TOCCOA — Brenda and Preston West served for 18.5 years in Central America and India before learning of the International Mission Board’s 2015 early retirement incentive.
Glenn and Cile Borders ministered for 20 years in Budapest, Hungary; Paris, France; and the Ivory Coast before hearing of the imminent downsizing of IMB field staff.
And Calvin and Devra Morris missed their 28th anniversary of serving Southern Baptists overseas when the news reached them last fall. With one email their future was suddenly turned upside down.
Now six months later, the three couples, all with Georgia roots, found themselves in the same room at the Georgia Baptist Conference Center at Toccoa in late February. They were there, at the invitation of the state convention, to network and learn of new employment opportunities throughout Georgia and elsewhere in the nation.
“The Voluntary Retirement Incentive came at least two years too soon,” explains 66-year-old Calvin Morris. “My first thoughts were very negative. ‘I don’t want to do this’ was my first reaction.”
But wife Deva, from Savannah, convinced him to “give it some time to see what the Lord’s hand and direction is in this,” he explains.
Morris: ‘Totally blindsided’
“Still, I was just totally blindsided,” the Atlanta native remembers.
That was the general sentiment of the nearly 60 former IMB missionaries who attended the Southern Baptist Convention’s first gathering of such individuals following their unexpected departure from the mission fields.
By the time the dust had settled the effect of the historic downsizing was staggering. Southern Baptists’ missionary force had taken a 21 percent drop in a six-month bid to reduce overhead from years of overspending. In addition, stateside staff – many concentrated in the IMB’s Richmond headquarters – was reduced by 33 percent.
983 missionaries out of 4,800 return from field
A total of 983 missionaries out of a worldwide force of about 4,800 came home after being offered enhanced retirement incentives beginning in October. Another 149 stateside staff out of about 450 accepted similar packages based on age and years of service.
Total staff reductions totaled 1,132.
The agency had a standing policy of frequently increasing its Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and budgeting the entire amount, even though it regularly failed to reach the goal by at least $20 million annually. Over six years that brought its deficit to $210 million and severely depleted its cash reserves.
To budget more responsibly, IMB President David Platt noted that the agency had taken the unprecedented step of lowering the 2016 offering by $20 million – from $175 million to $155 million – to bring it more in line with expectations.
Mission Board offers the retreat to inspire, offer networking
Georgia Baptists sponsored the three-day meeting, called “Recalibrate,” to provide assistance such as a resume service, ministerial placement, transitional pastor training, locating housing and transportation, and coaching.
Georgia Baptist Mission Board Executive Director J. Robert White spearheaded the offer to help within days of the announcement of the financial crisis and the realization that hundreds of long-term missionaries would suddenly find themselves stateside and having to renew contacts and make adjustments to a new culture.
“We count you as a hero, and want to welcome you home with arms wide open! We anticipate that recent decisions were probably unexpected and the next few months will be especially difficult,” he said in an open letter to the missionaries.
“We want to do all that we can to help you transition to life in the states as smoothly as possible.”
Within days of that letter’s receipt, 15 missionaries expressed interest; nearly 60 attended the late February meeting.
Georgia Baptist Women on Mission groups statewide stepped up to the plate, raising thousands of dollars in gift cards within three weeks. A portion of the cards were included in gifts baskets given to each missionary family with other cards being distributed in coming weeks.
At the meeting GBC President Thomas Hammond affirmed the group by stating “As this door has closed another will open. I pray that you will fall in live with that door as much as the door you have left.
Hammond: ‘Plenty of opportunity in our state’
“Georgia is a very good state from the perspective of a harvest field. There is plenty of opportunity in our state that needs your experience and expertise.
“I pray that you will have the faith to walk through any doors that will open rather than push open the doors in your path.
“God is a great steward of His assets and he will be positioning you for the greatest impact for the Kingdom.”
At the retreat, former missionary personnel heard from speakers such as Jim Haskill of SEND Atlanta, a North American Mission Board church planting initiative; Larry Cheek, director of missions from Stone Mountain Baptist Association; Joel Harrison of Atlanta Baptist Association, all related to the Urban Atlanta Church Planting network; former IMB missionary Dave Parker, who serves as mission pastor of First Baptist Church of Statesboro; Yvonne Parker, Parker’s spouse; and Georgia Baptist Missions Board state missionaries, among others.
Some former missionaries may have fairly easy transitions as they seek new ministry opportunities stateside. Several were looking to work in the U.S. with immigrants from nations where they were serving and know the language and culture.
Open to new ministry opportunities
Others, like Tennesseans James and Penny Hensley may have a little more difficult time. The couple had served in Venezuela for 20 years, ministering to the Warao natives who live along the piranha-infested Orinoco River – which also served as their baptistry.
“We had a boat ministry working among the 49 of the nearly 400 villages that hug the banks of the river. But I still feel the God has called us to work among indigenous people groups in the U.S.,” explained James Hensley.
“I get excited every time I think about missions.”
The couple said they have contacts among the Sioux native Americans in Montana and may consider a ministry among that people group.
The feedback from the missionaries underscored the need for the free retreat and a time for the group to network among themselves as well as others in the state convention, associations, and churches. Former Guatemala missionaries David and Glynis Miller are just one example of those grateful for the three-day gathering.
Never have we been more proud to be called Georgia Baptists,” they wrote in a letter to the state executive.
Grateful for the experience
“What an overwhelming blessing we International Mission Board missionaries from Georgia, who are taking the Voluntary Retirement Initiative, received from the Georgia Baptist Mission Board recently at the Recalibrate Retreat at Toccoa.
“Every hour was filled with encouragement and help from the staff to these retiring missionaries. Baptist leaders came from throughout Georgia to offer assistance and resources as many of these missionaries face an uncertain future.
“We express our appreciation to Marcus Merritt and the Church-Minister Relations Office staff for their vision to direct this retreat of compassionate response to VRI retiring missionaries. We were overwhelmed by the generous response of Georgia WMU as hundreds of dollars of gift cards were distributed to retiring missionaries.
We are thankful that you are opening your doors of ministry opportunities for us as we seek to continue to reach the nations that are coming to Georgia. May the Lord use us as we join you to advance the Gospel in this our new mission field”