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Amid drawdown, IMB still sending full-time missionaries

Agency was overly-optimistic in sending more missionaries than it could afford

 

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New missionaries Jason and Charity Palmer share the story of their overseas calling during an appointment service at Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., Nov 10. The North Carolina natives are bound for Slovakia where fewer than 2 percent of the country’s 5.8 million people are evangelical Christian.

RICHMOND, Va. (BP) — Southern Baptists are seeking to deploy as many missionaries worldwide as possible amid reductions in personnel due to lower Cooperative Program receipts and the U.S. recession.

The International Mission Board’s interim president, Clyde Meador, told the Southern Baptist TEXAN he expects the anticipated end-of-year missionary count of 5,000 to be maintained into next year.

With 57 new long-term missionaries appointed last month, the number of IMB personnel serving around the world will total 5,189. Attrition through short-term personnel completing their two- and three-year terms, career personnel retirements and the routine resignation by about 5 percent of the force will cause that number to decline by the year’s end, combined with budget restraints that had already been put in place to lower the number of new personnel appointed.

In years past, Southern Baptists have appointed between 850 and 900 personnel annually, then slowed the process down in light of economic projections to this year’s level of about 550 new long- and short-term missionaries.

 

Blaming economy is not accurate

But to blame all of that on the economy would be inaccurate, Meador said. He added that individual Southern Baptists need to evaluate whether they are giving as much as they should.

IMB chairman Jimmy Pritchard of Forney, Texas, echoed that theme in his report at the trustees’ September meeting in Tampa, Fla., stating, “The issue is not that we can’t afford it, but that we just don’t want to foot the bill. What will solve our problem is a good dose of spiritual awakening in our churches.”

Meador, asked by the TEXAN whether the board is still appointing full-time career missionaries, offered a resounding affirmation. “We do continue to send new personnel – lots of them – each year, but not as many as we would like to send.”

Long-term personnel remain the priority, though the budget constraints required a cutback “from the usual 400 or so new long-term folks” to this year’s target of 300.

Two factors caused the projected number of new career personnel deployed in 2010 to dip even further to about 250 – the inability of many candidates to sell their houses and an over-adjustment in the appointment process for those who were in the pipeline.

 

Overly optimistic with missionary appointments

“We overdid it” in restricting the career missionary appointments, said Meador, explaining the difficulty of projecting anticipated income while at the same time deciding how many prospective personnel should advance toward appointment, both of which must be decided over a year in advance.

Having to sell a house before a missionary appointment is approved delays many qualified candidates. “Three or four couples are delayed for that reason at every appointment service,” Meador said.

“Still, we are clearly sending out long-term missionaries,” Meador added, countering the misperception that global evangelism efforts have been shut down by a lack of resources.

Budget cutbacks in recent years led to suspension of the International Service Corps and Masters programs with the exception of missions degree programs offered through some Southern Baptist seminaries and appointment of short-termers to meet critical needs where long-term personnel are not available.

Despite having to reduce the mission force from 5,656 to 5,000 over the course of 2009-10, Meador said newly deployed missionaries are “the cream of the crop.”

“In fact, 65 percent of the journeymen we’ve deployed recently said, ‘I’m in it for the long haul,’ intending to eventually return as career missionaries once their two years are over. The young people we’re sending out are sold out.”

No reduction has been made in the appointment of seminarians who finish their degrees on the mission field. “We’re sending all that the seminaries can give us,” Meador said.

The number of annually deployed short-term personnel soared a decade ago when 1,000 new missionaries were sent to the field for two consecutive years, but now-retired IMB President Jerry Rankin announced in late 2002 that the board would have to restrict the flow of appointments if receipts did not increase by another 10 percent, calling it “absolutely tragic.”

That projection came at a time when CP and LMCO funding was steadily increasing for the IMB, and investment income was more predictable.

“Southern Baptists are giving. But the growth doesn’t begin to compare to the growth that we are experiencing in the missionary force,” Rankin told the Florida Baptist Witness, having grown at that time to 5,480 overseas personnel.

By early 2006, Rankin told state Baptist editors he decried the inability of financial support to keep pace with the vision of deploying 8,000 to 10,000 missionaries. “For three years now, we’ve kinda plateaued,” he said. “We haven’t kept the momentum of growth.”

However, in 2007 Southern Baptists exceeded the LCMO goal. This success led Meador, then-IMB executive vice president to say, “We are prepared financially to support a significant increase in the number of missionaries on the field.”

As Southern Baptists began to respond to that call, they ran headlong into the financial recession and a weakening dollar overseas. Even though giving to the LCMO continued to increase for the next two years, the increases were overshadowed by significantly decreased buying power.

The result was more candidates somewhere in the appointment pipeline, particularly short-term workers, than the IMB could send.

Among the other adjustments that made it possible for IMB to cut its 2010 operating budget by about 7 percent were a hiring freeze at the board’s offices in Richmond, Va., slicing the IMB retirement contribution amount in half to 5 percent with a matching contribution of 3 percent, changes in co-pays for medical insurance, and eliminating salary increases for all personnel.