Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on The Christian Index.
I met David Platt at a meeting in the Dominican Republic 13 months before he was elected as IMB President. During a break, I asked him, “What are you going to do when you become IMB president?” Now I understand and I like what he’s doing.
As Southern Baptists seek to discern the magnitude and urgency of the current IMB financial crisis, I would like to share some thoughts. I led one of the IMB field administrative regions for over six years with about 325 missionaries under my charge. During an 18-year career with the IMB, I also served as a church planter in Tanzania and as 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 Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri.
I’ve known the last four presidents of the IMB. Each of these leaders brought a unique skill set to the IMB presidency and grew into their presidential roles, leaving a lasting mark on missions. Kathy and I encountered Baker James and Eloise Cauthen after they had retired in California. The Cauthens met with us during a ministers’ retreat in 1980, counseling us about our missions call. Adrian Rogers told me in his office that he’d never heard a greater missions preacher than Cauthen.
In 1984 the Hadaways were appointed SBC missionaries by Keith Parks. A few years later Parks looked at the one third of the world locked behind communist iron curtains and Islam and created a missionary administrative structure (Cooperative Services International) to reach them. The current emphasis on unreached peoples is his legacy. In 1997 Jerry Rankin asked Kathy and I 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 4-year presidency brought new initiatives in theological training and marketplace ministries. Rankin and Elliff continued Parks’ unreached peoples emphasis.
As a mission’s veteran, I must admit to having some reservations about David Platt’s election as IMB president. After almost 13 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 David Platt for examining missions through different eyes and adjusting strategy, structure, and personnel to fit the 21st 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 been surviving 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. The financial downturn of 2008 caused a significant depletion of IMB investments and the resulting income from them.
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 now enjoys not only budget surpluses, but comfortable 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 & Lottie Moon Christmas Offering). The IMB is not in a crisis currently but would soon be in one without Platt’s actions. The IMB financial picture is complicated and unlike no 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, in the instance of field missionaries the spouse is counted as a full missionary. Of the 4,780 missionaries, there are approximately 2,000 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 actually on the field at the same time. About 20% of the units are in the USA on stateside assignment (furlough). Another 10% are in the States receiving training, recently appointed, planning to resign, undergoing medical treatment, or working in a stateside job but on missionary status.
This is why David Platt is going about trimming the budget in layers. The reason the IMB has forecast the need to reduce personnel by 600 to 800 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 “package” that varies from country to country. A missionary unit receives a small salary based on 5-year longevity increments plus a cost of living supplement depending on their country of assignment. All missionaries receive a house or apartment and only pay utilities. All 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 Amazon missionaries operate boats in lieu of a car. Missionary units pay $50 a month for the use of an automobile with the mission board paying the fuel.
Each missionary with children receives an education allotment. Families can choose online education, home school, or apply a standardized dollar amount to attend a local school. This varies by locale from $500 to $2,500 per child. In advanced countries, missionary children can attend public schools whereas in Third World situations local education is inadequate. In Africa and Asia some children attend Christian boarding schools with these funds. The IMB sets a dollar amount and the parents pick up the difference for the more expensive option. Each missionary unit has a communications budget for telephone and Internet (most missionaries have to buy their computers). In my region, the communication budget was about $2,000 annually per unit.
Each unit with college age children receives an allotment for their children’s education often matched by Baptist colleges in the USA. Missionaries receive a retirement contribution the IMB pays into their Guidestone accounts. The IMB also pays each missionary a social security supplement and provides annual income tax preparation.
Last and not least, overseas missionaries and their children receive 100% reimbursement for all medical and dental care. This includes psychological, psychiatric, and counseling services for all members of the family if necessary. Besides this basic “package” the home office provides travel for the missionary family to and from the field and within the USA. Field missionary units and their families travel to many IMB meetings together. Usually, the head of the household has work travel and conference and office budgets for his or her missionary endeavor.
Platt could have cut some of these benefits to squeeze all field personnel within available funds. He wisely has chosen to voluntarily reduce personnel by offering a generous retirement incentive so those who remain can be fully supported. The next wave in January will give all IMB personnel the opportunity to accept a voluntary reassignment outside of the organization.
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. Now it may be that existing missionaries may not accept retraining or reassignment. I applaud, however, 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.
Once phase one and phase two are complete I believe David Platt will make every effort to insure that every missionary who desires to stay on the field remains. They might have to accept a different position, however, in another part of the world. When we lived in North Africa, my wife and I were the only SBC missionaries in the country. I was the strategy coordinator, field evangelist, business manager, and treasurer.
I believe in the Gideon Principle. In Judges chapter 7, the Lord reduces Gideon’s forces from 22,000 down to 300. Fewer missionaries can often be as effective many. Some roles missionaries have historically filled may change in the current reset.
To my missionary friends on the field and former colleagues in the States, 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. Missions has fundamentally changed since my wife and I departed for the field in 1984. This is a good time for a reset and recalibration.
I conducted some research when I was about to move my family to Brazil during the last great IMB reorganization in 1997. 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 find jobs and stay on the field without the financial support of their sending agency.
As David Platt and his team rethink 21st 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.
–Robin Dale Hadaway serves as professor of missions at Midwestern Seminary in Kansas City.