That is the collective sigh of relief that has been a long time coming for Georgia Baptist trustees who serve at the International Mission Board.
The cause for celebration was the Sept. 11 announcement from President David Platt that the agency was presenting a balanced budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year. The Richmond, VA-based ministry has struggled with red ink for much of the past decade.
In 2015 Platt told trustees that over just the previous six years the agency’s cumulative expenditures totaled $210 million more than had been given. Now that long walk back to more responsible stewardship has ended with the announcement of the 2017-18 budget with receipts and expenses both projected at $262 million.
Two years ago Platt, who had only been in his new job for a little more than a year, took drastic action and reduced staff through layoffs and severance packages. A total 983 missionaries and 149 stateside staff took advantage of the incentives.
A tough time producing a leaner, more invigorated agency
It was a tough time to be a trustee with hard decisions affecting loyal staff, but the retrenchment is now producing a leaner, more invigorated agency, Georgia trustees agree.
This week those three trustees took some time to reflect on the good news from that September meeting at Ridgecrest, NC, and how the road looks going forward.
Derek Spain, executive pastor of Hebron Baptist Church in Dacula, told The Index he is “excited about how the IMB is working with staff, trustees and field personnel to fulfill the vision and mission which God has put before us. We are now on strong fiscal standing but it is going to take a large number of field personnel to get the gospel to where it is needed.
“I am grateful to Dr. Platt for his strong belief that God works through our churches to call out those to serve him, and the IMB’s primary role is to walk alongside those churches and help the individuals respond to their calling.”
That enhanced partnership with churches is part of Platt’s new direction, allowing the agency to place far more personnel on the field at a fraction of the cost. That is being accomplished by recognizing that churches are the missionary sending vehicle and not the Board itself, which only serves to enable that process.
An increasing number of churches, following that model, are accepting full responsible for paying all salary and benefits of missionaries sent out through their church, but work with the Board in providing training and orientation as well as locations where their skills are desperately needed.
That coordination of global areas of ministry where missionaries are needed helps eliminate duplication of personnel and distributes the human resources more equally.
God calls out missionaries from churches, not the IMB
In short, God calls out missionaries from churches, not through the agency itself.
Allen Hill, who serves as director of missions for Appalachee Baptist Association, echoed Spain’s gratitude for a balanced budget.
“The presentation of the budget helped us to see that we have definitely turned the corner with our finances. As difficult as it was to make some hard decisions in the last couple of years, they were the right decisions in light of the financial situation.
“As a result, the Board is a far better steward of the resources which Southern Baptists have entrusted to them. We have a much leaner missionary force than we have had in decades, with about 3,600 personnel down from about 5,000.
“This allows us to better equip our current missionary force with the resources they need for their ministry. It also allows us to focus our personnel more strategically to accomplish the vision of the IMB,” he added.
Hill knows of where he speaks. He and his wife, Emily, served as missionaries to the Philippines for 25 years. He noted that he is “very impressed with the missionaries we are appointing … and we are continuing to appoint new personnel even with a leaner budget.
“I am encouraged by the number of candidates who are coming to us with previous cross-cultural experience, such as serving as journeymen. It is wonderful to hear their testimonies of how God has called them to leave family and friends and home churches to plant their lives overseas.
“That is not an easy decision to make, especially in light of what is going on in our world today,” he said.
Hill said the agency is definitely in days of change “and I might even say days of challenge in regard to our call to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. Our personnel face challenges today that were basically unknown by past generations of missionaries. Yet they go out of a sense of calling and response to the needs of lost people around the world.
“We need to continue to do everything we can to insure their safety and success. It is truly a privilege for me to serve as a trustee with IMB in these challenging times.”
Cross-cultural experience: the foundation for international ministry
For Hill, that cross-cultural experience is a foundational need for a family heading overseas. The adjustment to living in a difficult culture – known as culture shock – has already been overcome and the family is better adjusted to begin their ministry.
In his case, he first served in the Philippines as a missionary journeyman, a two-year intern program with the Board. That is when he met his future wife, a Missionary Kid, on the mission field.
Bill Ricketts, retired pastor of Prince Avenue Baptist Church in Athens, is now ending the final year of his first four-year term as a trustee, if he is reappointed. He remembers the immediate turmoil of those early years when he came on the Board and the stark contrast that has since occurred.
“I hated for us to go through those tough times but we had to do it to get back on track,” he said.
“As a Board we are together and we have a sense of unity, even though we do not all agree on everything. We admittedly went through a difficult time with staff reductions and Voluntary Retirement Incentives but we knew we had to get to a better place financially.”
And that place begins with the balanced budget and an appointment service for 51 missionaries as part of last month’s Board meeting.
“It is exciting to know that we continue to send fresh new missionaries to the world’s unreached people groups who need to hear the gospel. At our Ridgecrest meeting we honored 950 emeritus missionaries who represented 25,297 years of combined service. That is simply amazing.”
Willing to risk it all
Ricketts is encouraged by the new generation of missionary families being sent out to difficult locations, “willing to risk it all for the call. Some of these are families with young children, leaving their grandparents and friends to respond to the call to the foreign culture.
“They are committed to the IMB’s calling to evangelism, church planting, and discipleship. And when they return many tell wonderful stories that can’t be repeated without endangering them or the people they minister with.
“I am pleased to report to Georgia Baptists that we are working within a budget that does not compromise our financial responsibility to the Lord or to our people on the field.”
Ricketts mentioned that, as part of Platt’s new administration, the Atlanta native introduced the concept that “the church is the sending agent, and our role is to partner with the churches to facilitate getting the called to the field. This is a new way of thinking for many but it is reinforced each time we hear testimonies of those who have been called out and we realize the role the churches have played in nurturing those individuals.”
Call to missions is shaped through the nurturing of a church
“There are stories upon stories of the many church-based ministries that have served these individuals through their formative years. There are stories of children’s Sunday School teachers who first taught them the Bible, to youth pastors who mentored and prayed with them, to summer mission trips; stories of pastors and church members who planted themselves in their lives who laid that foundation for them to be able to respond to God’s call on their lives.
“That is the role of the church, who sends out the called from among its own members. As an agency, we at the IMB are simply the enabling ministry that partners with the church as one more step in that calling out process,” he explained.
Ricketts, a longtime supporter of international missions, retired last year from a 43-year ministry at Prince Avenue Baptist. He and his wife, Darla, plan to remain in the city where they have made their home, and coincidentally, where their six grandchildren reside. He is now in his 70s.
“I do not think of myself as retired, I just tell people I have redirected my ministry. I started pastoring at age 18 and served in the pastorate for 53 years and there were a lot of things I did not have time to do,” he says.
Making time count
But now he’s ready to make up for lost time. For example, he says he is enjoying visiting churches of all sizes all over the state while being an advocate for international missions.
“I just go in and sit down in a pew and observe how they conduct the service from greeting strangers to taking the offering to how the sermon and invitation are delivered. There are churches all across the spectrum from congregational makeup and size, from large churches to very small congregations and I enjoy each one of them.
“I also do a little preaching here and there and recently spoke at a men’s conference, things like that. But what I really enjoy is visiting those churches all across the state.”
And, of course, he enjoys his time as an IMB trustee.
“I wish every Georgia Baptist could serve with me at the IMB to see how God is working among our field personnel to reach the nations. I honestly look forward to every single meeting to hear those stories from the field. I am grateful for this opportunity.
“If there is one thing I want to assure Georgia Baptists, it is that 100 percent of their gifts through the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering continues to go to the field … none is used on administrative costs or overhead.”