Few jobs in the Southern Baptist Convention could be considered more demanding than leading the International Mission Board. To say the least, the post has grown somewhat since James Barnett Taylor took the helm in Richmond in 1845. Starting with him, every candidate for the job has been a compromise candidate in one way or another (just like every candidate for the pastorate of my church has been). If we were to wait for the perfect choice, we would never fill the position.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that there’s no value in thinking about that perfect choice. True, I’m not an IMB trustee, but my church is very involved in missions and I’m a Southern Baptist—we’ve all got some skin in this game. There’s no reason why all of us shouldn’t be considering what we want in a leader for the institution that, more than any other, exemplifies the objectives that unite our family of churches.
So, here’s my list:
A candidate firmly committed to the formula that defines the modern Southern Baptist Convention: In Memphis in 1925 the Southern Baptist Convention did two important and interrelated things. We inaugurated the Cooperative Program and adopted The Baptist Faith & Message. Southern Baptist churches give Southern Baptist entities financial security; Southern Baptist institutions give Southern Baptist churches ministries with doctrinal accountability to the churches. That is, in my opinion, an agreement worth keeping and defending.
The promise of doctrinal accountability was in danger forty years ago. When no one thought it was possible, God used some faithful and indefatigable Southern Baptists to rescue it from the brink. The other half of the arrangement—The Cooperative Program—has been in recent danger. A lot of people think it can no longer be rescued. I do not believe them. The Cooperative Program is worth saving, and all it takes for us to save it is for us to decide to do so.
There are three people who are the most important for this endeavor: The President of the IMB, the Executive Director of the SBC, and the Executive Director of your state convention. These three people must lead any effort to reinvigorate the Cooperative Program in order for other CP champions to succeed.
So, the perfect IMB President needs to be someone who is 100% on-board with The Baptist Faith & Message (and only the latest revision of the BF&M is the BF&M). I don’t mean someone who has merely decided that he can live within it; I mean someone who would live within the parameter of The Baptist Faith & Message if there were no such document—if people had a contrariwise worded statement of faith that they tried to impose upon him.
And, the perfect IMB President needs to be someone who is a champion of the Cooperative Program. Sure if people insist upon funding the IMB in other ways and refuse to fund the IMB through the Cooperative Program, he should graciously and gratefully receive that money, but he should prefer that everyone contribute through the Cooperative Program and should constantly encourage people to do so and seek to remove obstacles that get in the way of people’s doing so.
A candidate for whom this is the biggest thing of a lifetime: The slightly weaker candidate for whom this job is a lifetime dream will outperform the slightly stronger candidate who sees this as one opportunity among many. There are a lot of pathways by which a candidate might come to see the helm of the IMB in this way. Maybe he loves missions. Maybe he loves the Southern Baptist Convention. One way or another, the leader we need at the IMB is the leader who could never be tempted by any other opportunity.
A candidate firmly committed to Southern Baptist polity: We govern our entities with boards of trustees. Our entities need leaders who are strong enough to give good leadership but whose theory of leadership contains not the slightest whiff of autocracy. Any candidate who can’t lead the entity or who can’t relate well to a board of trustees is not going to succeed.
A candidate who can preach: I say this not only because he automatically owns a couple of hours each year of the lives of those of us who attend the SBC Annual Meeting (and therefore it’s a good thing for me if he’s a good preacher), but also because more than anyone else he will be the one preaching to call out those called to the task of worldwide missions. He needs to be someone who can preach well in both the smallest and the largest churches of the convention.
A candidate who understands the life and work of a career missionary: Probably one comes to that understanding by having served as a career missionary for at least one term. The President of the IMB affects greatly the lives of the missionaries on the field, and he ought to do so intelligently and deliberately. Missionary work is no longer the lifetime assignment that once it seemed to be. We count in our Southern Baptist ranks a number of people who have experience both as a career missionary and as something else (pastor, professor, denominational employee, etc.). So, this person wouldn’t necessarily have to be someone serving as a career missionary now (although I wouldn’t rule that out), but I think it gives him a leg up if he has served as a career missionary at some time in the past.
A candidate who understands Southern Baptist church life: Probably one comes to that understanding by having served on the staff of a local Southern Baptist church, although very involved adult membership might suffice as well. It is best, I think, if his knowledge of Southern Baptist church life extends to more than one size and type of church.
A candidate who, in addition to practicing cross-cultural missions, has thought long and deeply about cross-cultural missions: I’ve had very little missionary experience. Our church has taken the gospel to one Unengaged Unreached People Group. Hear my testimony: That task has tested every last particle of knowledge that I gained in a BA, an MDiv, and a PhD from Southern Baptist institutions of higher learning. There are SO MANY WAYS that missionary work can birth heresy or lesser disfunction, and it is imperative that our chief missionary have great theological depth.
A candidate who can run the IMB on a sound financial basis: And if you’ve been paying attention at all, this one is self-explanatory. David Platt has helped the IMB so much in this regard.
A candidate who is content to let the spotlight fall on others: Our missions effort has been strongest when missionaries on the field have been the heroes of the effort. Lottie Moon is beloved, while most Southern Baptists could not name a single one of the IMB Presidents under whom she served. A new age of security concerns has made it more difficult to let career missionaries be the faces of the IMB, but to the degree that we can do so, we make the IMB stronger and more enduring.
A candidate who can pull the vision of American Christians out of America and into the world: The “wall” we ought to be debating is the spiritual one on our border that obscures our churches’ view of a lost world. A good IMB President makes us all think about places we have never seen.
A candidate who will deliberately make peace in the Southern Baptist Convention among people who affirm The Baptist Faith & Message and who share our vision of cooperative missions. I want an IMB President who, beyond strengthening the IMB, is the kind of influence who makes stronger every element of our family of churches by bringing us together. Give me that, and I’m prepared not to care at all how many “points” he affirms.
A candidate who is a man of prayer and a soulwinner: The presidential emphases of Ronnie Floyd and Steve Gaines have been well aimed. These characteristics would serve us well in an IMB President. Let him be someone whose “prayerwalking” gives way at the slightest opportunity to “sharewalking.”
Really, these simple things are all that I want in an IMB President. That’s a piece of cake, board of trustees. Go get that for us, will you?