My kids play this game called “Would You Rather?” produced by Parker Brothers or somebody. During the game, an individual is presented with two unsavory options. The general pattern is “Would you rather be 4 feet tall with arms that dragged the ground, or 9 feet tall and unable to touch your toes?” The other contestants vie to see who can accurately predict the individual’s choice.
When I was in college we would sit around and do this, thinking of the most horrific options for each other, just as a casual late-night dorm conversation among dateless guys. Painful experiences, ugly/mean girls, and gross food topped our lists. Neither option was attractive, so you were a loser either way.
My dad had a different phrase that implied being stuck between making either this bad choice or that one: Pick your poison.
Allow me to preface this by saying I don’t have any idea who the actual candidates for the IMB presidency were. I know what the rumors said, but I don’t have an inside line to anyone. I am a cog, a worker bee, a conscript brought in to dig the foxholes from which the actual soldiers will fight. I know only that I know nothing.
And yet this I know: IMB trustees have picked the right poison.
Consider what we know. The search committee was deadlocked for months. According to sources, half the group wanted an experienced missiologist promoted from within, while the other half wanted a prominent SBCer, someone like a megachurch pastor. As an organization, we were faced with having to choose between one or the other. Which poison do we pick? A missiologist we know and respect without the deep roots in the North American SBC system, or an SBC leader who can ably represent us to churches and yet lacks real missions roots within our organization?
Pick your poison, indeed.
I think, though, that we were facing a true dichotomy falsely placed, choosing between two options neither of which addressed the organization’s needs.
I don’t have my finger on the pulse of the organization from here in Ecuador, but I do hear from friends on other continents and in various countries. Here are some comments:
“Seems like the IMB is no longer a ministry; we’re a multi-national corporation now, with a corporate culture to match.”
“What do they (leaders) care? I’m just a number now.”
“Well, I’m sorry you are struggling. Maybe you should call the Member Don’t Care Department. They’ll counsel you and help you understand that all your struggles are your own fault.”
“A new accountability program could be great, but so far what I see is a bludgeon to keep us in line.”
“I don’t mind having goals and being accountable for them. Hower, there’s an emphasis on having the maximum number of goals so my year-end statistics look good; this ends up robbing me of any chance of listening to the Holy Spirit when new opportunities arise.”
Enter Tom Elliff. By all reports I’ve seen on blogs, he is a highly respected man of God possessed of exceptional character. Even those who have critiqued his church’s Lottie Moon giving or Cooperative Program receipts have largely pointed towards his philosophy, not his character. He has made a career out of being pastoral, and of leading and feeding other pastors. His last role with the IMB related to spiritual nurturing. His current job is calling for spiritual renewal among Christians.
Perhaps what the organization needs right now is not a strong missiologist, nor a well-known SBC leader. Perhaps we really and truly crave pastoral care and support for ourselves and our colleagues. Maybe in some ways field leaders and subordinates are stumbling and struggling here and there (not worldwide), and in order to keep our feet under us we require a strong spiritual presence. Maybe individuals within the organization will be renewed by seeing a leader who views us as his sheep, a pastoral presence who will not reduce us to mere numbers in a database, or who forgets our reliance on the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
I’m not saying the other top candidates that split the committee would have lacked these things; as I said, I don’t know the other candidates from a pack of mules. Nor am I impugning the outgoing leader; neither am I trying to slander the non-presidential leaders we currently have. Instead, I am trying to point out that Dr. Elliff just might bring a proven track record of excelling in exactly the things we require from a president right now. Missiologists abound within IMB. Throw a rock - you’ll hit one. Guys who clean up good and can represent us well pack the halls in Richmond. Dr. Elliff will need both groups while he nutures his new flock.
As for those who claim he is a caretaker president, I ask this: if a shepherding caretaker is what missionaries within the organization need right now, is that so poisonous?