMB had signaled that regular IMB communications work would be done by the IMB's global communications teams based in London and Chiang Mai, Thailand. He also said that sources are suggesting that the Brentwood, Tenn., organization "The A Group," which markets Platt's "Radical" organization, will be used in the entity's communications plans.
Terry expressed doubt about whether outside public relations firms will be able to tell effectively the story of SBC missions abroad. He suggested that eliminating IMB storytellers could negatively impact the agency's ability to connect with Southern Baptists and mobilize them to pray for, give to and participate in missions.
An article by Baptist Press described a Jan. 20 conference call between the IMB and state Baptist paper editors less than a week after the elimination of the communications positions. According to the article, the IMB and the editors had different goals from the outset. IMB leaders were attempting to gather questions and information for Platt ahead of a Feb. 16 meeting between him and the editors. The editors were hoping the conference call would lead to additional details about the IMB decision.
In the conference call Gary Ledbetter, editor of the Southern Baptist TEXAN, told IMB leaders that state papers "have always appreciated the news coverage from the field and basically world-class photography that we get from the IMB" and Baptist journalists "expect it to continue." He added that state editors need help in understanding the changes in strategy occurring at the IMB and expressed frustration that getting that information has seemed "difficult."
Baptist Press shared five questions editors asked during that conference call that the IMB was not prepared to answer.
- What website or person will provide journalists with articles and photographs going forward?
- Why has Platt not yet discussed communications cuts and strategy changes with members of the Baptist media?
- Will Platt address the media before his meeting with state paper leaders Feb. 16?
- Were IMB trustees informed of the Richmond Communications Center closure before it was announced?
- What roles are served by communications personnel who were retained?
Despite the questions raised by state paper editors, Baptist Press reported that they expressed, on multiple occasions during the call, their continued support for the IMB and its leadership.
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- SBC President talks of merging mission agencies; questions future of state conventions, associations
- IMB to reduce personnel by 600-800, reset the organization