Trust: The Irreplaceable Currency of Voluntary Missionary Movements

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High trust societies prosper; low trust societies don’t. Nearly 20 years ago my wife started an import business to help missionaries in South Asia secure business visas. She imported from a country that manufactured unique jewelry, carpets and clothing. The business was successful in that several missionaries received long-term visas. Financially, though, it was not profitable. A primary reason behind the lack of profit was that the people from whom she imported always skimmed some of the products.

Economists know that prosperous nations have high levels of trust, enabling them to develop banks, stock markets and legal systems that operate with an integrity that builds trust. Poor nations are generally low in trust, often extending little trust of anyone beyond family, ethnic group, or religion.

When I think about the work we do together as Baptists, I am amazed that a voluntary missionary movement such as ours has prospered in miraculous ways – and that is what the Southern Baptist (SB) denomination is – a voluntary missionary movement – an incredibly successful one at that. While we grieve the recent downsizing of the International Mission Board (983 missionaries have left the field, plus 149 stateside staff), it’s remarkable that 3,941 international missionaries are being sustained through the voluntary missions support of Southern Baptists (as of 2/23/16).

In addition, more than 900 churches are being planted each year in North America, 18,000 seminary students are being trained, and thousands more are sharpening their skills and strengthening their hearts through training and events, and so much more. The SB voluntary missionary movement includes dozens of colleges and universities, collegiate ministries, children’s homes, and, at one time, hospitals. The currency that has been irreplaceable in moving our missionary movement forward is trust and good will. More than the almighty dollar, Southern Baptists, and our Northwest Baptist network, have enjoyed a level of trust that has enabled our now 46,000 churches to do Kingdom work together, even during difficult days.

However, while God’s work through the SB voluntary missionary movement has been remarkable, it is not inevitable that God will continue to bless us and use us to bring the gospel to our nation and our world. Jesus said that the gates of Hades will not prevail against His Church, and we believe this absolutely, but local churches do die, and denominations and missionary movements have died as well. The Church continues, but local expressions of the Church have no such guarantee. Have you ever visited the churches that Paul founded in Ephesus, Corinth, or Philippi? Neither have I because those churches no longer exist. In 1776 the Congregationalists had the greatest number of churches in America. Today they are blip on the screen of American church life.

Glossy optimism about the voluntary missionary movement that is Southern Baptist is not warranted. The facts (baptisms, missionaries on the field, new churches planted) indicate that our missionary movement has not only ceased moving forward, but we have actually taken steps backward. Some become uncomfortable when such things are pointed out, but I believe that we must face things as they really are, including how we got to where we are, if we hope to regain momentum in our grand mission endeavor.

For effectiveness to continue and grow, we must build and grow the “trust bank.” How do we do that? Here is a thesis statement for you to consider: Trust results from the credibility of the leader, and the confidence that the leader acts in the best interest of the organization. Believing this to be true, I want to offer several essentials for building and maintaining trust. Please note, though I have referenced the larger missionary movement that we call the SBC, these principles apply to any voluntary missionary movement, including the regional convention that I lead, or that of the local church.

The key to a missionary movement is leadership. Voluntary missionary movements require leaders who:

1. Believe in the missionary movement that they lead. This may seem obvious, but some leaders only believe in the movement “when they are the leader.” The most effective, trust-building leaders are chosen to lead because they demonstrated belief in the movement even before they came to lead it. We see this in the Bible over and again (Acts 6:3; 1 Thess. 2; 1 Tim. 3; many Old Testament examples, with David being one of the best because he fought a giant for his God and country before he became king). Southern Baptists hearts are united by a cause, the Great Commission, but we are also united by the means we have chosen to engage our cause, namely working together cooperatively, which includes the Cooperative Program. To be a Southern Baptist means we believe that the Great Commission is our commission, and that a primary method to fulfilling it is through CP missions.

2. Develop strong and healthy relationships with others who lead the missionary movement. Voluntary missionary movements require trust, and trust is built through relationship. We see an example of this in the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, and we see it throughout Paul’s letters.

3. Are transparent and open to inquiry and accountability. In a voluntary missionary movement, no one is more accountable than the leader. Strong, secure leaders invite inquiry and discussion. Restricting speech will destroy a voluntary missionary movement. “Trust the Lord and tell the people” is an old Baptist saying.

4. Always keep their word and act with integrity. Always.

5. Explain their actions, giving the “why?” as well as the “what?” Knowing “why” a particular course of action was taken, especially if the decision is controversial, will preserve and build trust because it demonstrates respect toward others in the missionary movement. Again, we see this in Acts 15. We see it throughout Paul’s communication with various churches as he explained himself and his teaching.

6. Admit and explain failure. Repent and ask forgiveness when they sin.

7. Think and plan for the long-term. Christopher Columbus, yes, the one who “sailed the ocean blue” in 1492, believed that he was extending Christianity, and that through his efforts and those of others, Jesus could return in about 150 years. Jonathan Edwards, the great revivalist and preacher, wrote in the 1740s that the last people he expected to be reached for Christ were the Muslims, and that by the year 2,000 Jesus could return. He was looking forward 250 years. Leaders of voluntary missionary movements serve as though Jesus could return tomorrow, but they don’t “sell the farm,” trading tomorrow for today.

Those of us who lead aspects of the Southern Baptist missionary movement, whether we are local church pastors, associational or denominational leaders, inherited the trust and good will built by our forefathers. Just as inherited wealth tends to dissipate over time, trust and good will can easily be eroded over time if it is not stewarded well. When a voluntary missionary movement loses these, it loses everything.

Many years ago I read Jay Winik’s book titled April 1865: The Month that Saved America, which focused on the final month of the American Civil War. It was a fascinating book, the thesis of which was that it was not inevitable that the war ended the way that it did, allowing for the United States to reunite and eventually become one again. To paraphrase, he said that great men did great things, at the right time. Had Lincoln, Lee and Grant chosen differently, we would live in a different world today.

God is sovereign. He will accomplish His agenda. But it would be presumption, not faith, to say that God has to bless us and use us to get His work done. As leaders of a Bible class, a church, or an agency that serves churches, we must do all we can to build trust, so that God alone gets the glory as He uses us in ways greater than ever.

New Year Opportunities and Challenges

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Thank you Northwest Baptists for your faithfulness to make disciples and do missions. Not only did our churches reach more people for Christ last year, and baptize more, your generosity to support missions through the Cooperative Program, the Sylvia Wilson Northwest Mission Offering, Annie Armstrong North American Offering, World Hunger and Disaster Relief offerings all showed significant increase in 2015. The Lottie Moon International Missions Offering was slightly down in 2015, but the Lottie Moon Offering we received on January 2, 2016 put us ahead of the previous year as well, which was a 25 percent increase from the year before that. In addition, 35 new churches were launched last year. We have grown from 34 funded church plants two years ago, to 68 by the end of 2015. The total number of NWBC churches now stands at 484, up from 466 the previous year.

The new year presents us with some great opportunities, as well as a challenge. First, in March we will have one-day Story Witnessing workshops throughout our convention. These will be followed up by a three-day workshop in September (dates and locations in the Witness and on our website at http://www.nwbaptist.org). In MY316 evangelism training, we teach you how to tell your salvation story, and how to use John 3:16 to share the Gospel. In Story Witnessing you learn how to listen, ask good questions, and then tell a Bible story that relates to what the person said. It is a powerful way to share the gospel.

Another opportunity is that of serving our IMB missionaries in a huge retreat in August. We need 200 volunteers to serve in Thailand, and we need many more praying for them and supporting them. We will have 1,300 missionaries, including children. They currently have 524 children, with 8 more in adoption process, and 14 missionary wives are with child. How fun! We get to serve these missionaries and their children. Please note, a $350 deposit is due by February 15, with the total cost being $700, plus airfare and some meals. Your church has much more info about this trip. You can also email Sheila Allen at Sheila@nwbaptist.org.

The challenge we face concerns church planting funding. Because of the rapid growth we have had in new churches, the North American Mission Board (NAMB) provided us with additional funding in 2015, corresponding with extra funding that we provided. Though NAMB encouraged us to keep growing the number of our new churches, with the expectation that we would receive additional funding in 2016, things changed when the International Mission Board announced that they would were downsizing by 800 missionaries for financial reasons. For many years the IMB has been spending from reserve funds, and selling property, to keep more missionaries on the field. They can no longer do this. Baptists across the country, and indeed the world, are grieved as hundreds of missionaries return from the field. NAMB has determined to help the IMB by giving them $4 million dollars in 2016. Largely because of this, we were told in late November that additional dollars beyond our basic funding agreement would not be available in 2016. If other state conventions underspend their budgets, we could receive additional funding, but we won’t know this until April.

It is important for you to know this because it affects the funding that our church planters receive. Please pray for our church planters. Please support them as you can. We are grateful for the support that we receive from NAMB and other partners, but this is a reminder that Southern Baptists are an interconnected system of 46,000 churches, associations, conventions, seminaries, and mission agencies. When one part of the system suffers, we all do. In the Northwest we receive a great deal of support from our SBC family, including NAMB and the IMB. Sometimes the decisions they make affect us adversely, but we are far, far better for being a part of the SBC family. It is a good day to serve the Lord in the Northwest.

Update on IMB Missionaries Returning to the Northwest

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In September of this year, all IMB missionaries and staff age 50 and above, with a minimum of five years tenure, were offered a Voluntary Retirement Incentive (VRI) from the IMB. IMB leaders determined that our international mission force must be reduced by 600 to 800 in order to bring the IMB budget into balance.

Apparently, IMB leaders a number of years ago intentionally grew our mission force beyond what the income could support. The additional missionaries were sent and sustained by selling property overseas and drawing down the IMB reserve funds. But with reserve funds significantly lower, the time has come that the IMB must operate within its budget. Current IMB leadership determined that the first step in reducing our mission force would be to ask our most senior missionaries and staff to consider the VRI. The deadline to make their decision was in early November, but they were allowed to change their mind as late as early December.

While we don’t have the complete picture as to how this affects IMB missionaries from the Northwest (the IMB has not reported on this, as of Dec. 8, 2015), I want to tell you what we know. I do this so that you can pray for the men and women affected by the VRI, and also so that you might know who could be available to serve in our Northwest Baptist churches.

Those Northwest IMB missionaries who are accepting the VRI, and leaving their overseas assignment are: Andy and Kaye Martin, Susan Vessey, Al and Ann Rodriquez, and Ian and Sherri Buntain. There may be others, and probably are, but we don’t yet have information on any others. In addition to these, David and Nora Gass have accepted the VRI, after serving 13 years with the IMB, and David will join our NWBC staff on February 1, 2016 as a church health strategist, serving in Regions 1 and 2. David will also help lead our East Asia partnership. He served as the partnership strategist in East Asia for the IMB and has a relationship with hundreds of East Asia missionaries.

In addition to these, the couple that many of you know as “Leon and Kay” (pseudonyms), have accepted the VRI, but are choosing to remain in the country and city where they have served for many years. This summer they received a mission team from the Northwest, and though no longer officially IMB missionaries, they will continue to relate to IMB personnel, and they will continue to work with Northwest Baptist mission teams.

As we receive further information on IMB personnel from the Northwest, we will update you. Also, feel free to contact me if you receive information regarding one of our missionaries. If you would like to contact one of these that I have mentioned here, please contact Marsha Gray (marshag@nwbaptist.org) or myself and we will put you in touch with them.

There are dozens of IMB missionaries from the Northwest who will remain on their field of service. Those remaining need our earnest prayers. Many are losing their field leaders and mentors due to the VRI. In addition to praying for them, the NWBC is taking 200 volunteers to Pattaya, Thailand in August, 2016 to serve about 1,300 IMB missionaries and their children during a time of retreat. We will minister to their spiritual, physical and emotional needs in an unprecedented opportunity for our convention of churches (contact Sheila Allen for more information at Sheila@nwbaptist.org).

Also, thank you for your support of mission work by giving through the Cooperative Program. This is also the season in which many of our churches support the work of the IMB by giving through the Lottie Moon Offering. Last year our NWBC churches increased their missions giving through the Lottie Moon Offering by 25 percent, with total NWBC giving of slightly more than $500,000 in 2014. We anticipate another great year of giving to support the work of more than 4,000 IMB missionaries.

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

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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.