For reasons that seemed valid, this missionary emeritus asked to publish this anonymously.
The Baptist Press article about David Platt’s intention to resign as IMB president included a critical piece of information and an uncritical piece of misinformation. The critical information was that we now have 3500 missionaries, and (is anybody awake?) that is shocking. Just 30 months ago we were told our IMB had to make dramatic cuts in personnel from 4900 to a fall-back position of 4200 missionaries and that we would hold there. That was painful enough considering that this new position was 1500 missionaries short of the 5700 we had in 2008. How is that so few Baptists seem to notice that we have lost an extra 700 missionaries beyond the fall-back position announced 30 months ago? That is 2200, or 38%, of our missionaries lost in less than a decade! If we have another decade like that we will have 1300 missionaries left in 2028. Many do not seem to care, but for those of us who do, what happened to the 4200 missionary goal? Why is there no outcry to get back up to that mark, much less the former apex of 5700? Why have we not heard a passionate and sustained cry from the IMB to inspire Southern Baptists to get back and hold the line, at least the fall-back line?
The uncritical misinformation is that the IMB is very healthy, an assessment that has been repeated regularly over the past 2 years. We all agree that it is good that the IMB is in the black, but to say our mission agency is healthy ignores the obvious elephant in the room. The IMB is healthy in the same way that a man who has lost an arm and leg can say he can now live on fewer calories. An arm and a leg are just about what Southern Baptists have lost so far. The man burns fewer calories per hour, but more calories per mile. The missionaries still serving overseas are passionate, focused, and making progress, there are just a lot fewer of them and many miss the colleagues, mentors, and leaders lost in the VRI. Southern Baptists, isn’t it time to reach out and tell them you value their ministry?
Those who believe that everyone is a missionary consider this snobbery, but the most effective person to impact the world has served overseas for at least 5 years, is fluent in the local language, shares the gospel courageously, spends most of his time with local people, has encountered and persevered through demonic opposition, and pours his or her life into new believers and future leaders. We really are not making this stuff up, we have been collectively watching this for 175 years. Published research points to this same pattern of the long-term, language speaking, gospel sharing, local-leader-raising missionary as the primary way to start churches that can reproduce and bring a people to faith in Christ. Why does this seem so narrow-minded when it is clearly the pattern that we see in the New Testament as well? Why is this so culturally unpopular right now? Because it takes longer to become an effective missionary than it does to microwave hot chocolate or boot up your computer. Even more so because popular amateur missiologists who have never flown to another country on a one-way ticket largely ignore those who have.
There is no question that the IMB had to cut personnel in 2015, and sadly David Platt inherited that situation. When a tech company is bought out, it is common for new management to clean house of higher levels, older people, etc. and replace them with newer, younger tech geniuses. That probably is the best way to bring change in a business where technology is outdated every couple of years, and that is how changes in the IMB have largely been handled. The problem is that the IMB is not primarily a tech company. It is primarily an incarnational, relational, developmental, spiritual enterprise. We have not only lost 38% of our personnel due to our own negligence, but we have lost a much greater percentage of the expertise and relationships with the missionaries lost in the VRI.
Want to know what the most demeaning and disheartening part was for many of those lost voices? Baptist Press reported David Platt’s promise to Southern Baptists that there would be no loss of evangelistic effectiveness from that unprecedented loss of missionary personnel. That statement struck the heart of almost every missionary coming home or staying behind – it sounded as if their ministry was not effective so why not bring them home? No loss at all! In fact, it makes you wonder why we don’t bring everybody home and get to even higher levels of organizational health. Those missionaries know they have not wasted their lives, but many are sad that Southern Baptists seem to think so. In the last 3 years, the IMB has changed how they count ministry results so that it is difficult to compare before and after the VRI. Our agency has also avoided analyzing and reporting the global disengagement from costly-engaged people groups resulting from that disastrous loss of missionaries. We once celebrated every mission advance, especially the engagement of every new people group, but we now retreat and disengage without any public acknowledgment at all.
The explanation about the VRI was that missionaries were asked to pray about retiring early. For some, this was a wonderful opportunity to come home with a little bonus. However, the broader story is less well known.
- The missionaries were told that at least 600 personnel would have to leave the field, and the implication seemed to be that if the older missionaries decided to stay, their younger colleagues would be pressured to resign. Missionaries did go to the Lord and pray about their decision, but they were torn by the thought that their decision might rob their younger colleagues of the opportunity they had to serve for decades.
- Business trumped the spiritual aspect of IMB relationships when missionaries were forbidden to talk and pray with the people they know and trust best – their missionary colleagues.
- Many Baptists do not know that these missionaries who had served for decades overseas were going to lose key retirement benefits if they did not take the VRI. For those who have not received huge salaries through their career, this was a powerful threat. Many came home with a sense of abandonment and devaluation.
- If the goal was not to just get rid of these missionaries quickly, why were they not given the option of receiving their retirement grant as salary for the next couple of years so they could better prepare the work for their departure?
- Oh yeah, they were told to sign a promise to keep their mouths shut or they would lose everything.
This is why the greatest loss of missionary personnel in Southern Baptist, and perhaps Protestant, history has taken place without a whimper or cry of outrage. Some VRI missionaries who have found significant ministry opportunities in the US, but probably most of them are using their expertise on a volunteer basis, if at all.
I was not a part of that signing, so I am not aware of any promise I am breaking here. The reason I am writing anonymously is in honor of a thousand lost voices who ought to be heard. These veteran missionaries were too valuable to lose, but we did. Does this continue or will Southern Baptists stop this slide now?
IMB Emeritus Missionary