HOUSTON — While celebrating the largest number of missionaries under appointment in recent years, trustees of the International Mission Board (IMB) also heard some cautionary finance reports during their Nov. 10-11 meeting in Houston.
The potential effects of investment losses, a weakened dollar and flattened giving to the Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon Christmas Offering could have a significant impact on the board’s work next year.
These economic pressures forced board members to approve a budget for 2009 that includes no room to exceed the total number of missionaries currently under appointment.
Attrition in the missionary force (completions, retirements, resignations and deaths) creates the need to appoint new missionaries each year, but IMB President Jerry Rankin said the ability to expand the missionary force beyond current levels rests in the hands of Southern Baptists.
“God has always proved His faithfulness through the giving of His people that His mission might be carried out around the world,” Rankin said. “Even in these austere economic times we must press forward in our vision to reach a lost world and be obedient to our Great Commission task.
“God continues to call missionaries from Southern Baptist churches, and we pray Southern Baptists will not be deterred from providing the support needed in spite of the personal sacrifice that might entail.”
The $319.8 million budget approved by trustees marks a $15 million increase over 2008 expenditures, $10 million of which will be used to offset the rising cost of support for missionaries already on the field.
On Nov. 11, trustees appointed 105 new missionaries at Houston’s First Baptist Church, bringing the current number of field personnel to 5,541. The Houston group is the third-largest number appointed since at least 1980. Trustee chairman Paul Chitwood of First Baptist Church in Mt. Washington, Ky., acknowledged that this feat, in spite of a tough economy, is much to the credit of Southern Baptists and God’s eternal glory.
“The question facing us now as we look to the future is: Will we again experience a setback?” Chitwood asked. “Southern Baptists will decide the answer to that question as they give their gifts through the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering this year.”
Southern Baptists gave a record $150.4 million to the Lottie Moon offering in 2007; the goal for 2008 is $170 million — about a 16 percent increase.
“You can’t get more for your money than sending a missionary,” said David Steverson, IMB treasurer and vice president for finance.
“That’s an investment — not an investment that you put in your portfolio — it’s an investment in the lives of people around the world.”
Despite a gloomy economic forecast, there is some good news.
The percentage of the budget used for stateside administration and promotion dropped nearly 1 percent, from 15.44 to 14.56 percent.
The dollar also is making a recovery in the world marketplace, gaining as much as 20 percent over some foreign currencies in the past four months. Though the gain has not yet achieved parity with the dollar’s buying power prior to the decline, another 20 percent increase would put the dollar on a one-to-one exchange rate with the euro — the currency of the European Union. Gains like these are beneficial because nearly 85 percent of the IMB’s budget is spent overseas.
Steverson added that the IMB’s well-diversified portfolio helped minimize investment losses during the market crash, falling about 19 percent compared to an average market drop of 40 percent.
“Our faith is in the Lord — not in our bank balance,” Steverson said. “I’m convinced that in trying times we need to be dependent on God. Maybe that’s what He’s trying to tell us — ‘Depend on Me, not on your resources.’ So that’s what we’re going to do.”
Chitwood called on trustees to make Southern Baptist churches aware of the need to give and challenged them to “dig deeply” into their own pockets for the Lottie Moon offering.
“I pray our generosity would match that of the Macedonian churches who gave as much as they were able, and (the Apostle) Paul says, gave even beyond their ability to do so,” Chitwood said. “I know these are challenging days — they’re challenging days in my church. They’re challenging days for all Southern Baptist churches.
“But by God’s grace, and through our sacrifice, if we give beyond what we’re able to give, I trust God will honor that by both meeting the needs in our homes and churches and meeting the needs on the mission field.”
Annual statistical report
Trustees were given good reason to answer Chitwood’s challenge. They were presented with record numbers of church growth and Gospel advance in the 2008 Annual Statistical Report, reporting missions data from the previous year.
Southern Baptist missionaries and their partners worked to share the gospel among more than 1,190 people groups, about 100 of them for the first time. Previously no one had been trying to start new churches among them. The newly engaged groups have a combined population of more than 188 million, nearly all of them less than 2 percent evangelical Christian.
In 2007 missionaries and their partners also saw the number of overseas churches climb to the highest level in history — nearly 182,000, surpassing the 10-million-member mark for the first time. Of that number, 27,000 of those churches were newly started.
Baptisms topped 565,900, an average of about one baptism per minute.
Gordon Fort, vice president of the IMB’s office of overseas operations, told trustees these numbers represent the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of understanding the complete picture of God’s work around the world. He explained that church-planting movements grow quickly beyond the IMB’s ability to track them.
None of this would be possible without Southern Baptist churches, he said.
“We need your partnership more than ever,” Fort told trustees. “We need your influence among your (Southern Baptist) constituency. We need you to go back to your churches and share with them the vision that God has given and how they can come alongside and be involved with us.”
West Africa regional leader Randy Arnett told trustees about the powerful impact that strategically involved churches can make on the mission field.
He shared the story of a particular area in West Africa that is home to 350,000 Bambara people. Before 2007, there were only a handful of small, struggling, Christian outreach groups among some 336 villages in this area.
But in February 2007, a partnering Southern Baptist church began to send short-term teams to the Bambara. Soon, a second church joined the effort. By the end of 2007, five Southern Baptist churches had committed to send teams at least four times a year.
One of those churches, Beulah Baptist Church in Hopkins, S.C., averages 200 in Sunday worship and sends a team every six weeks.
“Today, nearly 200 (Bambara) have been baptized, but more importantly, (the handful of) outreach groups have turned into 36 churches and outreach groups,” Arnett said. “And it’s because Southern Baptist churches have caught a vision.”
In addition to tackling a tough economy and celebrating Southern Baptists’ work around the globe, trustees also affirmed a number of new recommendations related to the rollout of a sweeping internal reorganization.
The reorganization, initially adopted by trustees in September, is designed to accelerate the board’s work overseas by maximizing the effectiveness of frontline missionaries while creating a more efficient, cost-effective structure of administration and support.
As part of this reorganization, trustees endorsed Randy Pegues as vice president for the newly created office of global logistics support and Tom Williams as vice president of the office of global personnel. Pegues currently serves as an associate vice president in the office of overseas operations. Williams heads the IMB’s Western Europe region. They will remain in their current roles until completing the transition to their new assignments in mid-2009.
Trustees also affirmed three existing vice presidents: Gordon Fort will continue to head the office of global strategy (currently known as the office of overseas operations); Ken Winter, office of church and partner service; and David Steverson, office of finance.
Trustees also endorsed personnel selections for eight new leadership positions known as “affinity group strategists.” The strategists’ names were not made public for security reasons. They will be responsible for leading each of the IMB’s eight “affinity groups.”
Affinity groups are large groupings of related peoples who share similar origins, languages and cultures — a lens through which missionaries can focus and coordinate strategy to share the gospel.
Chitwood thanked the trustees for their support and patience during the reorganization process, a task he compared to eating an elephant.
“You know how you eat an elephant? One bite at a time,” he said. “As we undertake the process of reorganizing an organization that stretches to nearly 200 countries, with 6,000-plus employees and a budget nearly a third of a billion dollars, we have an elephant on our hands.”
Chitwood also emphasized the motivation driving the changes.
“We began this journey focused on effectiveness…. We are out for results and we don’t apologize for that. We want to see more souls saved, we want to see more churches planted, we want to see more new believers discipled, we want to see the gospel taken to every nation, language and tribe.”
IMB President Jerry Rankin closed his report by asking trustees to sign a large globe as a symbol of their commitment to fulfilling the Great Commission.
“A thrilling aspect of our work over the years has been to see the attitude of our missionaries who started using the expression ‘wigtake,'” Rankin told trustees. “When faced with a challenging assignment or dangerous and formidable task, they respond with that expression — wigtake — whatever it’s going to take.
“That is the attitude and commitment we all must have. Whatever change is necessary. Regardless of how it may affect us personally, whatever the cost and sacrifice, driven by vision, faith and courage we will do whatever it takes to reach all the peoples of the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The next trustee meeting will be Jan. 26-28 in Richmond, Va.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Graham is a writer for the IMB.)