Leaders skeptical about IMB-NAMB merger idea

Amid swirling rumors–and no evidence–that the SBC’s Great Commission Resurgence Task Force would recommend merging the International and North American Mission Boards, convention leaders familiar with both boards argue that a merger would harm the cause of missions.

“I have not heard anyone who really understands both organizations to any degree talk about [a merger] in the positive,” said Calvin Wittman, pastor of Applewood Baptist Church in Wheat Ridge, Colo., and a recent member of the SBC Executive Committee who completed his tenure in June.

Scott Moody, a NAMB trustee and pastor of First Baptist Church in Silsbee, said the board has not discussed the possibility of a merger.

“A lot of what is fueling this merger talk and those kinds of things is because NAMB has hit some hard times here of late,” Moody told the TEXAN. “But I just say we need to fix what is broken and complete the task.

“I remember a few years ago when the IMB was going through some turmoil over the tongues issue and all of that. IMB wasn’t thrown under the bus. They righted the course, and I believe they responded properly to that. And I believe that we can do the same thing here.”

Other NAMB trustees from Texas either failed to respond to the TEXAN’s request for an interview or declined to comment.

The rumor of a merger stemmed in part from statements by NAMB trustee chairman Tim Patterson, who in May said he believes Southern Baptists should have a “singular world mission agency.”

Because “North America is now just as much a foreign mission field as any other country or continent” with diverse people groups and cultures, Patterson said, “we need a singular world mission agency that does not lessen its emphasis on missions in North America or any other part of the world, but enhances it.”

Patterson added, “The way we structure, fund and administer our work is overly bureaucratic and bloated. If we combine our efforts and funding, we could be much more effective and become better stewards of God’s resources.”

But Patterson appears to have softened his position. While declining to answer questions from the
TEXAN about whether his opinions have changed and whether others helped him arrive at them, he stated support for both mission boards.

“I believe with all my heart that the North American Mission Board and its ministries are needed more now than ever before in the history of this agency,” he said in a statement. “The tasks that NAMB has been given by Southern Baptists call for a unique and particular type of agency to fulfill them. That is why Southern Baptists designed the North American Mission Board to be different in organization and structure from the International Mission Board.

“That does not mean that we should not investigate the possibility that there are ministries and services each provides that could be done more efficiently and effectively together or at least in a more synergistic manner.”

SBC President Johnny Hunt may have added fuel to the rumors of a merger by telling four Baptist state paper editors in June that despite having restructured its entities a dozen years ago, it is not too soon to consider another restructuring. Also in June, however, he told NAMB staff members, “I was as surprised as you were when the story hit proposing to join NAMB and the IMB.”

IMB President Jerry Rankin declined comment on the prospect of a merger but noted that he believes “the SBC ought to always be open to exploring any and all options for its effectiveness in fulfilling the Great Commission and our task to serve the churches as a denomination.”

Opponents of a merger offer several reasons for their resistance:
>A singular world mission organization would result in the neglect of international missions, remarked Avery Willis, former vice president of overseas operations at the IMB. “I don’t think it wise to merge the two mission organizations. There are several reasons. One is the disproportionate emphasis that we naturally give to that which we’re closest to,” he said, adding, “You have to have a concerted effort of people who are focused on the rest of the world.”
>The organizational structures of the IMB and NAMB are too different to combine them effectively, many opponents say. While the IMB funds its missionaries directly, all but a small number of NAMB missionaries are funded jointly through state conventions and accountable to those conventions. Unlike IMB missionaries, the spouses of NAMB missionaries are not on the payroll, and many are employed apart from the time they serve.

“If the organizations were similar, then there might be a possibility (of merging),” said Bob Pearle, pastor of Birchman Baptist Church in Fort Worth and a recent IMB trustee who serves as SBTC president. “But they are so dissimilar that I do not see the feasibility of that happening. They are just two separate animals.”
>Some observers, including Wittman and Willis, charge that NAMB’s structure is so ineffective that it would drag down international missions if the two were forced to merge. Wittman argued in a recent TEXAN column that NAMB must structure itself more like the IMB in order to be maximally effective.

Jim Sibley, who has served as both an international and North American missionary, said the logistics of merging would be difficult if both organizations were healthy, but they prove nearly impossible give NAMB’ inefficiencies.

“The IMB is basically a very healthy organization,” Sibley, director of the Pasche Institute of Jewish Studies and associate professor of Jewish ministry at Criswell College, said. “The North American Mission Board has been beset with difficulties and problems over the last number of years. So it would be a healthy organization taking on an organization that’s not very healthy. I just don’t see very many advantages at all to a merger.”

Willis, however, left open the possibility of a merger should NAMB become healthier.
>The SBC’s merger of entities during the late 1990’s demonstrated that such efforts generally prove unsuccessful, Larry Lewis, head of the Home Mission Board at the time, told the TEXAN.

Though the restructuring of several agencies into NAMB promised to bring increased effectiveness, Lewis said it actually eliminated or marginalized important ministries. For example, the Brotherhood Commission formerly handled disaster relief, allowing the HMB so focus on church planting. When NAMB was given charge of both church planting and disaster relief, however, staff members were forced to neglect church planting and evangelism when major disasters struck. During Hurricane Katrina, the NAMB staff was distracted from a major evangelistic campaign because its full attention was required on the Gulf Coast, he said.

Merging entities also weakened Southern Baptist participation in the Celebrate Jesus 2000 evangelistic effort, Lewis said.

“At the time, I felt possibly (a merger) was a good idea but I had a gut feeling that it probably was not,” he said. “But nevertheless I endorsed it and didn’t oppose it. I’ve come to believe as time has gone on—in fact, quite quickly came to believe—that it was not a good idea and that it was really a step backwards for our denomination and especially for home missions.”

He fears a merger of NAMB and the IMB could similarly harm important ministries.

“The restructuring was not a good idea,” he said. “It would have been better to finetune what we had and make changes as necessary.”

Likewise, better to fine-tune NAMB, Lewis argued. “I am totally, absolutely and completely opposed to merging the two boards,” he said. “I think that would be a giant step backwards.”

Other reasons some Southern Baptists oppose a merger include the need for an organization that specialized in cross-cultural missions in America and fear that a unified mission agency wouldn’t save the SBC much money.

In reality, Southern Baptists likely will not know until sometime next year whether the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force will propose a merger in the report, But Moody, the NAMB trustee, offered a suggestion as to what Southern Baptists can do as they wait to hear the report.

“Get the right leadership, the right president, and I believe we can fulfill God’s Plan for Sharing, starting churches, sharing Christ,” he said of NAMB.

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