Here they come! IMB Missionaries Returning to the Northwest

Standard

Susan Vessey is a Northwest Baptist who has served with the International Mission Board for about 25 years.  Recently, I received an email from her that she will take a “voluntary retirement” offered by the IMB.  The agency’s leaders, in recently announcing severe revenue shortfalls over the last several years, have created incentive packages aimed at reducing personnel by up to 800 people. Those staff and field personnel over 50 years of age and with at least five years of service are eligible for the “voluntary retirement” packages.

I met Susan in South Asia in 1993 where she was sharing Christ with an unreached Islamic group, displaced by the Afghan war in the 1980s.  She is a single woman whose entire life has been dedicated and spent for Christ’s cause amongst a poor people, hopeless without Christ.  Some of you might know her sister Tina, wife of Brian Duffer who is the long-serving pastor at Sequoia Baptist Church in Kent, WA.  In her email Susan writes:  “While the package may be called ‘retirement’, I am not going to do that.  Now at 61, I doubt that I will be able to find other employment, Christian or secular, but I know that there is no limit to the amount of opportunities there are to be used of God and that’s what I intend to do.”

The planned IMB staff reduction of 600-800 missionaries impacts every Northwest Baptist and Southern Baptist personally.  For over 150 years the IMB experienced steady growth in the number of missionaries sent and sustained by Southern Baptist Churches.  Beginning with our first missionary, Samuel Clopton, who was commissioned and sent to China in 1845, SBC churches exceeded 5,000 field missionaries for the first time in 1995, the 150th anniversary of SBC international missions.  From our peak of more than 5,600 missionaries in 2009, we are expected to have 4,000 to 4,200 IMB missionaries under appointment when the reduction is complete.

Many of these international missionaries were and are from the Northwest. A mission field ourselves, with about four percent attending church on a given Sunday, Northwest Baptists have dozens, perhaps 100 or more serving with the IMB. The exact number is difficult to define because the numbers can include those who connect to the Northwest through previous ministry, place of education, or origin of spouse.

What we do know is this – some of our Northwest Baptist IMB missionaries are “retiring” early because those age 50 and above, with five or more years of experience, are being asked to consider “retiring” from IMB service. If this voluntary retirement initiative fails to net the needed numbers to balance the budget, the IMB will take other steps to achieve the staff-reduction target number. Some of those who retire, or return for other reasons, will be Northwesterners like Susan Vessey. Others will want to come to the Northwest because they are missionaries and they want to serve on a North American mission field. We have already heard from missionaries who want to come to serve with us.

What does this mean for us? How might we respond to the down-sizing of the IMB and the returning of hundreds of missionaries?

First, be open to returning missionaries. Many of these are in the prime of life and ministry. They have tremendous skills and giftings – linguistic, cultural, and biblical skills that would greatly bless our work in the Northwest. They have learned to live and serve effectively among a people different than them. Moreover, they have honed their missionary and ministerial gifting through perseverance in difficult circumstances. Missionaries know how to sacrifice, overcome adversity and work hard. Most importantly, they have lived by faith in an all-sufficient God and not by sight. Some are preachers and pastors. Others are able servant leaders who could help a church get to the “next level” in small groups, organization, missions and evangelism. Be open to these returning missionaries as you seek a pastor, staff member, or volunteer servant leaders. If you’re a business person, consider hiring a returning missionary. Many have real-world job skills, which combined with a large heart for God and for people, will make them great employees. Some of you might be in a position to give a car to a missionary, or provide housing for a period of time. Be creative, and generous, as you think of ways to bless these dear servants of God.

Second, and really first, pray for all of our IMB missionaries. Pray for those who are not contemplating early retirement (can you really call it retirement at age 52, or even 61?), and pray for those who remain on the field. There is great uncertainty and heartache among our missionaries. Some of our younger missionaries will be left without their supervisors and mentors. It takes seven years or more for an international missionary to acquire the necessary skills to be fully effective. With some of our most experienced missionaries leaving the field, younger, inexperienced missionaries will be the only ones remaining in some places. They need encouragement and prayer.

Third, consider raising the Cooperative Program (CP) percentage that your church gives to support missions. I wrote last week that if our churches gave the same percentage through CP that we did 30 years ago (10.5 percent on average), the IMB would have about $85 million more dollars annually. But not only would the IMB have more resources, our seminaries would have more, and could thus train more leaders and charge them far less money. NAMB would also have more resources, as would state and regional conventions, such the NWBC. The Southern Baptist denomination was built through sacrificial levels of cooperative giving that enabled us to support a “system” of missions and education. For example, in the Northwest we used to fund collegiate ministry in a much larger way. Now our college ministers must raise their own support, or work bi-vocationally. Only in the south do we still find state-convention supported collegiate ministers, and even there such ministry is declining. I believe this is a tragedy and it is a direct result of decreased missions giving through CP.

Could your church increase CP by one percent in 2016? Perhaps your church doesn’t have CP in the budget at all. Would you consider adding mission giving through CP to your church budget? If all churches increased giving by one percent the IMB would have $17 million additional dollars next year. And because CP lifts all boats in SBC life, increasing it will enable us to educate those missionaries and do the work in North America and the Northwest that is required to impact lostness in our own neighborhoods.

Remember, being a Baptist is about a biblical and theological conviction. But being a Southern Baptist, and a Northwest Baptist, means that we have a made a missions commitment that requires cooperation. There have always been those who liked to do things their own way and wouldn’t support what they couldn’t control. You’ve got people like that in your church. But the genius of the SBC system is that we bring a coordinated and comprehensive approach to missions that accomplishes what an independent approach cannot. In the Northwest, we see this in pastor-cluster training, church planting amongst multiple language groups, disaster relief, and the Pacific Northwest Campus of Golden Gate Seminary, just to name a few things.

Would I change some things if I had absolute power in the SBC? O course! But do I withhold my support from the SBC system of missions because I would do some things differently? Absolutely not! I didn’t appreciate that response from church members when I was a pastor and I don’t agree when that approach is extended to our cooperative work.

We’re in this thing together, always together, never alone. Praise God!

Do As I Do – The Big Issue for Our Baptist Family

Standard

An old saying goes like this: “Do as I say, not as I do.” Though many of us have said something like this to our children, we knew our parenting was weak when our lives betrayed our words of instruction.

As I see it, the big issue in Baptist life today is that for too long, key leaders, and leaders at all levels, have been unable to say, “Do as I do,” or “Do as I did.” We are now seeing the fruit of this in the staff reduction at the International Mission Board (IMB).

We are grieving the IMB announcement that our missionary force will be reduced by as many as 800. We are already down more than 800 field missionaries from our peak of over 5,600 in 2009. Still, with less than 4,800 field personnel, we have been unable to fund even these reduced numbers. An attempt to keep missionaries on the field led to huge deficit spending by the IMB, $210 million above income over the past six years. Obviously, this cannot continue, thus the staff reduction. Others will write and speak about how the financial crisis was and is being handled. My interest here is to address what I believe got us to where we are.

As I see it, the trouble began over 30 years ago when we began electing and selecting leaders who did not support missions through the Cooperative Program (CP). These were godly and gifted men, but men who chose not to participate in the SBC system of mission funding that was the unique genius of our Baptist forefathers. In those days some gave theological reasons for not supporting missions through CP, or supporting it with a pittance, and these reasons had some merit. But with the conservative resurgence, the argument of liberal drift in the SBC went away. Still, many of those who did not support CP for reasons of liberal drift continued their lack of support even when conservatives were in control. Moreover, many of these non-CP-supporting conservatives were elected and selected to lead the SBC and her entities, entities that they did not support financially before they came to lead them. In some cases, even when they became our leaders they did not give to missions through the CP in any substantial way. The selection of weak CP supporters to key SBC leadership roles continues to the present, not exclusively, but not uncommonly either. Interestingly, when non-CP supportive men are elected and selected to lead CP supported entities, they are now in a position to ask others for the financial support that they did not give themselves. It’s a “Do as I say, not as I did/do,” kind of thing.

I believe that the primary cause of CP declining from about 10.5 percent of a church’s budget in the 1980s, to about 5.5 percent today, is because of decades of leadership that has too often been selected to lead what they did not support. The example that this has set for young pastors who have come into SBC life over the last few decades has been disastrous. “How disastrous” you ask? Well, if the average CP giving per Baptist church was 10.5 percent, as it was 30 years ago, the IMB would have about $85 million more per year than it currently has. And if that were the case, we’d be growing our mission force by 2,000 or more, not cutting the force by 800. And this is just the impact on the IMB. At all levels of SBC life we would be stronger if CP giving was where it once was. We would have far more resources for church planting and evangelism in North America. With all of our talk about evangelistic church planting in the past several years, not only have baptisms plummeted to the lowest levels since the 1940s, we are also planting fewer churches than we did a decade ago. We need to get honest with ourselves and talk about the way things really are and not just feed off a few happy anecdotes. I know I sound quite negative, but facing reality is essential if we are to solve the problem.

I consider it most troubling, and irritating, that much of the CP discussion over the past six or seven years has centered on how we “cut the pie.” Most often this means that state conventions should send more of the CP to the national and international entities. And the states, in general, have done this. State conventions have reduced their staffs by several hundred persons over the past several years. But please, if we don’t get past “pie cutting,” and develop strategies to grow the pie, we’ll continue to decline (and we are declining, seriously declining by every measurement). And by “develop strategies to grow CP,” I mean first and foremost, select our leaders from among the thousands who believe in and support CP. And don’t try to convince us that our best leaders are not found among those who actually support the SBC cooperative system in a substantial way. That is crazy, and more than crazy, it is disrespectful of those leaders who actually put their money toward SBC missions.

We live in an age where everyone wants a quick fix to the problem. I believe that the current funding problem in the SBC did not happen quickly. It has taken a few decades to get us into the shape we’re in, decades of choosing one leader after another whom, if the average Baptist church followed their example of CP mission’s giving, the SBC would be “out of business.” “Do as I say, not as I do” kind of leadership regarding CP has gotten us into the shape we’re in today. It didn’t happen quickly and it won’t be fixed quickly. It will require a pattern of selecting leaders who supported what they were asked to lead even before they were asked to lead it.

All of this said, some will say that “pew warming Baptists” is where the problem really starts because giving to the local church, as a percentage of one’s income, is also down. This is true. But this is also a leadership problem as we pastors haven’t always done a good job of stewardship education in our churches. And not all church leaders tithe on their income, let alone go beyond the tithe. From what I’ve read, poor personal stewardship by church leaders is a major problem.

We could also point to the fact that the average church not only contributes less to missions through CP than they once did, they also contribute less to mission causes through all channels than they once did. This is also true. Local churches are keeping more money for local ministry than churches did a few decades ago. But these facts do not argue against my main point that it all starts from the top, with prominent leaders in key positions. Leadership really does matter. Over time, we typically follow the example that our leaders set. By that I mean that we “do as they do,” not as they say.

I am privileged to live and serve in the Great Northwest. And in the Northwest, when we look for leaders, we look for men and women who believe so much in what we do that they support it through the CP. I believe that if I ask people to support what I fail or failed to support throughout my ministry, my leadership is greatly weakened. But if a leader can say what Paul said to the Corinthian Church – “Imitate me” (1 Cor. 4:16) – and say it with integrity, that is strong leadership. And that’s what we need at all levels of leadership in Baptist life.

Life and Ministry in Evil Days

Standard

“Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15-16).

Urgency, desperation, these words describe how I feel. Certainly the early Ephesian church served Christ during desperate, evil days. Their trouble began with riotous businessmen. The Gospel of Jesus Christ threatened the livelihood of those making and selling idols of the god Artemis. Idol making was big business. The Ephesian temple to Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and housed the world’s largest bank. As the church in Ephesus grew, idol selling plunged, and that brought trouble to the church.

The churches in our nation are facing trouble too. We live in evil days. In June our nation witnessed the celebration, normalization and institutionalization of sexual perversion with the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. Failure to participate in the celebration can cost you your job, your business, even your ministry, as those serving in the Kentucky prison system have learned. Ministry inside the church house is safe for now. But those serving as chaplains, or serving in educational institutions, are at risk.

Added to this, nine videos were released this summer showing Planned Parenthood workers discussing and negotiating the sale of aborted baby body-parts. The moral swamp that is PP has its snout deep in the federal trough, receiving over $500 million annually from U.S. taxpayers.

This summer we have witnessed the verbal and physical assault on police officers. As I write, four police officers have been murdered in the last nine days.

Then, this morning, I saw a video of ISIS hog-tying four men, suspending them over a fire, and roasting them in the flames. We are witnessing the eradication of the Church in much of the Islamic-dominated world. Maybe I watch too much news, but I feel as though it’s been a summer of evil.

So what does all of this mean for Northwest Baptists and for you? First, it means that we need you. Your community needs you. Our neighbors need your love and witness and confidence that, despite how things might seem, Jesus wins. Indeed, He has already won. “The prince of this world now stands condemned,” said Jesus (John 16:11). When Jesus Christ rose from the grave He shouted to the world, “I’m in charge. I am history’s champion. And anybody else who lays claim to your life, or seeks to dominate your life, is an illegitimate authority.” Our God is never at His wit’s end. Our God never wonders, “What shall I do?” He knows what he is doing, and our confidence in Him is what the Bible calls “faith.”

Second, as the text in Ephesians says, we must be careful, exercising wisdom. We must pray, speak and act with wisdom. Wisdom requires that our minds be saturated with God’s Word and that we be Spirit-filled. Living for Jesus in an evil world is impossible apart from abiding in Him. This enables us to make “the most of every opportunity.” Believers and churches that create and seize gospel opportunities are those who will win the day. With every problem there is a gospel opportunity – an opportunity to pray, love, and speak truth.

Yes, at times I feel desperate. But more than that, I feel a sense of urgency. Time is short. Heaven is real. But so too is hell. We must be about our Father’s business.