The fundamental problem facing the IMB is that they have two divergent model in place working against each other. They are funding IMB missionaries with one model and sending them to the field with another. Unless one or the other of the models is changed we will continue to have problems. The current IMB VRI process does not get to the root IMB problem and could actually make things worse.
The funding model which had served the FMB/IMB well for seventy plus years focused on pooling the resources from the SBC churches and funding missionaries without them having to raise their own support. Missionaries were expected to encourage the churches to contribute to the funding system (Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon) while they are on Stateside Assignment (Furlough). It was a big deal to have a missionary in your church to speak and even a bigger deal to have a missionary go out from your church. If a church wanted to contribute to the support and ministry of a particular missionary they could do so with the understanding that although the missionaries name would be attached to the gift the money (over and above their Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon gifts) went into the general pool. Many churches put missionary support into their budgets and when “their” missionary came back to the United States the missionary would spend time with this church family. Special gifts by churches or individuals to the ministry of particular missionaries were permitted, but these gifts were under the supervision of all of the missionaries and to be used to further the work of the missionaries as a whole in a particular country. There were abuses, but, by and large, the system worked as long as the focus was on career missionaries with a Mission (all of the missionaries in a particular country or area) as the accountability group.
As mentioned in a previous blog, “it takes 7-10 years for a missionary to become effective. The first five years of missionary experience are the most expensive. It is during this time that they go through “orientation” and language learning. These can take from 15 months to two years of this initial time frame. Once they begin to learn the language they begin to adapt to the culture and learn to relate to the people. This takes even more time. Their effectiveness during this timeframe is rather limited. Historically, the idea was that this initial cost would be amortized over a twenty to thirty year career.”
It was also expected that the new missionary would have had some on-the-job training for the position which they would be fulfilling on the mission field. At least two years of work in the particular area of ministry was required. Whether the missionary was going out as a pastor (church planter), educator, administrator, physician, or nurse they were expected to have had at least two years of “real-world” experience post schooling. It was understood that it is important for people to practice their skills and “prove” themselves capable of doing whatever it was that they would be doing overseas. A positive side benefit to this time in the “real” world was the develop of relationships who served as a personal support system as well as active contributors to their support through the Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon.
In other words, the funding model relied on a longevity factor and a trained missionary. Its focus was on providing the missionary with the basic personal and ministry funds necessary to do their work.
This began to change in 1965. Although short term volunteer “missionary´ college and seminary students had begun going out in the late 1940’s it was the creation of the Journeyman program in 1965 that began changing this paradigm. This program allowed college graduates to serve for two (sometimes three) year terms working alongside missionaries overseas. Once they finished their service, the time served overseas was viewed as their “two year real-world” experience and they could be appointed as career missionaries if they had the other educational requirements necessary to fulfill the role for which they were applying. Other short-term missionary programs were added to the mix and in the middle 1990’s a huge paradigm shift took place.
The IMB began focusing on the 10/40 window and “unreached” people groups. Basic to this shift was the understanding that the places in which the missionaries would serve were so different to their experience in the United States that on-the-field training was essential to becoming an effective missionary. It was not only the places, but also the methods which would be used that were different. The “mission” culture which had been developed over 150+ years along with its support system disappeared. Even relationships with traditional national churches and pastors were minimized. This new paradigm required that the existing missionary personnel be “retrained” and that new personnel would have to have a new style of training to be effective in this new reality.
As part of the process new short term programs were developed. These usually recruited new missionaries who had little or no “real-world” experience and may not have even finished their education. These include the Apprentice program and 2+2 among others. The idea was to equip these new missionaries in the systems and methods which were thought to be most effective in reaching those who had not yet been evangelized. These new short term missionaries are not compensated at the same level as the career missionaries, but they are part of the missionary contingent and receive extensive travel and transportation budgets.
Many of these short-term missionaries are appointed as career missionaries. Many of them, though, burn out because where they work is so foreign to their previous experience. A large portion of the personnel budget is spent on helping these missionaries through difficulties, training, and travel.
In other words this sending model relies on personnel that is trained on the field, with the understanding that hopefully the best will stay on to become productive and effective missionaries.
The IMB leadership has known of this difficulty for a long time. The solution was a drawdown of the missionary personnel. This was to be accomplished through natural and normal attrition. At its zenith the FMB/IMB was appointing 500+ missionaries annually. In the past few years this figure has dropped to 300 or so in order to solve the funding issue. The problem is that an increasing number of the new appointees are short-term personnel, who exacerbate the problem rather than solve it. Prior to the mid 1990’s the ration of missionaries to short-term personnel moved gradually to where it became two to one. In other words, before the paradigm shift there were two career (long-term) missionary for each short-term missionary. Even that was putting a strain on the resources and the FMB/IMB went to a system of partially funding the short-term missionaries. My best guess is that the current ratio is about one to one.
A fellow blogger said that “2,285 people need to be offered a VRI in order to hope for 800 retirees.” I think more people will take the VRI than this blogger and maybe the IMB leadership think. There are two reasons for this. One, many will be concerned that none of the advantages of retiring will be there when they do decide to “retire”. Two, they may not be interested in doing missions in the new paradigm.
Past experience for IMB missionaries (and other organizations) show that when the organization is needing to make budget cuts one area where they look is the entitlements for retired missionaries. Prior to 1990 retired missionaries medical was covered until death. The IMB would also do their taxes. After that budget crunch these were changed. Since then other changes have been made. Many if not most of the items on the list VRI list are part of the current retirement package which missionaries can avail themselves of upon retirement. My guess is that many missionaries who receive the VRI letter will wonder which of the items on the list will not long be available should they decide to retire one, two, or five years from now.
The second reason some may leave is the dramatic change of missions done by the IMB over the course of the last twenty years. These changes promise to accelerate. One source indicated that Platt’s goal is to have 10,000 missionaries overseas. I think that the new paradigm looks like this: A few career missionaries creating a beachhead for multiple volunteer (self-funded) and/or short-term missionaries with a ratio of 1 to 9. Partial, but no full, funding for short-term missionaries. More churches sending their own missionaries who work under the IMB umbrella.
The above mentioned blogger speculated that if 800 missionaries took the VRI, then phase 2 and 3 may not be necessary. I think that phase 2 and 3 are coming regardless of how many respond to the VRI. Frankly, some changes mentioned in the subsequent phases need to be made regardless. Others will be made to facilitate the transition to the new paradigm. Whatever the changes, the IMB we have known will no longer be the same.
Root Problem Solution
As mentioned before the root problem is that the IMB is using one model for funding missionaries while implementing another for recruiting and sending them. I propose that a simple (but dramatic paradigm change) could be effected that would require no VRI and would get us back to solvency within a year (or two at the outside). This would be a shift in the way we do missions, but in reality it only would be the next step along the path we have been on for the past twenty years. If this step had been implemented at the time of the paradigm shift to recruiting people without experience and training them on the field for brief missionary stints we would not be in crisis mode at the moment.
“No missionary will receive IMB funding and appointment as a career missionary until they have two (or three) years of field experience. These initial years will be paid for by family, friends, and churches.”
I would speculate this suggestion may be part of phase two or three in the new paradigm transition. If what I think is correct it would have been much better for the Platt team to have implemented this change rather than use the VRI method. As mentioned in a previous blog I am afraid that the VRI method will cause us to lose the most valuable assets we have (long-term career missionaries), who are essential for the implementation of Platt’s new paradigm. I wonder if the IMB leadership team felt that the VRI was the idea which could be “sold” and its pain would allow them to implement the above paradigm shift which will be essential to reach their goal of 10,000 missionaries.
Many have said that they wish that previous FMB/IMB leadership teams had been as transparent as Platt and his team. I would suggest that in accordance with the communications styles of the day these leaders were as transparent and those who were interested in “reading the tea leaves” were aware of what was happening. Let’s keep our eyes and ears open so that we will not be accused of hiding our heads in the sand by the next generation of bloggers.
Thomas L Law, III
September 12, 2015