ROCKVILLE, Va.—While saddened to see any missionaries leaving fields of service, Texas trustees of the International Mission Board are encouraged by what has been called a “reset” of the largest mission organization in the world. Upon returning from the Feb. 22-24 board meeting, trustee Geronimo Disla told the TEXAN, “My assessment is that we are doing the right thing concerning the future of the IMB.”
The Bedford layman expects “it will take a few months to come back even stronger with the vision of reaching many for Christ with the gospel.”
Laymen often cut to the chase more quickly in their analysis than the pastors who dominate the composition of Southern Baptist Convention entity boards. Trustee John Ross of Judson, a dentist, reflected on the process of resetting the massive IMB organization, reminding fellow Southern Baptists of the type of leader they embraced 18 months ago as president.
“My assessment is that we are doing the right thing concerning the future of the IMB.” —Geronimo Disla, IMB trustee
“One constant is change, and ‘business as usual’ under David Platt is unlikely,” Ross said after returning to Texas.
In spite of news that far more missionaries and stateside personnel accepted incentive packages than expected in the effort to reduce the force sufficiently to balance the budget, Ross focused on Platt’s vision of “sending limitless missionaries to the world” now that the IMB is on track for a balanced budget by 2017.
The 2016 budget approved by trustees will continue a six-year trend of tapping reserves in order to sustain a $23 million deficit primarily caused by one-time costs of bringing so many missionaries back home. Of the 5,250 personnel offered incentives to retire or resign, 1,132 took advantage of the opportunity—a number nearly double the minimal 600 projected to be needed, though closer to the figure of 900 that was seen as the most responses needed to avoid involuntary terminations.
Thirty employees in the 40-member communications department in Richmond were the exception to the voluntary nature of the process with their terminations included in the count of departing home personnel. The 30 communicators were allowed to apply for open positions within the board and were praised by the IMB president as “some of the kindest servants in the Richmond office who were nothing but incredible to work alongside.”
The 10 remaining members of the Richmond communications team were reassigned to the IMB’s new mobilization structure when administration eliminated the stateside group was deemed ill-equipped for what Platt described to Baptist state paper editors as “digital realities and opportunities of our day.”
Disla, Ross and other Texas trustees present for the meeting at the International Learning Center outside of Richmond offered assessments of news that 983 Southern Baptist missionaries serving on the field voluntarily retired or resigned when offered incentives to consider whether God was leading them to transition out of employment with IMB. Another 189 stateside employees based in Richmond, Va., accepted either a Voluntary Retirement Incentive (VRI) to eligible retirement-age personnel or a “Hand Raising Opportunity” extended to remaining employees.
Trustee Ron Phillips of White Settlement admitted his surprise when he heard how many missionaries would be leaving the field and home office employment. “The number was higher than I thought it would be,” he told the TEXAN in an interview following adjournment of the board meeting.
Like every other trustee, he knows missionaries who are taking the VRI as well as others who are staying. “It’s disheartening. 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,” he said, referring to practices that have allowed the IMB to spend $210 million more than expenses covered over the last six years.
“This was an inherited situation that Dr. Platt walked into with his leadership team. I’m grateful he tackled it,” Phillips said.
Phillips is glad to see churches beginning to increase their gifts to the Cooperative Program (CP) to help secure funding for the remaining mission force. “I’m thankful to be a part of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention because we give 55 percent [of undesignated receipts from churches] to the Southern Baptist Convention for CP. As I was sharing with David last night, I wish every state convention would do the same.”
After hearing that 28,000 SBC churches gave nothing to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering (LMCO) for International Missions, trustee Mike Simmons of Midlothian said his focus is on encouraging any he can influence to realize missionaries are dependent on CP and LMCO for funding. Without that support, finances will always be strapped at IMB, where 80 percent of the budget relates to personnel costs.
Simmons said the smaller number of churches supporting Southern Baptist mission causes is “indicative that we desperately need revival in this country in our churches.” He and other trustees were encouraged to hear that both funding sources are trending upward in receipts from those that do contribute to the Cooperative Program and annual mission offering, hopeful that practice will extend to more churches.
Ross spoke of one Shreveport church that reported “an amazing increase” in giving as an example of many congregations that rallied to increase their mission offerings in light of missionaries having to return home in order to balance the IMB budget.
Simmons was heartbroken by news that a couple from Hillcrest Baptist Church where he pastors had accepted the VRI. Simmons said he has already learned of a new opportunity for ministry in Seattle where they are moving. “They assured me this is what God was leading them to do or else they wouldn’t have done it.”
While some regions are facing gaps in ministry due to the departure of so many missionaries, he said IMB leaders are moving some remaining missionaries to meet strategic needs.
Going into the meeting Simmons had questions about closing the stateside communications department but was told the IMB has personnel throughout the world that can accomplish the task some were doing out of Richmond. “I don’t think it’s going to leave a void.”
A closed-door forum with Platt provided trustees extended time for questions to be answered in an informal setting. “Our leadership gave us some very transparent answers,” Simmons said. “I really expected there’d be some testy moments, but there absolutely were not. There were some wise questions, and it was very helpful.”
Trustee Nathan Lorick of Fort Worth agreed that lengthy dialogue was healthy, stating, “Trustees and staff leadership continue to have those eternally significant discussions in order to find the best roads forward for that vision” to see the gospel go to the ends of the earth.
Lorick praised Platt’s diligence in “laying out a plan that allows the IMB to be positioned to send missionaries to take the gospel to the ends of the earth for many years to come.” While heartbroken at seeing missionaries come home from the field, he said, “It is comforting to know that each one who made the decision to come home or stay did so after earnestly seeking God’s will for their life and ministry.”
Trustee Byron McWilliams of Odessa said the IMB president was handed “an organization that was hemorrhaging financially, and he has determined to stop the bleeding and put us back on solid footing.” McWilliams supported the necessity of the decision and is encouraged that the reset will ensure a much healthier International Mission Board from this point forward.
Regarding closure of the communications department, McWilliams said he regrets the loss of jobs but trusts Platt to have made the right decision. “I feel confident that our state news agencies will continue to receive excellent material on the status of the work the IMB is doing.”
Ross also shared concern at “decentralizing communications.” He told the TEXAN, “At first glance it appears counter intuitive, but we have been assured it is in the best interest of our mission. I am taking the focused prayer approach, hopeful the new communication strategy will work well.”
He encouraged patience, adding, “God will use Southern Baptists who are yielded to him, or he will raise up others for the task if we are derelict in our duties. Pray with me that we will be good stewards of all that God entrusts to us.”
“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.” —Byron McWilliams, IMB trustee
McWilliams said a new day began when Platt was elected in August of 2014. “While all of his 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.”
Ross borrowed a phase from Ben Franklin in noting, “It is a rising and not a setting sun for the IMB.” While he will personally miss working with many missionaries he has had the privilege of knowing during the last six years as a trustee, Ross said, “The IMB mission force is resilient and other missionaries will rise to the surface to assume roles and responsibilities of those leaving.”
He also expects “they will become more efficient than ever to ensure the gospel is spread until all hear.”
Reflecting on IMB’s 170 years of experience “in taking God’s offer of salvation to the world,” Ross said, “I have no doubt we will continue this relationship.”
Recalling Platt’s vision of “sending limitless missionaries to the world,” Ross said, “Thanks to various instant communication tools, there is deep appeal to millennials, and they are stepping up.”
Trustee Robert Welch of Brownsboro praised the churches, state conventions, and SBC entities that rallied around returning missionaries. ‘It’s been amazing to watch and a great testimony of just how deep our cooperation goes.”
While the number of people taking advantage of incentive offers was higher than Welch expected, he agreed with other trustees that God had guided the process to give discernment and clarity to each individual. “The voluntary nature of the VRI and HRO helped families truly seek the Lord for his will in this matter.”
Grateful for the financial stability the reset brings to the IMB for the future, Welch said, “That’s a place we’ve not been for a while.” Though painful to walk through, he said it was needed.
“The staff began working diligently after the VRI deadline to begin filling voids that would be left as a result,” Welch explained. “It’s been reported that many of the key leadership positions in the field left vacant have already been filled with more soon to follow.”
He took encouragement in “the many stories told by our personnel of the gospel reaching people all over the world during the past few months.” Welch said, “Thousands have been saved, churches have been planted, nationals have been discipled, and people who have never even heard the gospel have now been engaged.”
While the IMB experienced “a much needed reset,” Welch reminded that the need, the gospel, and the Great Commission remain the same. “I’m glad that our IMB can now focus on these pressing things with the reset complete.”
Trustee Deron Biles of North Richland Hills also expressed gratitude for recent increases in CP giving and a projection that the LMCO offering will yield more support for IMB. “I was encouraged to hear the testimonies and passion of the new missionaries being sent out, and I am also proud of the many excellent reports from churches and state conventions like the SBTC who are providing housing and ministry opportunities for our veteran missionaries returning from the field.”
— Additional statements from IMB trustees from Texas will be added as they are provided.