What Does it Mean When the SBC is Cutting Back Missions?

Recently the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention made a huge announcement that should cause a mighty response in the denomination.

 David Platt preaching at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fall 2013. Photo from SEBTS archives. See: https://www.flickr.com/photos/southeastern/9606045395/in/album-72157635183464333/

David Platt preaching at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fall 2013. Photo from SEBTS archives. See: https://www.flickr.com/photos/southeastern/9606045395/in/album-72157635183464333/

David Platt, current President of the IMB, and author of Radicalhad to announce a plan to cut at least 600 employees from one of the largest Christian mission organizations in the world. This must have been an incredibly painful announcement for a man whose life purpose is to see the nations reached with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

As a history lesson, one of the major reasons that the SBC exists is to fund missions. In fact, the Cooperative Program was created in the early 20th Century largely to fund the missions activities of the SBC. Reducing the mission force without some major economic crisis indicates there is something terribly wrong, and that there must have been a loss of focus.

These things should make Southern Baptists begin to question where our priorities lie. 

Some Questions for Consideration

Whenever a crisis like this occurs, it should lead to some introspective questioning. Here are a few that have come to my mind:

  • Is the Cooperative Program still viable?
    • I think it is. The Cooperative Program certainly needs to be reshaped somewhat to reduce the amount of money that gets spent for regional organizations that duplicate other parachurch and national denominational organizations. However, the basic method of large association of churches contributing to fund the global missions endeavors is irreplaceable. Having grown up in an Independent Baptist church, the collective sending power of the IMB is a huge improvement to the never-ending circuit of missionaries candidating individually. The CP is a good program and we need to make sure it works in a new era.
  • What are the SBC churches funding instead of missions?
    • This is the $100 question. Part of reality is that since the Great Recession, the cost of living has risen while wages for the middle and lower class have largely stagnated. In many ways this economic pressure is due to bad fiscal policies at local, state, and federal levels in the United States. At the same time, I wonder if SBC churches have increased funding for global missions as much as they have funding for local priorities. Or, have they made across the board cuts that have kept more money than absolutely necessary at the local level? Local ministry is important for discipleship and growing healthy churches. However, without funding for international missions, vital ministries that take the gospel where it is currently unavailable will not happen. Local churches need to question their funding priorities.
  • Are the funding problems a result of the tragedy of the commons?
    • The tragedy of the commons is the phenomena where things held in group ownership are treated less well than things held for private gain. I believe the current IMB struggles are in part a result of the tragedy of the commons. This is a natural danger of the Cooperative Program; all Southern Baptists don't know missionaries intimately, and our money doesn't fund them directly, so we don't necessarily feel obligated to fund them vigorously (or pray for them diligently). This is a circumstance that local churches as organizations, pastors, and missions-minded individuals in the church will need remedy. They need to raise the alarm, continue to tell the story of missions work, and build the missional momentum to help people engage and feel ownership for international missions conducted at the national level. We need to overcome this is we are to sustain the CP.
  • What level of problem is this?
    • If this isn't five alarm fire, it is very close. They aren't shutting down the IMB, but there have been years of underfunding the IMB. If we can't fund international missions--if we can't send the gospel to places it hasn't been heard yet--then we are failing to use the gifts God has given us. We have prioritized our comfort over missional living and sacrificial giving. The man who wrote the book on living a missional lifestyle, cutting back on extras, and getting the gospel to the ends of the earth has announced cuts at a huge missions organizations. This is real and we need to be ready to respond in a big way.

What do we do now?

All is not lost. However, we need to have a gut check at the individual level and as local churches.

What are we spending our money on? What are we living for? Are we aggressive in our funding of gospel ministry? Are we critical in evaluating our personal expenditures? How about our local church expenditures? Are we asking what the gospel purpose in our giving, spending, and living is?

We need to get engaged as a people in giving from the abundance God as provided. We need to keep praying for our missionaries and our denominational leaders. We need to lay foundations of radical living and white-hot gospel focus in our daily lives that spreads the interest to our children and our neighbors.

Individual effort and sacrifice will be necessary if we are to turn the ship. It won't happen in a a few days, but the long term viability of the IMB and the need to spread the gospel demands it. Our faithfulness to God demands it.

An Open Letter from David Platt

David Platt has written an open letter to the SBC to explain the nature and reason for the forthcoming cuts. I have reposted it below:

Dear SBC Family,

By now many of you may have heard that last week, IMB announced a plan to reduce the total number of our personnel (both here and overseas) by 600-800 people over the next six months. Since the moment this announcement was made, we have sought to communicate the details of this decision as clearly as possible to churches, state conventions, and national entities across the SBC (see this article and this FAQ document, in particular). In the middle of it all, though, I simply want to take a moment to share my heart with you.

This is certainly not an announcement that I, in any way, wanted to make. At the most recent meeting of the SBC in Columbus, I shared with messengers how IMB spent tens of millions more dollars than we received last year. In our budgeting process over the last couple of months, other leaders and I have recognized that we will have a similar shortfall this year, and we are projecting another shortfall of like magnitude next year. In fact, when we stepped back and looked at IMB finances since 2010, we realized that IMB has spent a combined $210 million more than people have given to us. By God’s grace, we have been able to cover these costs through reserves and global property sales. But we don’t have an endless supply of global property to sell, and our cash reserves are no longer at a desirable level for good stewardship going forward.

When staff leadership realized the severity of our financial situation, we knew that we needed to take significant action. We spent hours on our knees praying and at tables discussing potential options for balancing our budget, ranging from sending fewer missionaries to cutting various costs. We poured over financial models and looked at the long-term impact of each of our options. However, with 80% of our budget being devoted to personnel salary, benefits, and support expenses, we inevitably realized that any effort to balance our budget would require major adjustments in the number of our personnel. When we gathered with our trustees at our most recent meeting, the same conclusion was clear. Though board policy did not require an official trustee vote, and though these brothers and sisters agonized over the thought of many missionaries stepping off of the field, there was resolute and resounding recognition across the room that our financial situation required such action.

Some pastors have asked me over this last week, “Why doesn’t the IMB just ask the churches to give more money?” This sounds like a simple solution, but the IMB has been asking churches to give more money for many years. In many ways, we have told the church about our need and called the church to give to meet that need. Here’s just a small sampling of headlines and articles we have published:

· 2008 – “IMB reports cautionary finance news that could have a significant impact on the Board’s work around the world next year.” Later that year, our trustee chair said to churches, “I am sounding the alarm. The IMB budget is under strain to support growth in our missionary force.”
· 2009 – “Economic challenges…IMB anticipating another tough financial year…IMB in budget shortfall crisis [that] could affect 600 positions.”
· 2010 – “IMB lamenting financial declines, trying to balance budget…IMB sending 30 percent fewer long-term personnel than would be sent if there were no financial constraints.”
· 2011 – “IMB having difficulty balancing budget…IMB lowering the missionary force.”
· 2012 – “IMB preparing for another sobering financial report…IMB working through a painfully difficult process of trying to balance the budget.”
· 2013 – “IMB urging for greater support from churches…IMB laments Christian callousness…IMB trustees vote for substantive proposal changes across the SBC.”
· 2014 – Just two months before I stepped into my role, one article read: “IMB must soon come to grips with the demands placed on us by years of declining Cooperative Program receipts and Lottie Moon giving. We will be hard-pressed to continue supporting a mission force of our current number, much less see a greatly needed increase in the number of fully supported career missionaries on the field.”

I share all of this simply to say that we haven’t kept our financial position a secret. By God’s grace, the church has responded in many ways, including various special offerings like “Christmas in August” in 2009 and increased giving to the IMB through both the Cooperative Program and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering over the last four years. Yet while IMB has been asking churches to give and setting aggressive goals accordingly, the reality remains unchanged: IMB has spent $210 million more than we have been given. Simply put, we cannot keep operating like this.

Do I hope that churches give more to the IMB through the Cooperative Program and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering this year? Absolutely, and we are working zealously with churches, state conventions, and national entities toward this end. But I want to be crystal clear: I don’t blame the church for putting IMB in our current position. I love the church, we as IMB want to serve the church, and we believe the best way for us to do that right now is by operating within the means provided to us by the church.

Similarly, no blame should be assigned to previous IMB leadership. Previous leaders knew these financial realities, and they put in place a plan to slowly reduce our mission force (through normal attrition and reduced appointments) while using reserves and global property sales to keep as many missionaries on the field as possible. I praise God for the resources He provided to make that plan possible, and I praise God for leaders who chose not to sit on those resources, but to spend them for the spread of the gospel among the unreached. Ultimately, I praise God for the people who came to Christ over these last years because missionaries stayed on the field, and because we used our resources to keep them there.

Yet when staff and trustee leaders alike looked at the realities before us, we realized that plan is no longer viable, for we cannot continue to overspend as we have. For the sake of short-term financial responsibility and long-term organizational stability, we must put ourselves in a position in which we can operate within our budget, which necessarily means reducing the number of our personnel.

Words really can’t describe how much a sentence like that pains me to write, and pained me to communicate last week. For “600” and “800” are not just figures on a page; they are people around the world. For many of you, they are your family, friends, and fellow church members. They are brothers and sisters whom I love, and brothers and sisters whom I want to serve and support. I not only want as many of them as possible to stay on the field; I want multitudes more to join them on the field. But in order to even have a conversation about how to mobilize more people in the future, IMB must get to a healthy financial place in the present.

I hope that all of this information helps give you a small glimpse into why IMB is taking these steps at this time. You can go to the links I referenced above to learn more about the two-phase process we are walking through over the next six months to reduce the number of our personnel. Our aim is to make this process as voluntary as possible, starting with a Voluntary Retirement Incentive, and then moving to an opportunity for other personnel to say voluntarily, “I believe the Lord may be leading me to a new assignment.” As the Lord leads 600-800 brothers and sisters into new places and positions over these days, we want to honor every single one of them with generous support, realizing that the longer we wait to take this action, the less generous we can be.

The comment I have appreciated most from pastors and church members during these days has been, “How can we help?” One way is obviously to give. To be sure, IMB is committed to operating within our means in the days ahead, yet we are praying that those means might increase so that we can stop pulling missionaries off of the field and start sending multitudes onto the field. Indeed, the field is ripe for harvest, and the time is now to take the gospel to those who have never heard it. Further, in light of all that I have shared, I would also encourage your church to consider how you might care for one of these missionaries who will soon be moving back to the United States. I am trusting that our Southern Baptist family will welcome these brothers and sisters with open arms as they integrate into our churches here, making disciples of the nations God has brought to our own backyard.

Finally, and most importantly, I would ask you to pray for the IMB during these days. Please pray that God will provide grace, wisdom, strength, and unity across the IMB family as we navigate the various challenges that we are walking through together over the next six months. Ultimately, please pray that God will use these days to set the stage for this 170-year-old missions organization to thrive for decades to come or until Jesus returns. In this historic coalition of churches called the Southern Baptist Convention, may we strive together toward that end.

For His Glory,

David Platt

Here are the article and FAQ document that Platt points to.