Our man in Richmond

If our convention’s continued existence can be justified, our mission boards must be exemplars of efficiency, vision, and effectiveness. Sure, we have 10 other agencies but denominationally, they undergird our Great Commission work or we don’t need them to the degree we have them. Our North American and International mission boards will either be the sharp end of what work we do beyond our own state or our churches will find another, sharper missions partner.

No doom and gloom here. Both our boards are without presidents currently and both their search processes are several months old. Since I don’t expect we’ll have a name announced before this issue of the TEXAN is out, I’ll weigh in on what kind of person should hold the most strategic role in our cooperative ministry.

First, I thank God for the decades of service that Jerry and Bobbye Rankin gave to international missions. Jerry capped his service with a 17-year tenure as IMB president. During that time, millions were baptized overseas and our missionary force became more unified around the doctrinal priorities that define our reasons for sending missionaries. Dr. Rankin’s service was generous and earnest, and deserves the respect of all Southern Baptists as he transitions to retirement ministries.

Looking to Jerry Rankin’s successor, I see some challenges to which his responses will deeply affect the future of our convention. Here are some traits that will serve him well as he represents us in this crucial role:

A deep understanding of how missiology and theology work together–Among those who even believe in evangelism, the world tends to divide between pragmatists (the practitioners) and theologians (the philosophers). Perhaps you’ve noticed the occasional sniping by pragmatists toward “ivory tower” Christians. I’ve certainly heard criticism from the other, more philosophical, direction. Great leaders are the rare ones who can weave those things together. Those great leaders are few but we simply must find one for this job.

A proven commitment to the Cooperative Program–Without a doubt, smart people have and will again come up with new ways to organize the SBC. We’ve expanded and contracted the number of agencies we support during the past few decades. Perhaps we’ll do that again. Maybe we’ll shift our budget priorities in favor of one emphasis or another. All that’s fine but no one has yet come up with a plan better than the CP for funding the entire span of our missionary work–whatever structure that span requires. That means that all our denominational leaders must acknowledge how all the parts of our structure serve our complete mission. To paraphrase Paul, if all the body is a seminary, where is the missions sending? If all the body is a mission board, where is the training? And our leader will have credibility with more Southern Baptists if he is a cheerleader for percentage giving. Those who prefer to designate much of their giving are not usually offended by those who don’t, unless they are attacked for doing so. Those who commit to support the entire SBC budget are suspicious of those who would lead us but prefer one cause to the exclusion of others.

And, as SBC Executive Committee President-elect Frank Page indicated in his press conference, all our agency heads must honor the business and financial plan of the SBC if there is to be trust and fair play among our convention entities. That plan defines the way that agencies of the convention are funded and when they can directly solicit churches for funding in addition to the Cooperative Program. A team player will highlight CP as the way to fund the entire mission of our denomination.

A proven commitment to biblical evangelism–The difference between harvesting souls and making disciples is definable but they are still inseparable within the definition of missions or evangelism. A leader who is a practitioner-theologian will understand this. The urgency of world evangelism is not neglected when the evangelist devotes enough time so the convert grows in his understanding of his faith. Urgency implies importance more than haste. The man born blind had a simple and compelling testimony, “I was blind and now I see.” He wasn’t ready to lead a church planting movement, though. Apollos, Paul, John Mark, the 12, and those converted under Paul’s ministry were clear examples of time-intensive disciple making in an era when they too believed Jesus’ return to be imminent. The testimony of a new believer is powerful and lovely. That testimony is not less lovely if it is more complete a week or a year later. Biblical evangelism places a high value on well-grounded believers.

Our evangelism must be theologically sound to be biblical also. Contextualization can be tricky if our focus is more on what’s easy or what works than on what is biblically true. Our testimonies must be true, our gimmicks must be above reproach, and our answers must be honest in the plain sense of the word.

A denominational statesman–Actually, all of our agency leaders must be winsome, humble, and dignified if they are to be effective in their respective roles. The head of the International Mission Board is even more influential, though. Our convention has reflected the significance of this one board by giving it as much of the Cooperative Program budget as nine others combined (realizing that neither GuideStone nor LifeWay receive any CP money). Our churches reflect this influence in the fact that they collect more by far for the IMB’s special offering than for NAMB’s. Our IMB president represents our most important denominational priority to a degree that no other man does. Our president must be one who wears this notoriety circumspectly. A pugnacious or narcissistic leader at IMB would harm more than just one of our SBC agencies.

A genuine cheerleader for Southern Baptist churches, great and small–Pragmatism can have an aspect that more genuinely affirms those churches that can further one’s cause with more dollars. It’s pretty clear to churches of normal size when this is happening. The agenda can be evident in elements of an agency’s strategy, what ministries are more prominently praised, and so on. Now, I don’t really have a lot of sympathy for jealousy among churches or pastors who need the affirmation of famous men. It is unattractive to all, and even disrespectful to most, when our leaders behave as though one sort of ministry is more vital than another, though. A leader who loves the Southern Baptist churches that exist today will rejoice in the ministries of smaller churches as sincerely as he does with larger ones. He will also respect the ministries of our churches that operate in underserved parts of the U.S., some of those in the farthest locations from his Richmond office. These pastors have a mission field also. These small churches love the fact that our convention gives them a chance to say, “we have over 5,000 missionaries all across the world.” Without small churches in less prominent locations-tens of thousands of them—we’d have far fewer missionaries. He must love the world, but he should also openly love the U.S. as part of that world.

Pray for our search committee and for the man, as yet unknown to us, that God will provide to fill this important role. Nothing I’ve said here should be taken to say that our support for missions should be contingent on our approval of the one who eventually fills the IMB presidency. We support missions because God says. We do that in the most responsible way we can find. I still believe that the Southern Baptist International Mission Board is that best, most responsible way to address world missions. The next president will set the course for our convention’s global mission for the next 10-15 years. He will, under God, have more to say than anyone else regarding the board’s continued position as the best, most responsible channel.

This is a crucial era for all aspects of our common work. Our upcoming generation of leaders will oversee significant changes in the SBC. Probably none of them will be as crucial in determining whether that change is for the better or worse as the next president of our IMB.

Correspondent
Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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