IMB ‘reset’ will allow missions agency to have balanced budget for 2016-17
By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
RICHMOND — Trustees of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board were told Feb. 24 that 988 missionaries are leaving the missions field along with 149 stateside staff members.
Last August IMB President David Platt announced that for financial reasons, the IMB needed to cut 600-800 missionary/staff positions. Over recent years the IMB consistently spent more money than it received — a combined $210 million more since 2010, leading to the critical need to balance the organization’s budget.
Missionaries and staff age 50 and above, with at least five years of employment, were given a Voluntary Retirement Incentive (VRI). Those not meeting that criteria were given the opportunity to retire through a Hand Raising Opportunity (HRO).
Platt informed trustees that 702 missionaries and 109 staff members accepted the VRI while 281 missionaries and 40 stateside staff took the HRO.
The numbers represent about 20 percent of the missionary staff and 33 percent of the stateside staff, Platt said.
Platt said the number who took the VRI and HRO surprised him. “It was a much larger number than I anticipated,” he said.
The IMB president said he processed the number with other leaders. “As we talked and prayed, we concluded that we had asked people to pray and seek the Lord in this decision. This many people sensed the Lord to lead them to transition.”
Even though a more involuntary process would yield more precise and predictable results, IMB chose a voluntary process that would leave as much decision-making as possible in the hands of IMB personnel,” Platt explained. “Knowing that such a voluntary process would yield more imprecise and unpredictable results, we believed that we should trust God with this process and every individual within the IMB.”
Platt stressed that no IMB missionary “has been required to leave the field during this time. IMB missionaries have been encouraged to make a transition off of the field only if they sense the Lord leading them to do so.”
Platt did note that the number of those leaving could decrease because missionaries who took the HRO can rescind their decision by April if they choose to do so.
The immediate financial impact of nearly 1,000 missionaries returning home from the field was not addressed during the board meeting. Platt later announced he is “fairly confident” the board will be able to handle additional costs incurred by a larger than anticipated reduction of its workforce in the organization’s “reset” to balance its budget.
“Our 2016 budget as approved by trustees in November 2015 was projecting an approximate $23 million deficit for 2016, but that deficit is explained … almost completely by the one-time VRI costs that will be covered by reserve funds,” he said in a Feb. 24 press conference following the trustee meeting.
The IMB had not yet determined the additional amount of money needed to cover the costs of the 983 missionaries and 149 stateside staff choosing to take the incentives, Platt said, but emphasized the entity can likely sustain the higher one-time expenditures.
“When it comes down to it, we’re hopeful,” he said, “fairly confident that in the end, our budget projections are going to be fine, in light of all the variables at play.”
The number of those taking VRI and HRO did not include the 30 employees in the IMB communications center whose positions were terminated. Ten other members of the communications staff were transferred to other
areas in the IMB. Platt told Baptist
state editors at their annual meeting in February that it “became clear that a global network approach with a digital mindset aimed at limitless growth inevitably meant a diminished need for media production in a centralized home office.”
Platt also told editors the IMB “handled the closing of the communications office in a way to respect staff privacy” and that the board would work with those terminated “to make a smooth transition to the next phase of their lives.”
TBC Executive Director Randy C. Davis expressed his sorrow at the IMB reduction. “We are all heartbroken on the steps that had to be taken as a matter of stewardship in bringing home 20 percent of our missions force. But it is time that we recover our Great Commission passion as reflected in our giving as well as in our going.
“I ask you to be praying for Dr. Platt and our leadership at the IMB.”
Tennessee IMB trustee David Miller, director of missions in Indian Creek Baptist Association, based in Waynesboro, noted he was “shocked” when the number of those taking the VRI and HRO were revealed.
He noted, however, that knowing the whole matter had started with a call to prayer eased his mind. “Knowing that I had daily asked God to lead all of us to lay a blank check on the table and believing that God was guiding everyone who was deciding what they needed to do, I prayed that the answer had come from His throne room,” Miller said.
After the decision was announced Miller said he felt both relief and responsibility. “Relief in knowing that the IMB had gone the extra mile in their treatment of those leaving and responsibility in knowing that everyone who took VRI and HRO will need our help as they face the days ahead,” he said.
Trustee Scott Harris, missions minister at Brentwood Baptist Church, Brentwood, acknowledged the VRI/HRO “represents a huge loss; so, we rightfully mourn with a heavy peace. However, I’m grateful that both of these initiatives were voluntary.
“Looking ahead, there are exciting days before us — full of opportunity; God has significant plans for the IMB as it equips Southern Baptists for the missions task. I affirm the courageous and strong leadership exhibited by Dr. Platt and his team,” Harris said.
Another Tennessee trustee, Phil Mitchell, director of missions for Weakley Baptist Association, based in Dresden, said he went to the IMB meeting with questions, “but they were answered before I could ask them.”
Mitchell expressed his support for Platt. “I believe that David Platt’s heart is in making disciples of the nations. The commissioning service is always the highlight of the week, he said, adding that being able to attend meetings where prospective missionaries share their testimonies “is always a blessing.”
“IMB is now in a much healthier financial position,” Platt said, noting that giving from Southern Baptist churches, the Cooperative Program, and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering is trending upward.
— Diana Chandler of Baptist Press contributed to this article.