They Never Even Voted

September 4, 2015

Dr. Rick Patrick | Senior Pastor
First Baptist Church, Sylacauga, AL

The recent directive by IMB executives to offer Voluntary Retirement Incentives to reduce our missionary staff by up to 800 people is a complex mixture of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. While IMB Trustees were informed of the plan, there was no “up or down” vote taken on the matter. At best, the Trustees can be said to have offered their tacit approval through mutual consent. No Trustee served on the team that brainstormed in developing the plan. This was a staff-driven decision. 

THE GOOD

Under Dr. David Platt’s leadership, the IMB is now tackling the problem.
I am pleased that Dr. David Platt is leading the IMB to deal directly with this financial crisis. He inherited this problem and he is doing something about it. Clearly, a solution other than spending reserves and selling assets is needed. Platt is right to raise this issue. He is right to talk about the $210 million deficit that the IMB has run over the past six years. I applaud his effort to tackle the problem.

THE BAD

Churches are just hearing about the $210 million of deficit spending.
While Trustees have known about this growing deficit for years, very few Southern Baptists actually know the extent of our deficit spending. This can be attributed in part to a penchant we have for trying to make every report sound positive. We rejoice over a minor short-term giving increase, but fail to properly emphasize a twenty-year trend of decline. Two months ago, the vibe at the SBC in Columbus was celebratory. Southern Baptists do not need spin, but brutal honesty. The news is bad, and we should report it as such. Mixed messages are confusing. Perhaps our churches have failed to give as sacrificially as possible. Unquestionably our leaders have been significantly overspending the budget and selling the farm for years. It takes time for Southern Baptists to process both pieces of terrible news. Before we start discussing a solution, let us immerse ourselves in the enormity of the problem.

The IMB overspent receipts by $210 million over the past six years.
Apart from the issue of whether or not Southern Baptists were properly informed concerning our deficit spending crisis, can we take a step back and simply ask ourselves about the very practice of an organization consistently spending more money than it receives? Can we agree our churches would never allow operational expenditures significantly greater than budget receipts for more than one budget cycle? In other words, apart from special building programs or other designated receipts, our Finance Committees take measures to balance our church budgets.

I believe Southern Baptists deserve to know why the IMB has not been operating with a balanced budget over the past six years. I choose to believe that IMB leaders optimistically anticipated that this shortfall was only temporary and were waiting for the economy to rebound. While I appreciate their desire to keep missionaries on the field, pursuing this course for six straight years was an unfortunate decision. As I have informed church members that, over the past six years, the IMB spent $210 million more than Southern Baptists gave them, dipping into reserves and selling property to stay afloat, every single person thus far has made a comparison with the federal government. “Sounds like Washington to me!” While I believe this deficit spending was driven by a passion for missions, to many people in the pew it sounds simply like a rather extraordinary level of financial mismanagement.

THE UGLY

This plan replaces experienced missionaries with inexperienced ones.
The Voluntary Retirement Incentive may not work, which is to say that since it is truly voluntary, most of our missionaries might simply choose to remain in place. However, if it does work, then it means approximately 15% of our experienced and highly trained missionary force will leave the field. While estimated figures were between 600 and 800, let’s use the number 600. Inexplicably, this is an employee reduction plan without a hiring freeze. The board plans to appoint 300 this year and 300 next year. This two-year total, then, is also 600. To clarify, we are subtracting 600 current employees while adding 600 new employees. The old ones have vast amounts of experience and on-the-job training. The new ones have little to no experience or on-the-job training. For my money, I would prefer that we “retire” the inexperienced 600 missionaries we have not yet hired, while leaving in place the 600 experienced missionaries who have served God faithfully for many years.

This decision making process was less Trustee-driven than in the past.
IMB Trustees neither participated actively in developing this strategy (which is to say they did not serve on the team putting the proposal together) nor officially voted to approve the action—although their approval was certainly tacit by their silence. Rather, it was a directive presented by the Executive Staff of the IMB to inform the Trustees of their decision. Although a few questions were asked and answered, it was all done with little to no real opposition. While I appreciate the irenic spirit of everyone involved, if I am going to be asked to trust the Trustees, then I want the Trustees to be driving the policy decisions and strategic initiatives. Several Trustees should have been included among those working up the proposal. Hundreds of missionaries supported by millions of Southern Baptists were asked to consider retirement in a plan developed by a team with no Trustee representation that was never formally adopted by a vote of the board. One listens differently if one is being briefed about a matter than if one is being asked to vote on a matter. I believe this approach inappropriately elevates the authority of the Executive Staff.

Executive salaries at the IMB (and the SBC overall) deserve closer scrutiny.
This final concern is one I did not anticipate when the story first broke. As I have discussed these matters with a number of Southern Baptists, it is clear to me that there is a growing curiosity concerning the executive salaries at the highest levels of the International Mission Board. When an organization spends $210 million more than it receives over a period of six years, it is reasonable to expect that such questions will arise among the rank and file members contributing to the cause. If trust is to be restored at the IMB, greater transparency and disclosure must soon be forthcoming regarding all expenditures. My understanding is that salary figures, not only at the IMB but also at other SBC institutions, are no longer available to the average Southern Baptist. This is problematic, for we are now on the lookout for the existence of anything resembling a bloated bureaucracy. At least part of that bloat may in fact reside in our executive salaries. As our leaders continue to ask state conventions and churches to sacrifice financially so we can reach the nations, can we really blame church members for holding up the mirror and asking our highest paid executives to do their part as well?

CONCLUSION

The IMB has been overspending for six years, a situation that has now attracted the attention of Southern Baptists, who are generally delighted they are ready to stop. If we were not paying attention before, rest assured, we are paying attention now. There are many ways to balance a budget. Bringing our trained missionaries home before their work is truly done does not at all strike some of us as the best option.