By Bob Allen
The head of the Southern Baptist Convention International Mission Board, which recently announced plans to cut personnel by 600 to 800 jobs over the next six months, said in an open letter to Southern Baptists Sept. 4 that officials haven’t kept the agency’s financial position a secret.
David Platt, who recently surpassed his one-year anniversary as IMB president, reported a budget shortfall in 2014 at his inaugural report to the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in June. In budgeting process over the last couple of months, he said in the letter, leaders projected similar shortfalls for both this year and next.
“In fact, when we stepped back and looked at IMB finances since 2010, we realized that IMB has spent a combined $210 million more than people have given to us,” Platt wrote.
“When staff leadership realized the severity of our financial situation, we knew that we needed to take significant action,” Platt said. “When we gathered with our trustees at our most recent meeting, the same conclusion was clear.”
Others criticized Southern Baptist leaders for blaming the shortfall on apathy by people in the pews, questioning the oversight of trustees who signed off on unrealistic spending plans year after year.
Platt said he blames neither churches nor previous leadership for putting the IMB in its current position.
“I love the church, we as IMB want to serve the church, and we believe the best way for us to do that right now is by operating within the means provided to us by the church,” Platt said.
Past decisions no longer viable
As to previous leaders, Platt said they recognized fiscal realities and put in place a plan to slowly draw down the missions force by attrition while using reserves and global property sales to keep as many missionaries on the field as possible. That was an understandable decision at the time, he said, but it is no longer viable for the agency to continue to spend more money than it receives.
In his report to SBC messengers in Columbus, Ohio, June 17, Platt called it “breathtaking” to see the scope of the work made possible because of the level of IMB support from Southern Baptist congregations. In 2014 that totaled more than $94 million through the Cooperative Program unified budget and $153 million to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, the second-largest total in history.
“But we have a problem,” he continued. “In 2009 we hit our height in number of missionaries on the field at 5,600. But now that number has dropped to 4,700, and it is fast on its way to 4,200.”
“The reason for that is that we’re not able financially to support our mission force on the field,” Platt told messengers. “Last year we operated almost $21 million in the red. So the number of our missionaries is decreasing, not increasing, which is not tolerable when 2 billion people still haven’t heard the name of Jesus.”
New mission strategies
At the time, messengers appeared more interested in reaction to plans previously announced by Platt to revise IMB strategy in ways that will open up additional avenues of service for students, professionals and retirees who live oversees to work in concert with fully-funded missionaries.
Implementation included dropping old policies barring missionaries who are divorced and those using a “private prayer language.” That in turn prompted media headlines such as “Southern Baptist missionary organization to allow members who have spoken in tongues.”
“This new policy in no way signals a change in practice regarding how IMB works in relation to our Southern Baptist doctrinal distinctives,” Platt assured convention-goers.
“Contrary to what some news sources falsely reported, this new policy does not in any way signal a shift in our practice as IMB missionaries when it comes to an issue like tongues or private prayer language,” Platt elaborated. “To be crystal clear, IMB missionaries do not and will not in any way promote speaking in tongues or private prayer language. We see the dangers of neo-Pentecostalism that are deceiving the global church.”
Similarly, Platt said the IMB was not departing from “a clear complementarian picture of marriage.” Updating the divorce policy, he said, was rather meant to say to Southern Baptists, “If you have divorce in your past, you are not automatically disqualified from playing a significant part in the spread of the gospel for people who have never heard it.”