NASHVILLE — For nearly eight months prior to release of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force (GCRTF) interim report, the most publically debated question was whether the task force would propose merging the North American Mission Board (NAMB) and the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) International Mission Board (IMB).
The report does not make the suggestion, although GCRTF chairman Ronnie Floyd acknowledged in a Feb. 23 interview with four state Baptist newspapers, “We looked at it very seriously. We had conviction about it, but just did not feel it was the best thing for the SBC at this time.”
Floyd recognized what denominational and mission leaders are well aware of: the two mission boards operate very differently.
The biggest difference in Southern Baptists’ two mission boards lies in NAMB’s commitment to work through partnerships with 41 state Baptist conventions, plus conventions in Canada and Puerto Rico, while the International Mission Board does its work independent of local or national Baptist bodies in the countries where it has workers.
Although the IMB has relationships with mission partners around the world, the agency itself decides what its strategy will be implemented in different regions and countries and with specific people groups.
And it fully supports its missionaries who are recruited, assessed, commissioned, trained, paid, and supervised at the direction of the agency.
Prior to the 1950’s, the SBC’s Home Mission Board (HMB), NAMB’s predecessor, operated much the same way to plan and fund its mission work in the United States. The HMB responded unilaterally to mission needs anywhere in the country.
But, in 1959, the Southern Baptist Convention, in an effort to eliminate duplication and competition between the national mission agency and state conventions, instructed the HMB to develop “a single uniform mission program for the United States” with various state conventions.
The HMB negotiated a written agreement of understanding with every state convention to define the partnership and each partner’s responsibilities.
Today’s cooperative agreements between NAMB and state conventions describe how the partners will “jointly develop, administer and evaluate an annual strategic mission plan on a cooperative basis.”
The confidential agreements are brief, 5-7 pages, uncomplicated and fairly standard, despite assertions by some GCRTF members that they are complicated and difficult to understand.
On the other hand, the strategic mission plan developed with each state convention is a detailed document describing the strategies, ministries, personnel, goals, and funding for every cooperative endeavor between the partners.
Day-long conferences are held at least semi-annually between each convention and NAMB representatives to evaluate current plans and agree on changes for the next year. The state convention defines the needs in their state that align with NAMB-developed strategies and ministry objectives.
If approved as part of the mission plan, the state then recruits potential personnel who are interviewed by NAMB staff, and when approved are then trained, paid, supported and supervised by the state convention or association.
The strategic mission plan includes a negotiated funding ratio for joint mission projects. In larger state conventions, NAMB and the state usually share funding for ministry projects on an equal basis, while in states with fewer SBC churches, NAMB funds 60-90 percent of agreed-upon projects and personnel.
The GCRTF proposes current cooperative agreements, mission plans, and accompanying funding be phased out over the next four years so that NAMB can begin to plan and fund direct missions across the country, similar to the IMB strategy and funding model.
Task force member R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, called the cooperative agreements “outdated and confusing …”
“There is simply no way Southern Baptists can be more effective and faithful in this task if we retain the funding mechanisms of cooperative agreement,” Mohler said.
Mohler, Floyd and other GCRTF members have affirmed the work of state Baptist conventions and say they believe the proposed changes will make NAMB and state conventions stronger.
Executive directors from smaller conventions say they will be dramatically affected by the loss of NAMB’s share of jointly funded missions personnel and projects.
“This will put the state convention and associations in Montana out of business,” said Fred Hewett, executive director of the Montana Southern Baptist Convention.
The convention currently has eleven missionary staff members, all of whom are funded by NAMB.
“I would lose them all,” if the GCRTF “progress report” is approved, Hewett said.
Joe Bunce of New Mexico agreed, calling the proposal “a death sentence for the western states.”
Although larger state conventions would appear to be in a better position to absorb the effect of losing between $500,000 to a million dollars of NAMB funding, Missouri Baptist Convention executive director David Tolliver said it would “devastate the missions and ministries of the MBC.”
Alabama evangelism director Sammy Gilbreath told the Alabama Baptist newspaper the proposed changes would “change the face of evangelism in Alabama.”
State director of missions, Gary Swafford, said they would “eliminate major ministries across the state.”
However, some larger states believe their conventions should be able to assist their member churches in reaching their states without NAMB funding, including Don Cass, evangelism director for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.
“Texas has enough churches, associations and believers that we should and could reach Texas without assistance and could — and should — help other parts of our nation as well,” Cass said. “We should not depend on others to do our assignment.”
Other state leaders are taking a wait-and-see attitude, ready to adapt to whatever changes ultimately come about.
In March, Floyd told associational leaders it was never the task force’s intent that NAMB should work independently of associations and state conventions.
“Our heart is that partnership continues,” Floyd said. “Whether they are called cooperative agreements or not, there will be some kind of commitment towards partnership.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — King was director of communications for the Home Mission Board and North American Mission Board for 14 years prior to joining the Illinois Baptist State Association in 2006 as associate executive director and editor of the Illinois Baptist.)