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!