Does the $21 Million Deficit of the Southern Baptist Concention Missions Agency Spell the End of the Fulltime Missionary?

Image: Thomas Graham / IMB
Image: Thomas Graham / IMB

David Platt makes no small plans.

When the 36-year-old pastor and Radical book author became president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board (IMB) in 2014, the agency had about 5,000 missionaries. Platt hopes to someday have 100,000.

He just has to figure out how to pay them.

This summer, Platt announced that the 170-year-old agency will cut between 600 and 800 staff due to a financial crisis. One of the largest missionary organizations in the United States, the IMB had a $21 million deficit for 2015 and had overspent by $210 million since 2009, draining its reserves.

Among those targeted for cuts are missionaries and other staff over age 50, who are being offered voluntary early retirement. When the dust settles, the IMB will likely have its fewest missionaries in 20 years.

That’s not the outcome Platt had hoped for when he was elected.

“The financial realities are clear,” Platt told Christianity Today. “[I]n order to get to a healthy position for a future like I’ve talked about, we have to get to a healthy place in the present.”

Even with reduced staff, the IMB will remain a powerhouse in Protestant foreign missions, with a $300 million budget and more than 4,000 professional missionaries.

Those IMB missionaries have long had an advantage over missionaries in other denominations: Until recently, they haven’t had to worry about money.

IMB’s $300 million budget comes from two main sources: the Lottie Moon Christmas offering (named for the famous 19th-century missionary to China), which brings in about $150 million per year; and the SBC’s Cooperative Program, which pools money from the approximately 40,000 Southern Baptist churches in the United States.

This means that, unlike other missionaries—who rely on “faith model” fundraising—IMB missionaries don’t have to raise their own support by mailing letters to friends and family. The IMB’s centrally funded model means they don’t have direct financial support from any single church. When this two-tier financial system works, it’s powerful, says Platt.

“It’s pretty awesome when I step back and look at churches that together are giving hundreds of millions of dollars every year for the spread of the gospel,” he said.

But now it’s unclear whether that model is sustainable.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Bob Smietana