14 October 2015

Crippling Crisis or Open Opportunity? Voluntary Retirement of Hundreds of SBC Missionaries

The International Mission Board (IMB) is the core business of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). All human efforts and institutions are marred by sin and the SBC has not been immune to that. It is no secret that the beginnings of the SBC are tainted by connections with slavery as the SBC was formed in 1845 with the express purpose of allowing slave-holding Baptists to be sent overseas as missionaries. Southern Baptists have long since repented for that sin and have denounced slavery and racism in any form. I don't know what the current statistics are because I have lived outside of the U.S. as a Southern Baptist misisonary for most of the past almost 30 years. However, in the early 1980s, Southern Baptists in the U.S. worshipped in more than 80 languages on any given Sunday. But, the primary focus of the SBC has remained taking the good news of Jesus to the world.

The worldwide economic crisis of 2008, combined with dramatic changes in the culture of churches affiliated with the SBC, led to a financial crisis for the IMB. Over the past 6 years, expenditures by the IMB have exceeded revenues by approximately $35 million per year. (Disclaimer: While I would like to give exact figures, I don't have those. These are round figures.) A large portion of that has been covered by the sale of property around the world — houses that were not needed, offices that were no longer being used, etc. The remainder of the overexpenditures were covered by spending crisis reserve funds. In addition, there were efforts to reduce expenditures by reducing appointments, by making huge reductions in overseas budgets, by offering a voluntary retirement package to some US staff in 2010. The number of overseas missionary personnel had been reduced from a high of 5,600 to the current 4,800. Those measures were not close to being sufficient.

While the IMB has not been in debt in many, many decades, it was clear to leadership that a crisis point had been reached as there were no longer sufficient reserves to cover the overexpenditures nor was there sufficient remaining property, the vast majority of which is currently being used, that could be sold to provide resources. Something had to be done and had to be done right now!

Much to the surprise and dismay of hundreds of thousands of Southern Baptists, on 27 August, the IMB President, Dr. David Platt, announced that it was necessary to reduce IMB staff, both in the US and overseas, by 600-800 people (that's approximately 17%). To accomplish that, a Voluntary Retirement Incentive package was to be offered and those who accepted would be retired as of 3 December 2015. No other details were announced and no one outside, perhaps, of senior leadership knew who would receive that offer. Two weeks later, Southern Baptists were again shocked to learn that the VRI package would be offered to all US staff and active, long-term missionary staff who were 50 years old as of 31 December 2015 and who had served with the IMB for 5 or more years.

Though it is a tragic and devastating decision to have to make, it is not my purpose to oppose the decision. Given what I know, I don't know what else could have been done. However, the results of the decision are huge — morale overseas is very low, I hear that morale among US staff is also low. There are many reasons for that — the dramatic reduction of personnel available to share the good news of Christ with a dying world, the loss of so many experienced colleagues, the disarray this has introduced into the lives of those asked to consider retiring and, to an even greater extent, the lives of those who are accepting retirement much earlier than anticipated and without adequate time to prepare.

Don Dent, a former missionary and field leader with the IMB, has expressed the challenge well … how will Southern Baptists respond to this?
Too Valuable To Lose - Our Core Business 
When the Southern Baptist Convention was formed in 1845, our Baptist predecessors were primarily motivated by a vision to fulfill the Great Commission by sending missionaries to the nations. Other convention ministries were added as needed, but missions was the core business and the FMB (now IMB) was the primary channel. For the past 170 years sending missionaries has been the primary strategy of the IMB. From a small start in 1845, the IMB has developed over the past 40 years into the largest, and one of the most effective, Protestant mission agencies in the world. Sending God-called, long-term missionaries is the heart of the IMB and the SBC. We are presently in danger of losing our core business. That loss, which we can still avoid, will be irreversible and unrecoverable. 
I am not an insider and do not have the latest statistics, but let’s project a bit about missionary personnel gains and losses at the IMB these days. 
  1. We know that we are losing approximately 800 mission veterans, many at the height of their expertise. Only a handful of mission agencies even have that many missionaries or committed staff. The sudden loss of thousands of years of mission experience is a catastrophe, in spite of the positive spin we put on it. This drawdown of personnel and ministry follows one just as large seven years ago. Only time will tell the consequences in terms of missionary morale, values, and ethos.
  2. At the other end of the personnel spectrum is the constricted channel for sending new missionaries. We must continue to send new missionaries, but far more are called and equipped to go than there are openings to send them. We have the resources to send them, but our personal and church spending is way out of proportion with God’s priority of reaching all nations. Praise the Lord we can send about 150 new long-term missionaries per year, but that will likely only sustain a total of about 2200 missionaries over the long haul.
  3. In addition to the catastrophic exit of hundreds of veterans and the constrictions on new missionary appointments, many IMB missionaries in the middle are experiencing a loss of morale, trust, and focus. So, what happens now when the 40 year old missionary with 10 years experience who has reached full effectiveness gets an offer to pursue ministry in the US? What will he do considering he wonders when the next cutbacks will happen and that they may not allow for adequate preparation? I pray that it does not happen, but it seems likely that missionary attrition in the middle stages will increase unless Southern Baptists turn this around.
Unless the churches show increased support in prayer and LMCO, then we will likely not stop sliding at 4000. It might not take long to drop to 50% of our high mark of 5700 in 2008. This pattern of mission decline mirrors that of mainline denominations after WWII as a result of liberal influences. Southern Baptists have largely avoided outright liberalism, but the results look the same. Our denominational withdrawal from the nations is happening largely because Southern Baptists do not recognize the treasure we have in the International Mission Board. 
Recently, I had the privilege to read a detailed study of several church planting movements taking place in one of the most unreached areas of the world. In each of those movements a long-term, extremely well-trained, deeply experienced, language fluent, passionate, Spirit-led, sacrificial IMB missionary family is the human catalyst that God is using to bring honor to Himself. No other form of mission service comes close to this model in terms of effectiveness. 
The new IMB vision emphasizes increased engagement of the nations through short-term service, missionaries sent directly by their churches, and tentmakers. These are not new concepts or channels for the IMB, but IMB vision now emphasizes these “non-traditional” forms of service. I wholeheartedly believe that all three of these types of service are important and need to be increased. However, field experience of hundreds of teams shows these mission approaches rarely reach the level of effectiveness of the long-term, supported missionary. If these are added as affiliated subsidiaries to the core business of sending supported missionaries, then that maximizes their potential. If our core business is neglected to the point of continued drawdown, these other forms of service will also suffer. God will know, but we may lack the corporate expertise to know how ineffective we will be. 
Business leadership books emphasized risk taking and constant innovation back in the financially exciting 1990s. Then the IT bubble burst and many of those popular authors lost their shirts and businesses. Later studies of great companies published by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen in Great By Choice explain that companies that thrive in chaos show great discipline and make careful decisions based on empirical info. They also stay focused on their traditional values and core business while innovating at the edges. Change is needed to face the challenges of today, but if we lose our core business we will likely not thrive in the future. 
Southern Baptists can continue to thrive as a missions force in the years ahead by valuing and supporting long-term missionaries. If losing 800 personnel is a wake up call, then we can get back on track and even expand our kingdom impact. If we continue to devalue and neglect our long-term mission force, this present crisis will continue as a slide into ineffectiveness and decreasing mission impact. It really is up to us to determine which way we are heading. If we increase our Lottie Moon giving over the next few months and pray more passionately for our missionaries, things will look up quickly.

It's something worth thinking about … in fact, it's something that Southern Baptists and other Christians must think about.

Run well, y'all,
Bob Allen
Kampala, Uganda

09 October 2015

Book Review: David and the Old Man

In a nutshell, David and the Old Man is the story of a dysfunctional family that struggles with a conflict between a father who has a very narrow view of what it means to be a man and a son who simply cannot live out those values. The father, most often referred to as "the Old Man", is from an immigrant family who made their way by hard manual labour on a farm. When he moves his family to California, the father continues to farm his relatively small plot, often providing fresh produce for neighbours and others. The Old Man's oldest son, David, just doesn't fit the mold -- he has a more creative, artistic bent that the Old Man just cannot accept. While I'm not a psychologist, it seems to me that this conflict is what drives David to anorexia and bizarre life behaviours that only serve to further divide him from his father.

The book was painful to read. First of all, it suffered from a clear need for an editor. The story was disjointed, the writing was inconsistent. It made for difficult reading. My first thought was that I could not believe that Thomas Nelson and Zondervan would release a book of this poor quality under a subsidiary publishing branch. Then I discovered that WestBow Press is the self-publishing arm of Thomas Nelson and Zondervan and the poor writing made sense — there was no editor.

But, the story itself was painful to read. It did show clearly that an unwillingness to let go of stereotypes can lead to great harm. It was hard to read about a young man who had such low self-esteem that he could not or would not care for himself. It was hard to read about a father who could not accept that his son, who so desparately wanted and needed his father's love and acceptance, was different and pushed him away.

I really can't recommend the book.

DISCLAIMER: I was given a free copy of this book to review as a part of the publisher's BookLook Bloggers programme. I was free to write the review that I thought the book deserved and received no compensation other than continued participation in the review programme.