Posted on : Monday April 26, 2010

By Martin King, Illinois Baptist

NASHVILLE (IB)—For nearly eight months prior to release of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force interim report, the most publically debated question was whether the task force would propose merging the North American Mission Board and the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board.

The report does not make the suggestion, although GCRTF chairman Ronnie Floyd acknowledged in a Feb. 23 interview with four state Baptist newspapers, “We looked at it very seriously. We had conviction about it, but just did not feel it was the best thing for the SBC at this time.”

Floyd recognized what denominational and mission leaders are well aware of: the two mission boards operate very differently.

“The North American Mission Board is such a unique organization, compared to the International Mission Board,” Floyd said. On the question of whether GCRTF recommendations would make a merger easier in the future, Floyd responded: “Yes, I would hope so because right now it would be very difficult to do it. But, is that our goal?  No.”

The biggest difference in Southern Baptists’ two mission boards lies in NAMB’s commitment to work through partnerships with 41 state Baptist conventions, plus conventions in Canada and Puerto Rico, while the International Mission Board does its work independent of local or national Baptist bodies in the countries where it has workers.

Although the IMB has relationships with mission partners around the world, the agency itself decides what its strategy will be implemented in different regions and countries and with specific people groups. And it fully supports its missionaries who are recruited, assessed, commissioned, trained, paid, and supervised at the direction of the agency.

Prior to the 1950’s, the SBC’s Home Mission Board (HMB), NAMB’s predecessor, operated much the same way to plan and fund its mission work in the United States. The HMB responded unilaterally to mission needs anywhere in the country. But, in 1959, the Southern Baptist Convention, in an effort to eliminate duplication and competition between the national mission agency and state conventions, instructed the HMB to develop “a single uniform mission program for the United States” with various state conventions. The HMB negotiated a written agreement of understanding with every state convention to define the partnership and each partner’s responsibilities.

Today’s cooperative agreements between NAMB and state conventions describe how the partners will “jointly develop, administer and evaluate an annual strategic mission plan on a cooperative basis.”  The confidential agreements are brief, 5-7 pages, uncomplicated and fairly standard, despite assertions by some GCRTF members that they are complicated and difficult to understand.

On the other hand, the strategic mission plan developed with each state convention is a detailed document describing the strategies, ministries, personnel, goals, and funding for every cooperative endeavor between the partners. Day-long conferences are held at least semi-annually between each convention and NAMB representatives to evaluate current plans and agree on changes for the next year. The state convention defines the needs in their state that align with NAMB-developed strategies and ministry objectives. If approved as part of the mission plan, the state then recruits potential personnel who are interviewed by NAMB staff, and when approved are then trained, paid, supported and supervised by the state convention or association.

The strategic mission plan includes a negotiated funding ratio for joint mission projects. In larger state conventions, NAMB and the state usually share funding for ministry projects on an equal basis, while in states with fewer SBC churches, NAMB funds 60-90 percent of agreed-upon projects and personnel.

The GCRTF proposes current cooperative agreements, mission plans, and accompanying funding be phased out over the next four years so that NAMB can begin to plan and fund direct missions across the country, similar to the IMB strategy and funding model. Task force member R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, called the cooperative agreements “outdated and confusing … .

“There is simply no way Southern Baptists can be more effective and faithful in this task if we retain the funding mechanisms of cooperative agreement,” Mohler said.

Mohler, Floyd and other GCRTF members have affirmed the work of state Baptist conventions and say they believe the proposed changes will make NAMB and state conventions stronger. The task force continues to meet with various groups of state convention executives to discuss “common concerns.” Floyd said he has met by phone or in person with executive directors from 40 states.

With a great deal of the Southern Baptist strategy for their states and million of dollars in funding at stake, state convention executive directors have been most vocal in questioning this aspect of the report and have responded through a variety of open letters and blogs, many reported in Baptist Press.

Executive directors from smaller conventions say they will be dramatically affected by the loss of NAMB’s share of jointly funded missions
personnel and projects.

“This will put the state convention and associations in Montana out of business,” said Fred Hewett, executive director of the Montana Southern Baptist Convention. The convention currently has eleven missionary staff members, all of whom are funded by NAMB.

“I would lose them all,” if the GCRTF “progress report” is approved, Hewett said.

Joe Bunce of New Mexico agreed, calling the proposal “a death sentence for the western states.”

Kansas-Nebraska executive director Bob Mills said the proposed changes would eliminate “one-third of our state convention budget and more than one hundred personnel serving in our two states.”

Although larger state conventions would appear to be in a better position to absorb the effect of losing between $500,000 to a million dollars of NAMB funding, Missouri Baptist Convention executive director David Tolliver said it would “devastate the missions and ministries of the MBC.”

Alabama leaders agreed.

Alabama evangelism director Sammy Gilbreath told the Alabama Baptist newspaper the proposed changes would “change the face of evangelism in Alabama.”  State director of missions, Gary Swafford, said they would “eliminate major ministries across the state.”  And, Alabama executive director, Rick Lance said, “There’s no way Alabama Baptists can pay for all the ministries and mission now supported jointly with NAMB.”

However, some larger states believe their conventions should be able to assist their member churches in reaching their states without NAMB funding, including Don Cass, evangelism director for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. “Texas has enough churches, associations and believers that we should and could reach Texas without assistance and could—and should—help other parts of our nation as well,” Cass said. “We should not depend on others to do our assignment.”

Cass added, “As God continues to bless us with new churches, I believe He will provide for them so that NAMB can assist smaller, struggling states and large population areas that presently have limited resources.”

Other state leaders are taking a wait-and-see attitude, ready to adapt to whatever changes ultimately come about. Nate Adams, executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association, acknowledged that the task force’s proposed direction will have a significant impact on IBSA.

“If Southern Baptists elect to direct their funds more through national entities, it would be uncomfortable for us, but we can and would make the necessary adjustments to live within the means of Cooperative Program giving from Illinois Baptists alone,” Adams said.

As journalists, state convention leaders and others have attempted to understand the task force’s vision for NAMB’s new relationship with state conventions, Floyd told a group of Baptist communicators meeting in Chicago April 7 NAMB cannot act on its own.

“NAMB can’t do anything in and of itself,” Floyd said. “NAMB needs churches, state conventions and local associations.”

In March, Floyd told associational leaders it was never the task force’s intent that NAMB should work independently of associations and state conventions.

“Our heart is that partnership continues,” Floyd said. “Whether they are called cooperative agreements or not, there will be some kind of commitment towards partnership.” In another interview with Baptist journalists, Floyd said NAMB funding “could go back into those states, but it’s going to be in there in a different way, tied differently because of new agreements and new strategy.”

In a departure from the more definitive language in the “progress report” about the termination of cooperative agreements between the state conventions and NAMB, Floyd in a brief statement following an April 5 meeting of some GCRTF members and eight state executive directors referred three times to the task force and executive directors as going to the SBC “together.”

“We talked honestly, heard each other, and made some real progress,” Floyd said.

One state executive who attended the April 5 meeting suggested the task force was considering changes to Component #2.

David Hankins, executive director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention, told “LBCLive,” the GCRTF is “willing to make an improved recommendation,” including recommending NAMB allow a longer “phase-out period” for funding of larger state conventions, suggesting seven or eight years, rather than four years, as recommended in the “progress report.”

Floyd told Baptist communicators on April 7 he was encouraged that “the final report will get us to Orlando together.”

Editor’s note: Marty King served as director of communications for the Home Mission Board and North American Mission Board for 14 years prior to joining the Illinois Baptist State Association in 2006 as associate executive director and editor of
Illinois Baptist.