JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Baptist congregations will increasingly take on more direct responsibility for international missions, freeing full-time missionaries to focus their energies in countries that restrict Christian evangelism, says the retiring executive of the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) International Mission Board (IMB).
Jerry Rankin reflected on the future of Southern Baptist mission in a conference call interview the day after his Sept. 16 announcement that he will retire as the IMB’s president next July.
Rankin, whose 17-year tenure as president is the second-longest of any executive of that agency in the past century, also discussed the implications of a “Great Commission” task force examining the way the SBC distributes funding for mission work; responded to speculation that the task force will recommend a merger of the IMB and the SBC’s domestic missionary agency; identified characteristics he’d like to see in his successor; and reflected on his occasional disagreements with trustees over mission strategy and focus.
Historic shift in methodology
Increased reliance on local churches to carry out the mission task is one of the most significant accomplishments of his tenure, Rankin told reporters in the Sept. 17 conference call.
He has encouraged the IMB to make “an intentional effort not to do missions on behalf of Southern Baptists but seeking to multiply the resources and the people by mobilizing our churches, by personalizing their involvement, and getting churches, associations and state conventions to truly partner with us in the task of global missions,” he said.
Currently, as many as 8,000 Southern Baptist churches are engaged in direct, long-term mission partnerships overseas, said Rankin — a dramatic strategic shift in a denomination that traditionally relied exclusively on a large force of full-time missionaries to carry out that task.
“We recognize that you don’t have healthy Bible-based churches seeking to reach the lost that don’t also have a vision for reaching the nations,” said Rankin. “The churches that are involved in overseas missions — God is blessing their outreach locally, as well.”
The strategic shift has had the practical effect of enabling Southern Baptists to maintain mission involvement in the midst of an economic crisis, Rankin said. Earlier this year, revenue shortfalls led IMB trustees to place a cap on the number of missionaries they could appoint — and forced them to consider a long-term restriction if contributions remained low. Currently the IMB employs about 5,600 missionaries.
But the shift also is altering missiological assumptions — and that’s a good thing, said Rankin.
“Already the role of the missionary has significantly changed,” he said. “Their role now is engagement in discipleship and leadership training. They’re not the primary church planter doing the work. It’s what they do in partnership with national believers and churches and conventions. That’s going to be even more part of the strategy in the future.
“More than half of (the IMB’s) missionaries are serving in restricted countries where they can’t be identified as missionaries, pushing back the frontiers of lostness,” he noted. “I think that will be the primary focus of — for want of a better phrase — the professional, God-called, full-time missionary. I think we will relinquish those partnerships in countries where there are established churches (and move to) facilitating Southern Baptist churches and state conventions to work there.
“I think it will be a synergy that will explode our impact on a lost world, as we facilitate and challenge our churches in working (in countries) with established work to continue to reach the lost, while the missionary force focuses on engaging the unreached people.”
‘Great Commission’ study
That approach could be enhanced as a result of an intensive self-examination undertaken by the SBC, said Rankin. Last June the SBC appointed a “Great Commission” task force to study its organizational and funding mechanisms.
“I will say I’m excited and positive as never before about the SBC because of the overwhelming approval (by messengers to the last annual meeting) of the task force to study this,” he said. “Because I feel like our denominational structure — and that is not to be seen as criticism of anything any entity is doing — but it’s just become so extensive that it has diluted our focus on fulfilling the Great Commission. I hope that we can regain a focus that will revitalize our churches…. We have had a deliberate focus on engaging churches…. I think that’s the direction the whole denomination is moving.
“There is nothing that our denomination is doing that I do not commend or see as valid,” he added. “I can’t throw stones at anything. It’s all good, but it’s imperative that we examine the priority. It’s not a question of what the state conventions are doing — effectiveness or needs is not the question. The question is, are we doing all we should be doing to fulfill God’s mission to reach every nation and people with the gospel? When you look at the distribution of resources, yes, I think some adjustments need to be made. But let’s not ask the wrong questions in getting there.”
Merger with NAMB?
Rankin expressed little enthusiasm for one proposal being given wide currency — that the mission priority could be accomplished more effectively through a merger of the IMB and the denomination’s North American Mission Board (NAMB), whose top executive recently resigned. But a new entity that replaced both the IMB and NAMB might have merit, he added.
“I understand that with NAMB (presidency) vacant, it seems to be an opportune moment if that (a merger) is going to happen,” he said. “There is no personal leadership at stake. We were well aware that this announcement would enhance the speculation in that regard.
“Certainly in terms of our denominational structure and the way things are done, I personally would not see this as advisable or desirable,” he said. “Most people do not comprehend how radically different the two boards are. The only thing we have in common are the words ‘mission’ and ‘board’ in our names. Our focus, our structure, our nature — there’s no similarity whatever. To try to merge two entities with such a different focus would create an even greater bureaucracy that would dilute any effectiveness we have with the IMB and NAMB in their unique assignments.”
The main problem with a merger is the large number of program assignments given to NAMB. “They’re really in a dilemma in fulfilling all of them.”
Any merger that simply combined all responsibilities currently assigned to both the IMB and NAMB would be cumbersome, said Rankin.
“That is not to say that it’s not valid to explore a common mission effort of a new entity that is neither the IMB nor the NAMB,” he added. “Certainly the geographic distinctions are really rather artificial. All the unreached people groups we are trying to reach are found in North America and Canada. So perhaps there would be an open door to explore that possibility. It would not involve a merger of the two boards as they exist now.”
But, he warned, any “global mission board” would need to be narrowly focused, “rather than trying to do anything and everything that Southern Baptists interpret as missions.”
“That would be one of the challenges — whether they would be willing to be as focused as we are trying to be,” he said.
Qualifications for successor
In the meantime, Rankin said he hopes a new president of the IMB will have vision, focus and passion.
“We’ve got to have a leader who is a visionary, who can see the future, what can be, what is beyond the current reality, where we need to go to complete the Great Commission and reach all people with the gospel,” he said. “But we also need a leader who has the discipline to stay focused and keep the organization focused. There is a natural tendency to become too broad and lose focus on the goal. And the leader has to have a heart and a passion for the task. There can’t be a pretense in this. Passion communicates to and influences others that you are seeking to lead.”
Must the new president have career missionary experience?
“I would equivocate a little there,” said Rankin. “That would be my preference and that of most of our missionaries. It would be very difficult for even an outstanding leader to come in and lead a staff and a missionary force without having some element of experience of where (the missionaries) are coming from, what they have experienced. It can be done. But it would take some time and there would be some loss of momentum in building credibility. But we want God’s person and God has the ability to equip someone without experience who has a vision and passion for the missionary task. But that experience would count for a lot with those who that person is leading.”
Continued conflict among IMB leaders?
Rankin said the president will benefit from a board of trustees that “has never been more unified.” His disagreements with trustees — which culminated in policy and personnel changes that some observers saw as direct slaps at Rankin — have tempered, he said.
“All of you know my tenure has been fraught with controversy and criticism and lots of personal attacks,” he acknowledged. “I won’t elaborate on that. It’s been obvious that people did not appreciate or support my leadership and would have relished and maybe even tried to influence getting rid of me.
“The only thing I can say is that God’s grace enabled us to persevere and stay focused on the task and not be distracted by political considerations or personal attacks. Especially a few years ago, I think a lot of the criticism and controversy that was stirred up over personnel policy and the demeanor and actions of our board, was kind of a wake-up call that God used for … a real spiritual revival on our board.
“It’s amazing the last couple of years our board meetings have been inspirational — a spiritual experience of seeking the Lord, praising the Lord. I have never felt more unity and support…. That’s a good time to relinquish the role, when you’re riding the wave.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Dilday is managing editor of the Virginia Baptist Religious Herald.)