By Diana Chandler
AUSTIN, Texas (BP) —International Mission Board (IMB) President Tom Elliff asked the mission agency’s trustees to begin searching for his successor because the Lord told him during prayer that it was the best way to ensure a smooth transition to new leadership, Elliff said in a teleconference with several state Baptist papers.
“[God’s] telling me that this is the time to leave,” he said on Feb. 26, “and that if I will obey Him and ask the Board of Trustees to appoint a search team … that is the surest way to ensure a smooth transition.
“Not every entity has gone through that kind of a process, and sometimes things go along with fits and starts. But we’ve got so many personnel on the field, they don’t need that. They need a sure vision. They need sure communication. They don’t need to feel at any moment that there’s a lack of leadership.”
Elliff has no timeline for his departure, but in speaking to the board at its Feb. 25-26 meeting in Austin, Texas, he asked that the search begin immediately. The last search, he said during the teleconference, took about a year and a half.
“There’s not any reason for us to be without strong leadership all the way through,” he said. “My intention is to serve, as I said, to run through the finish line, until such a successor is found. This seems to be the right way to do it.”
“He didn’t say resign and I’m definitely not going to retire, but I do believe that the board needs to be looking for the successor and the minute they find that man or when, I need to join the ranks of all the other people who are holding up his hand and praying for him.”
Elliff was 67 when he accepted the post in 2011, and marked his 70th birthday this February. He is hesitant to give advice to a successor, but said prayer should remain a priority for anyone who accepts the position.
“Every person follows the leadership of God and they don’t need someone standing over their shoulder saying, ‘If you’re not doing it my way, you’re doing it the wrong way,’” Elliff said. “If I had one little bit of counsel … I would say … live in prayer. I don’t know how you could do it any other way. I don’t know how one person could move the organization forward if he’s not hearing from God, and if God’s not hearing from him.”
Elliff said he’s concerned that the Southern Baptist Convention, with a membership of 16 million, only has 4,816 missionaries deployed worldwide.
“People say we’re the largest evangelical missionary organization of its type in the nation, maybe in the world. People say, ‘Doesn’t it make you proud?’ Elliff said. “Actually it makes me ashamed.”
Less than 3/100 of 1 percent of the Southern Baptist population is on the mission field, Elliff said.
“One challenge is going to be finding out where Southern Baptists’ heart is in reaching the lost,” he said. “I think Southern Baptists are facing an opportunity to determine just where their heart is in terms of missions. With the Cooperative Program having declined for almost 30 years, although it leveled out the last couple of years, and with our Lottie Moon Christmas Offering being [at a plateau], although this year we’re praying for $175 million, we only send people whom we support. We have right now about 4,816 people on the field, along with their 4,000 children, that’s about 9,000 people.”
The SBC faces opportunities that directly impact the International Mission Board, Elliff said. He said the SBC needs to determine its identity, define its communication goals, study its missiology, determine whether its passion lines up with Christ’s, make sure members are participating in SBC stewardship, and ensure that Southern Baptists are accountable to one another.
“We have an entire generation of pastors and church people who in some fashion have not had a hand in creating who Southern Baptists are,” he said.
He cited progress in several mission initiatives, including Embrace, where churches commit to work among unengaged, unreached people groups; Ready Reserve, which allows former field personnel to volunteer for overseas missions; Marketplace Advance, a mechanism for the corporate world to use its resources in advancing the Great Commission; Global Connect, which allows churches to fully fund their own missionaries with guidance from IMB leadership, and the School of Prayer for All Nations, which mobilizes churches in prayer.
IMB trustee board chairman David Uth, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Orlando, Fla., appointed a 15-member committee to find Elliff’s replacement.
The search committee is receiving names for consideration at email@example.com. The next IMB trustee meeting is May 13-14 in Spartanburg, S.C.