Is Tom Elliff the Right Poison?

by Jeremy Parks on February 23, 2011 · 31 comments

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?

1 Dave Miller February 23, 2011 at 5:24 pm

Welcome Jeremy Parks, to the SBC Voices Team!

Here is a review of the Eliff nomination from an IMB missionary.

Well written and insightful.

2 Benji Ramsaur February 23, 2011 at 5:50 pm

Jeremy,

I think this was outstanding.

3 Doug Hibbard February 23, 2011 at 6:16 pm

Separate from my silliness in exulting over Dr. Eliff for his OBU ties, this actually hits the relevant points.

It does occur that one need not be the best missionary to be the President of the IMB. In fact, the best missionary shouldn’t be—they should be out being a missionary. It’s a different skill/gift set entirely to helm the whole thing.

4 Tom Parker February 23, 2011 at 7:36 pm

Doug:

Do you think it would have been helpful to have more than 2 years of missionary experience?

5 Jeremy Parks February 23, 2011 at 9:10 pm

I’ll answer for Doug, though I suppose I’ll allow him to weigh in later. If he’s good.

Helpful? Sure. Americans tend to look for connections, for similarities in our experiences that make us say, “Hey, I know exactly what that is like!” It would be great to have a president who has at least as much experience as I (about 11 years).

However, it is only truly helpful if it helps him achieve his key goals in his new job. I think that as things become less chaotic in the wake of the re-org and the lack of a president, Dr. Elliff’s primary job will be to lead us spiritually, not methodologically.

Of course, that logic only holds up as long as his primary job is indeed what I say it is. What are the odds of that?

6 Doug Hibbard February 24, 2011 at 8:54 am

Helpful?

Probably so. However, I’m reminded of the old joke about Pastor Search Committees: the ideal candidate is 35 years old with 20 years of senior pastor experience.

The other side is this: if he had been a career East Asia person, would he be well equipped to handle the differences in how Africa is? Or other nations and cultures?

Sure, because he will have advisors, VPs, and others to help him bridge the gap in his own knowledge and experience.

If that would be acceptable, why is that he spent 25 years preaching in the country with the 3rd largest population of unsaved people not helpful? Because he could do it in his native language?

Every candidate will have a shortfall. Part of the job of FMB President (or is that IMB? or imb? or ‘imb connecting’?) is to find the right ways to mobilize the churches of the SBC (or—see related post on this site) to give and go. Understanding the context of these churches will help with that role.

And while the FMB Pres sets overall strategy for the group, he shouldn’t be the manager of every effort. That would be like having the President of the United States, as Commander-in-Chief, be giving unit level orders in the military. The FMB Pres should be saying: Go spread the Gospel! I want to encourage and strengthen you to do it, and organizing the support network you need to do it! So that the missionary can say back “I’m going to do this by____________(fill in the blank with contextualized, appropriate answers).”

He’s not President of the Wrongco Church-O-Matic Corporation.

7 JR February 24, 2011 at 10:21 pm

Tom Parker,

In addition to his two years in Africa, Elliff spent four years as a VP, which exposed him to the Richmond operation and also led him to travel quite a bit working with missionaries on the field.

Also, I haven’t yet heard mention of the fact that at one point not long ago, all three of Elliff’s daughters and their families were career missionaries with the IMB. I suspect this connection has added a unique perspective on his understanding of the IMB’s work in different parts of the world.

He may not meet your expectations, but he is not some clueless Southern pastor wandering into a Richmond office.

8 Tom Parker February 24, 2011 at 10:35 pm

JR:

You said to me:”He may not meet your expectations, but he is not some clueless Southern pastor wandering into a Richmond office.”

That is mighty snarky of you.

Last time I checked we are entitled to our own views.

But thanks for your perspective. Mine just happens to not be yours.

9 Scott A Gordon February 23, 2011 at 6:20 pm

Dr. Elliff (an OBU alumnus & former Oklahoma Baptist pastor) is the right guy!

10 Dave Miller February 23, 2011 at 6:36 pm

I fully agree, Scott. The fact that he is from OBU should not be held against him as he embarks on this new job.

11 Doug Hibbard February 24, 2011 at 9:05 am

Dave, your Yankees-fan-inferiority complex is coming out again.

Just take a deep breath, and don’t think about Curt Schilling.

12 Bill Pfister February 24, 2011 at 8:59 am

Very well written. I hope many missionaries give Dr. Eliff the grace and benefit of doubt that you have put forth here.

Dios te bendiga,
Bill

13 William February 24, 2011 at 11:59 am

It is not unreasonable to note, and to question, the candidate’s lack of significant missionary experience. I don’t know how far back one has to go to find another with less overseas experience but certainly prior to mid-20th century.

That said, I don’t know why we should expect success from the candidate and I will certainly continue my enthusiastic support of the IMB. I have no idea what he plans to change.

14 Tom Parker February 24, 2011 at 12:30 pm

William:

You said:”It is not unreasonable to note, and to question, the candidate’s lack of significant missionary experience. I don’t know how far back one has to go to find another with less overseas experience but certainly prior to mid-20th century.”

This lack of experience has to be a major drawback. 2 years, that is just not much at all, and how many years ago were these 2 years spent on the mission field.

I’ll say again too, that his age does not appear to be a plus and before someone mentions Moses again–Moses lived to be 120.

Also, he will have my support, I’m just not convinced someone else would not have been a better candidate.

15 cb scott February 24, 2011 at 4:03 pm

Tom Parker,

You know that Moses lived as long as he did because the Word of God has stated it as fact.

My brother, do you have a word from the Lord as to how long Tom Eliff is going to be living in good physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health? If so, tell us how long he has.

In addition the Word of God has also stated, “Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the LORD your God is giving you.”

I know for a fact that Tom Eliff has done this as unto the Lord, so maybe he may live long and things will go well with him in the IMB “land” the Lord has given him.

In addition, it is good to read you once again Tom, I trust you are in well health and prospering in our Lord Jesus. I plan to spend about two or three weeks in NC this coming August. Maybe we can catch lunch together.

16 Tom Parker February 24, 2011 at 6:27 pm

CB:

I think–thanks. I believe if you try–you know what I meant.

Hope you are well also.

17 Jeremy Parks February 24, 2011 at 11:05 pm

Tom, I wish Dr. Elliff had indeed spent more time on the field. I really do. Despite that shortcoming, he still seems to stand as someone who fits a unique need within the organization at this time.

I’m glad he has those two years, though. I’m glad he has rubbed shoulders with the folks in Richmond. I’m pleasantly surprised that his kids are Ms, too. This gives him the chance to have yet another unique connection to us on the field, the flock he gets to shepherd for now.

18 William February 24, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Sorry, “I don’t know why we should NOT expect success…”

19 Dave Miller February 24, 2011 at 12:37 pm

Some changes really do need to be made!

20 Jeremy Parks February 24, 2011 at 12:55 pm

I doubt many significant changes on the field will be put into place in at least the first 18 months of Dr. Elliff’s time. Too much work has been done to bring us to this point in the re-organization for the trustees to appoint and approve a president with too many new ideas.

21 Bob Curtis February 24, 2011 at 12:45 pm

Only time will tell. I can share that one who is administratively astute (as Dr. Ellff is) is needed. More importantly, we are at a time where we do indeed need a “Shepherding” type of leader. We have restructered, reprogrammed and new programmed ourselves to death with catchy slogans and emphases. We have promoted this outreach and that outreach that was going to revolutionize the world. As Henry Blackaby has said, “we need a fresh encounter with God.” We don’t need more and new “programs.” We need HIM! Yes, our missionaries need financial support, and let us pray that with the recent “restructuring,” i.e. GCR, they will get that. But more importantly, our missionaries need prayer and practical encouragement from the board, and from Southern Baptists in general. May God give Dr. Elliff to do just that.

22 Greg Buchanan February 24, 2011 at 12:59 pm

I believe a pastor to head a pastoral ministry position is probably the smartest thing that could have been done. In fact it makes so much sense I’m surprised that it happened at all.

Seriously, what kind of “succes” do any of us expect? To see the salvation of Al Qaeda? The Muslim Brotherhood? Perhaps the Politburo of the Communist Party of the PRC? Would an “experienced” missionary know how to “crack the whip” so that every missionary in the feild accomplishes the arbitrary 4.5 salvations per week so as to justify their appointment to that country? And would that “experience” help them raise more money through the CP and Lottie Moon (why does money always seem to come up)?

I believe any missionary worth his or her salt would say that the lionshare of their “experience” is NOT in the number of baptisms, churches started, or bible studies conducted; but, the “experience” is in learning hoe to love peple in a different culture and language. God already knows how to love someone in the cultural context of China, Ecuador, Papua, Lesotho, etc… the missionary has to learn how to do so. What they need more than anything is someone who already knows how to love them… Dr Eliff already has all the experience he needs to do that: he and the missionaries are all Americans.

23 Dave Miller February 24, 2011 at 2:58 pm

I think we sometimes forget that in addition to his admittedly minor field experience, he has some administrative experience.

Frankly, I think that if he were 53, I’d be opposed to his nomination. But for the time being, in this situation, I’m thinking more and more that he may have been the perfect man.

Of course, time will tell.

24 Doug Hibbard February 24, 2011 at 11:11 pm

One thing to consider about his short time on the field: didn’t he leave due to a family medical accident?

If that’s the case, then a few things come into play: did he have to resign from the FMB during the stateside time to receive care? Then he would have had to be reappointed, and the FMB had (as the IMB has) pretty strong guidelines, including family medical and age of children.

He and his family may have fully intended to return and not been allowed.

However, it’s a valid point: does he have enough missionary experience? If he’s going to be doing a lot of detailed management of missions work, than no. He does not.

Is he going to be trying to help the (A2Z Baptist Collective) get re-unified behind missionaries and missions work? To be an encourager of missions personnel on the field to allow them to do what they, by virtue of living in the cultures they’re striving to reach, know ought to be done?

Then he’s going to be just fine.

However, and I know it’s been a little tense regarding Kevin Ezell around here, from myself included, we’ve got to deal with this fact: if the IMB elects Eliff, then the EC pres is Frank Page, the NAMB pres is Kevil Ezell, and the IMB pres is Tom Elliff. Are we going to support them at this point, while raising appropriate questions about their decisions, or are we going to sit back and hope they falter since we may not think they were the right ones for the job?

This is where we are. Are we going to take our marbles and go home? If that’s your choice, you and your church are autonomous. Are you going to help? That’s your choice too. But it’s not going to do us much good to rehash decisions that have been made, except to help guide us in decisions going forward. If Elliff is a mistake for IMB, then let’s revisit all of this when we replace him. Same with Ezell or Page.

Meanwhile, we’ve got them. Let’s see if we can make this work.

25 Tom Parker February 24, 2011 at 11:54 pm

Doug:

Jerry Rankin retires at 67 to be replaced by Eliff who is 66. I personally do not get the search committees thought process. Maybe they should have asked Jerry Rankin to not retire?

26 Jeremy Parks February 25, 2011 at 1:37 am

Good job.

My initial reaction to his appointment was a bit of outrage, but even then I knew that I needed to support him. To hope that he failed would mean hoping that my organization struggled. To be perfectly selfish, I need him to succeed in order to avoid personal discomfort.

If that were not enough, though, I have an ethical and Biblical obligation to support him. If I cannot support him and respect his role, then I need to find another job.

27 Anthony Russo February 25, 2011 at 1:08 am

A lot of the comments talk how the IMB needs a shepherd and the missionaries want to stop feeling beat down. Apart from his age, the only complaint I read here is the man’s (supposed) inexperience as a missionary. Let me throw out three quick thoughts:

1) Age. Ronald Reagan was about 15 days shy of turning 70 when he was sworn in as president for the first of his two terms. If in good health, 67 is still a vibrant age with enough time ahead of it to make a difference. (Please don’t push the comparison, it’s not about the men but the age.)

2) Missionary experience. Again as example, all first-time presidents, have zero years of experience as the leader of the free world. Some have the vision, wisdom, self-discipline, and preparatory experiences that have fashioned them with rudimentary qualifications to assume the helm. (And, yes, some don’t.) By all indications, Mr. Elliff fits into the first category.

3) A Man-made distinction. Why are we making a distinction between pastoral experience and missionary experience? That is an artificial distinction, at least in my Bible it is. Paul doesn’t even speak to a role of “missionary” as an office, so why are we so focused on it? The role of pastor is the only job on earth that makes U.S. President look like a night re-stocker job at the corner Piggly Wiggly. If this brother has been deemed faithful and impactful in *that* role for as long as he has, he’ll do just fine understanding people and needs.

To push the president illustration over the edge…not even he can change everything he sets out to. The same may be true for the role of IMB head. Such is life and human organization in a fallen world. Ultimately, only prayer changes things.

28 Tom Parker February 25, 2011 at 8:14 am

Anthony:

All I am trying to say is I believe there were better candidates than this good one.

29 Anthony Russo February 25, 2011 at 11:32 am

Hi Tom, I honestly wasn’t referring to your points and have no problem with your opinion. I was just remarking on the major themes that I was noticing. Sorry if this seemed directed at you, I really wasn’t going there.

30 Doug Hibbard February 25, 2011 at 9:10 am

Tom Parker,

You might be right. And the cynic in me wondered (and still does) about Dr. Rankin’s retirement, especially in light of all the “prayer language” hullabaloo which showed that he had a board that felt he wasn’t qualified to be a missionary. If it were me, that would have been exhausting. I’m not entirely sure he didn’t “retire” rather than anything else.

Did they get it right? I guess we’ll have to see: 1) if the full board approves him. 2) how he does if #1 happens.

I think he’s less of a divisive candidate than Ezell was for NAMB, but he’s certainly still been a little divisive, as seen here. I was hoping for some better explanations of the choice and the process, but there haven’t been any yet.

And I’m personally a little biased, I’ve met him, once, years ago, and he struck me as a very passionate individual for Christ and for SBC churches. Compared to other “mega” folks I’ve met once, he left a better impression than any others. (Mind you, I’ve only met about 10, so it’s a small sample.)

In all, there might be a better candidate, but the committee apparently couldn’t find one. Happens to Pastor Search Committees all the time! Perhaps there will be a ‘subtle search’ over the next few years with the expectation Elliff won’t stay more than 10 years. (Didn’t that happen with a Supreme Court Justice once? An older man was appointed, expecting him to not stay long and he was there 20 years? Can’t remember, it’s a vague history story in my mind.)

Doug

31 Tom Parker February 25, 2011 at 10:05 am

Doug:

Just for clarity I will be praying for God to bless him in this very important job.

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