GRAPEVINE?In an unprecedented move, native Texan Tom Elliff got to work immediately as president of the International Mission Board following the unanimous vote of trustees meeting in Grapevine March 15-16.
Texan Jimmy Pritchard of Forney, chairman of the board, as well as chairman of the search committee that has been meeting for the last year and a half to name a successor to Jerry Rankin, called Elliff “the real deal.”
Pritchard told the TEXAN it would be difficult to offer just one quality that set Elliff apart in their process of interviewing various candidates. “But I suppose there is one quality that connects all the others and that is his authenticity. His heart is true as are his convictions [which] are clear because he is authentic. Throughout his extended ministry, which has been well-observed by Southern Baptists, in every role and situation, he has proven genuine and true. His well-deserved reputation as the real deal is a key component in his selection.”
Pritchard, pastor of First Baptist Church of Forney, announced Elliff’s nomination on behalf of the search team a month ago after the committee settled on the former pastor and missionary in their January meeting.
Elliff, 67, assumed responsibility for the 5,043-member international mission force as soon as the vote was taken.
In addition to being the unanimous recommendation of a search committee that admits to being stalled by a lack of consensus near the end of their 16-month process, Elliff was unanimously approved on a secret ballot vote of the 76 trustees present on March 16.While accolades have been flowing from trustees and Southern Baptist leaders, the only expressed curiosity has been over Elliff’s age.
Pritchard acknowledged in a news conference that Elliff had been recommended early and passed over, in part because of his age.
Elliff responded to the issue head on when asked how he perceived the criticism that he was “a safe choice” and possibly an interim solution to a long search.
“I don’t think for somebody to have an observation, even if I disagree with them, makes them a critic of mine,” he told the questioner. “They’re just making an observation.”
The reference to him being a safe choice caused Elliff to recall a humorous story about “the man who took home a little puppy to allow his children to raise it and after about 3 weeks when that pit bull grew into manhood he realized that what he adopted was not safe at all.”
Honing in on the issue, Elliff continued, “I have not thought about being safe. I’ve thought about fulfilling the vision. It’s interesting when God called us to do this at the same time he began to paint a vision, as I said in the acceptance speech, on the walls of my heart.Some of it was already there I just never imagined how it would be fulfilled.”
Elliff said it was unfortunate that the vision for some people stops at 65. “That’s a humanly contrived figure. I have a grandfather who preached until he was 92 and he said he was sure glad. He said, ‘I think about all I’d have missed if I’d let my retired friends convince me to stop.'”
Explaining how he will approach the mandate given by the Board, Elliff said, “I believe ‘as my days are so shall my strength be,’ quoting Deut. 33:25. “People have asked me, ‘Is it five years or 10 years,’ because everybody thinks in five-year increments.My answer is I don’t know, but as my days are so shall my strength be.
“I have no intention now of conjugating when I’m going to stop being president. I have hardly started being president. I have work to do and I’m going to set my heart to the work and my shoulder to the work and we’re going to get busy and start engaging these unengaged people groups and reaching these unreached people groups.Together, if our Southern Baptist Convention will throw themselves into this we can see something of a spiritual awakening perhaps for the third time in our nation’s history?perhaps on a wholesale basis because there are enough Southern Baptists to sway the spiritual barometer in the United States.”
Calling the native Texan a personal friend, Southern Baptists of Texas Convention Executive Director Jim Richards said Elliff has experience working closely with SBTC. “Tom Elliff is the consummate man of God. He is a man of prayer. No one is better prepared to lead Southern Baptists in getting the gospel to the nations,” Richards shared upon hearing the outcome of the vote. “I praise God for his selection.”
SBTC Missions Director Terry Coy told the TEXAN he looks forward to seeing how Elliff leads the IMB through a period of strategic realignment. “Many people have questions about the implementation of the new affinities strategy and what the implications will be for partnerships. There is a comfort in knowing a man of Tom’s character and abilities will be leading the way,” he stated.
With a dozen Texas trustees serving on the board, many were quick to express their affirmation of Elliff. Though unable to be present for the recent meeting, SBTC President Byron McWilliams, pastor of First Baptist Church of Odessa, shared that having known how diligently the committee had worked, when he first heard Elliff was the candidate he knew he was God’s man for this hour in the history of the IMB.
“Dr. Elliff brings proven SBC leadership, conservative theology, a missionary heart and a willingness to make necessary changes to take our mission sending organization to the next level,” McWilliams added, stating his unequivocal support. Furthermore, he stated, “He does not just talk about prayer, he is a man of prayer.”
Last month when Elliff’s name was released, Prichard explained, “When Dr. Elliff’s name came before us, we had a subtle sense of God’s Spirit speaking to our hearts. That may sound mystical, but that’s really what happened,” Pritchard said when the candidate was announced. “Every one of us senses that God spoke and said, ‘This is the moment you’ve been praying for. Here is your man.'”
One year out from having served as a senior vice president at IMB, Elliff has focused on a writing and speaking ministry centered on spiritual awakening, while continuing to do field personnel orientation for missionaries.
Throughout the 16-month search, the selection of a candidate with missions experience was presumed to be a given. Not only did Elliff serve as a Southern Baptist missionary in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, he focused his last church on sending a steady stream of volunteers overseas and personally led crusades in 16 countries.
Elliff’s pastoral experience further strengthens his resume and marks a return to historical precedent. The board’s first six presidents, spanning the first century of its ministry, were pastors without overseas missionary experience, though two had been home missionaries. The next four?M. Theron Rankin, Baker James Cauthen, R. Keith Parks and Jerry Rankin?had primarily served as international missionaries. In addition to their missionary careers, Cauthen had pastored Polytechnic Baptist Church in Fort Worth for four years while serving as professor of missions at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Rankin had pastored Sadler Baptist Church near Sherman for three years.
Elliff served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 1996 to 1998 and was an early leader in the SBC’s conservative theological resurgence. A longtime advocate for strong families, Elliff chaired the SBC’s Council on Family Life and appealed for passage