Michael and JuliAn Domke are missionaries who wrestle with a painful, unexpected decision. He is the International Mission Board’s (IMB) team leader for church planting in Kiev, Ukraine. They were appointed in 2008 and moved their family from Florida to Eastern Europe, anticipating a long, fruitful ministry there.
Do the math. Domke is more than 50 years of age and has served with IMB for more than seven years.
That puts his family among IMB personnel who received an unexpected offer Sept. 10 to take early retirement by the end of the year. The Voluntary Retirement Incentive (VRI) is the first step in a plan recently announced by the mission agency’s president, David Platt, to resolve the organization’s financial troubles.
Their initial response was a one of nervous uncertainty. “What are we going to do if we go back [to the United States]?” he asked. The Domkes are convinced God has called their family to Ukraine. “God has done a lot of things to get us here,” he added.
Michael and JuliAn Domke are among the missionaries who must decide if they should accept the early retirement plan.
Since his energy is focused on the call to make disciples in Ukraine, Domke did not know that IMB spent $210 million more than Southern Baptists gave to international missions in the past five years.
But with the facts in hand, it did not take long to face the bottom line. “I have the gift of administration,” Domke said. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that this ain’t gonna work. When you hear that every six months you eat up another month of reserves, and we only have a couple of months left, you just have to make some decisions.”
Domke does not believe the IMB leadership is acting hastily. “I think what our [IMB] president is doing is wise. If I was in his shoes, I would probably do the same thing. You fix things today that are broken, so you can be stronger tomorrow.”
When missionary personnel received the news Aug. 27, several members of the IMB team in Ukraine gathered to pray. “This has forced me to live more by faith. It’s been a faith issue for me. That’s not a bad thing,” said Domke.
“Nobody wants to go through difficulty, but anybody that’s been there will tell you that it seared something in their lives, once they got on the other side of it. The difficult things I have been through in my life – serving in the military, the passing of my Dad, the passing of my Mom – those things are markers in my life where God’s done amazing things. I think that’s what God wants to do. So I’m resolved. I believe what [IMB is] doing is the right thing.”
The Domke family expressed sadness that Southern Baptists’ mission force will be reduced, but they believe, “That’s the reality of where we are. You can’t keep missionaries on the field today for the same amount of money you could 10 years ago. God’s still God, and I’m still a servant, and we’ll do what we need to do. I believe God’s going to make us stronger and draw us closer,” he added.
Raised as an unbeliever in Michigan, Michael Domke met Christ as personal savior in the military. He was discipled in Jacksonville, Fla., and enrolled in Liberty University where he met JuliAn. He served two Southern Baptist churches in Jacksonville for 19 years – two years at First Baptist Church, Ocean Way, and 17 years at San Jose Baptist Church, filling a variety of staff positions. Serving as the church’s missions pastor, Domke knew God was calling his family to international missions.
He believes the gospel travels along relationships. “I’m here because of a relationship back in Florida.” While serving at San Jose church, a 60 year-old man from Ukraine needed a job. “The man did not speak English. He applied for a job, and I hired him as a janitor. Through that relationship, the senior pastor and I decided we needed to go to Ukraine to see how we can help this man’s home church. We began a five-year partnership with that church, and now, 12 years later, I’m here.”
The relationship model is part of the discipleship strategy in Ukraine. Working with struggling churches, Domke uses the T4T strategy (http://t4tonline.org/) to build relationships with unreached people.
There was a time when IMB had dozens of missionaries working in Ukraine. Today six IMB units serve in the capital city of Kiev. Two units are part of the seminary education team that equip internationals in church planting. “They have a really neat work with national church planters,” Domke said. They assist Ukrainian Baptists in sending out their own missionaries.
“They can go where we can’t … for a lot less money. I really see this as key for advancing the gospel in the former Soviet Union,” he said. The nationals are better equipped and more effective than Americans who have tried to enter these countries.
The logistics team
Kanoot and Sarah Midkiff have no doubt about their call to international missions. The couple lives in Ukraine with two teenagers.
Two other units serve in logistics and church planting. One of those families is Kanoot and Sarah Midkiff, with their two teenage children, Fisher and Faith. They are logistics coordinators who are serving their fourth year as apprentices – first term career missionaries. Both were born in North Carolina, lived in the state most of their lives; were called to missions through N.C. Baptist churches; and both of their parents are still active in N.C. Baptist churches.
The Midkiffs sign contracts for colleagues, locate and rent apartments, purchase and sell vehicles, keep visas and other legal documents current for personnel and coordinate work with national staff. They build relationships, share Christ, serve in local churches and assist volunteer teams from the U.S.
The changes at IMB may expand the Midkiffs’ responsibilities. “Most of our colleagues have served eight to 20 years,” Kanoot said. “Two families recently reached retirement, and we helped them pack up. There is another family planning to retire in December, so we’ve begun with that process. Maybe the Lord is preparing us to say good-bye to others, now. This just wasn’t on our radar screen. But, this isn’t the first time we faced a financial crisis in considering our call to international missions.”
When the Midkiffs were in the early stages of pursuing missionary appointment in 2009-2010, IMB announced the resources were not available for all who were in the application process. They were delayed. At that time Kanoot was serving as minister of missions at Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Boone.
As the church approached the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions (LMCO), he said the church placed dozens of pairs of empty shoes on the altar of the church to represent missionaries who would not be able to go overseas unless financial support increased.
“IMB is like a family, and we feel very close to the [Richmond] staff who are making these decisions, and to our colleagues and their feelings,” Kanoot added. “Someone has to make these decisions, and we’re thankful that God has put leaders in place to support us all the way through and to pray through this.”
“We’re concerned for others, but we don’t know how all of this will affect us,” Sarah said. “My life verse keeps coming to my mind – Romans 8:28. God has assured us that ‘All things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose.’
“We have no doubt that we were called here, but we don’t know if God will move us to another place – God knows. We would like to be here for many years, but God has a plan. I just want to be open with the Lord and say, ‘wherever you want.’ Our [IMB] president often says our lives need to be like a blank check before the Lord.”
Last year Russia invaded Ukraine. Many mission agencies began withdrawing personnel. Sarah said, “Our kids were praying, ‘Lord, please allow us to stay here.’ IMB personnel stayed. That was another way God worked in our children’s lives.”
Ukrainians were impressed that IMB missionaries did not leave in spite of the conflict. The Ukrainians were very stressed – “solemn” during the height of the conflict, Kanoot said.
“Some were so stressed by the uncertainty of the future that they did not want to even plant their gardens. That’s serious here, because if they don’t plant their gardens in the spring, they may not have enough to eat come fall and winter.”
The couple celebrates 20 years of marriage this fall. Kanoot was a journeyman with IMB in Ukraine in 1994. “Sarah’s the reason I left Ukraine to come home and get married,” he said.
They prayed about where Kanoot should attend seminary. “Our home church at that time was Calvary Baptist in Winston-Salem. I remember that Gary Chapman was preaching on a Sunday evening,” Kanoot explained. The sermon was about God’s call on each believer’s life. Sarah left the service convicted that she should get a seminary degree, also.
“Someone sent us some articles in the Biblical Recorder about the partnership with Ukraine. As I read through it, I saw an article in another section about a social work program that was being offered at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.” Sarah had a degree in social work from Appalachian State University. She got the application process started and got a call back. The woman asked Sarah if she would come to the seminary and work for her.
“We’ve seen God answer prayer, so we know He can provide for our needs and the needs of IMB,” Kanoot said.
Trust God’s heart
As Southern Baptists look at the financial needs for missions, Michael Domke has a request. “I would encourage people to get involved with missionaries. I’m not saying it would solve everything, but that’s what I miss on the [international] mission field – involvement with people from America.”
Frequently missionaries leave their international field because it’s too difficult, he said.
“It’s lonely. No matter how you slice it, it’s just not easy. One of our former IMB presidents used to say, ‘It’s not the elephants that will get you, it’s the termites.’ In other words, it’s the little things that will get you to leave the field. The things that help us are the relationships.
“We’re an organization because we have to be; because we can work better that way, but we’re still people. If you don’t know a missionary, there’s something wrong – there’s a disconnect, and that’s a problem,” Domke added. He asks Baptists not only to give to LMCO, but to build relationships with specific missionaries.
“I’m blessed to be Southern Baptist. I am so blessed to be part of the IMB. I don’t take that for granted.”
The Midkiffs said they are very grateful for the churches that support them through the Cooperative Program and LMCO, also. “I want to say how thankful I am for the faithful and sacrificial giving of Southern Baptists over all these years,” Sarah said.
“To see all of the missionaries who have lived cross-culturally for so long and the reputation that we have as Southern Baptists – that we care about taking the gospel to the ends of the earth, for that I am very thankful. I’m proud to be an IMB missionary. It was a dream of mine when I was a young woman. I’m thankful to have had this opportunity, however long it lasts.”
With much emotion, Kanoot added, “God has been so gracious to us and so generous. I’ve been thinking about this song: ‘God is too wise to be mistaken, God is too good to be unkind. So when you don’t understand, when you can’t see His plan, when you can’t trace His hand, trust His heart.’”