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North America: Hanging in the balance

An Analysis

 

Expectations were high in 1997 when the North American Mission Board was forged out of three previous Southern Baptist entities during the ambitious Covenant for a New Century restructuring. Increased operational efficiencies from the merger into NAMB were projected to allow Southern Baptists to be more effective than ever in impacting the United States and Canada with the Gospel.

But nine years into the venture, Georgia Baptist pastors are wondering if those expectations have been met. More importantly, new initiatives in evangelism and church planting have failed to produce the anticipated results – and the denomination’s total of funded career missionaries has declined by 10 percent.

While NAMB admittedly has a full plate with its program assignments, it stands unique among Southern Baptist agencies because of three responsibilities – it is the only agency charged with developing and implementing a national strategy for evangelism and church planting, and is solely responsible for the care and nurture of the North American missionary force.

NAMB stands at a critical milestone as it enters its 10th year this summer. Onlookers at the state and national level will be looking closely to see if the agency can reverse the course in those three critical areas of effectiveness.

A letter to our readers

As Georgia Baptists we are fortunate to have one of Southern Baptists’ premier agencies located in our state.

The Christian Index has always been a strong supporter of the North American Mission Board and we are proud to have it as a partner in our joint calling to win our state and North America to Christ. This special report, written at the request of many pastors over a several month period, seeks to address some concerns of how the agency is working to reach the lost for Christ.

We want to affirm our commitment to NAMB and especially to our missionaries. We encourage all Georgia Baptists to sacrificially give to this year’s Annie Armstrong Easter Offering so NAMB can be more effective than ever in taking the Gospel to a hurting world.

J. Gerald Harris
Editor

NAMB’s report card is not all gloom and doom. For example, there are bright spots and phenomenal gains in World Changers involvement, chaplaincy enlistment, and disaster relief participation – which is coordinated by NAMB but staffed by state convention volunteers. But other areas are a mixed bag. Missions education continues to take it on the chin and FamilyNet struggles to be less of a cash drain.

But it’s those three key areas of evangelism, church planting and missionary recruitment that define the agency in the eyes of most Southern Baptists.

 

“What Now?” … and “Who Cares?”

Last year was to be the year of jubilation in Southern Baptist life as the denomination celebrated the historic starting of 2,500 congregations and the baptism of a record 1 million new believers.

Instead it was glossed over as a year of no particular importance in denominational milestones. Church starts came in at 1,636 and baptisms will most likely hover around 390,000.

But that’s not the way it was meant to be.

In January 2003 NAMB announced the launch of the most extensive evangelistic campaign in SBC history. It was billed as the denomination’s response to the widespread soul searching which the nation was experiencing following the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

The “What Now?” campaign, tailored for both America and Canada, was built on a three-year strategy for personal revival and national spiritual awakening. The outreach would culminate with the largest national media campaign in Southern Baptist history – a million dollar extravaganza of television, radio, periodicals, and Internet advertising designed to get the attention of millions who do not attend church or are not immediately receptive to the Gospel.

Tens of thousands of dollars were spent on the publication of leadership materials by NAMB as well as state conventions who were gearing up to prepare their laity for the campaign. In Georgia, statewide meetings called Wave Revivals were organized in expectation of tying into the national media blitz that would undergird the efforts of the local church.

But the campaign failed to coalesce and – halfway into the effort – funding was pulled. The only problem was that this important decision was not uniformly communicated to state conventions. And some state papers, like the Index, continued to publicize the national campaign for nearly a year after its demise.

It was a good idea with a poor execution, observers say.

The biggest holdover from the campaign – the million baptisms – was resurrected last summer when SBC President Bobby Welch, who sensed a lack of emphasis on evangelism, launched his “‘Everyone Can’ Kingdom Challenge.” Without his emphasis on a million baptisms, Southern Baptists would currently have no national evangelistic stack pole.

But in the summer of 2005 – during the same SBC annual meeting when Welch was launching his million baptism theme – NAMB launched a new, improved evangelism initiative. Titled “Who Cares?” – and sometimes referred to as “See Who Cares” – the campaign was launched with the usual normal fanfare.

NAMB President Bob Reccord announced the new media campaign would be launched “this fall” with a variety of television commercials dealing with life issues. But as of next week – eight months to the day when it was announced on June 21 – there is still no sign of a campaign. No billboards. No newspaper ads. No radio or television spots.

Chuck Allen, NAMB chief operating officer, told the Index the rollout had been delayed due to the Gulf Coast hurricanes, overloading NAMB staff with other responsibilities. But the campaign was not being produced by NAMB staff, having been outsourced to InovaOne, a new vendor.

That arrangement would not have affected NAMB’s personnel who were responding to disaster relief. In reality the new start-up company, which was already producing NAMB’s video coverage of disaster relief response, did not have adequate staff to operate on both fronts. Something had to give, and it was the evangelism launch, according to Allen’s explanation.

Some observers say Southern Baptists lost a golden opportunity to capitalize on the disasters by not holding to the original launch date. They say the agency had a captive audience ready to hear the message – evacuees scattered throughout several states, traumatized and asking hard questions of God. Add to those numbers the millions who watched the televised accounts around North America and there was a harvest for the taking.

No other denomination was poised to make such an evangelistic impact. But the moment was lost.

One of Allen’s explanations for the agency pulling the “What Now?” campaign – the proliferation of SBC themes in the denominational martketplace such as Act 1:8 and Empowering Kingdom Growth – is a little weak because those themes remain in abundance. With the launch of the new campaign, Southern Baptists will simply replace “What Now?” with “Who Cares?” in the crowded marketplace of themes.

 

What year is it – 2000 or 2006?

Though NAMB’s latest evangelistic endeavor is still waiting in the wings, it has had a Web presence for several months. Its Web site may be open for business but it’s clearly not ready for prime time.

When someone surfs the Net and visits the site at www.seewhocares.com they view the material and then are prompted to call a toll free number [1 (888) 537-8720] for spiritual assistance. But the recorded voice says “Thank you for calling the Jesus 2000 phone line …”

That was the counseling phone number used by the Celebrate Jesus 2000 evangelism emphasis at the turn of the millennium – and predated the ill-fated “What Now?” campaign by five years. That error – simply failing to update a voice message five years after it expired – flies in the face of NAMB’s newly stated desire to be “world class” in all that it does. That new concept of being “world class” is one of the driving reasons for outsourcing work to InovaOne and other vendors, but it’s been an elusive concept to define.

 

The agency’s role as a catalyst for revival

The lack of a consistent evangelism strategy for the SBC has not helped to bolster the denomination’s shrinking baptism levels. Admittedly, North Americans live in an increasingly hostile environment toward spiritual matters and national revival will require divine intervention. But denominations see themselves as a catalyst in the process and are the primary champions for casting the vision for an ongoing emphasis on personal and corporate evangelism.

In July 2004, Reccord told participants at NAMB’s Summer State Leadership Conference in Orlando that “in the next 12-18 months the United States no longer will claim a majority of Americans who identify with the Protestant faith.”

If his timeline is correct, we just passed that threshold. The need for a coordinated national evangelism strategy has never been greater.

 

A self-funded missionary force

How many North American missionaries are currently on the field? It depends on how you count them. NAMB, through Baptist Press and other outlets, regularly states that more than 5,300 North American missionaries are funded through the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering (AAEO). But a closer look shows NAMB is throwing some apples in with the oranges, placing them in a blender, and still calling the mixture orange juice.

According to information supplied by NAMB based on the most recent headcount as of Dec. 31, there are 5,364 North American missionaries. However, only 2,942 are funded by the AAEO. The remaining 2,422 – or 45 percent – are self-funded volunteers serving through the Mission Service Corps. See chart on page 13.

While volunteers are a vital part of the missionary force they do not receive housing, salary, benefits, or any other financial support from Annie. They raise all of their salary by being bivocational or by soliciting friends and family – a throwback to the missionary society approach before the days of the Cooperative Program.

When they were founded in 1977, MSC workers were categorized as volunteers, which separated them from their funded bretheren. To avoid any confusion the Home Mission Board included them in the total count but kept the volunteer designation. Volunteers had to serve a minimum of two years before they were listed in the missionary personnel count.

NAMB, on the other hand, removed the volunteer status, lowered the service requirement to only four months and commissioned them as full-blooded missionaries – which blurred the line of who’s who in the headcount. And therein lies the rub.

NAMB’s missionary headcount has been growing because of those who come into and out of the force as volunteers. As far as being included in the headcount goes, a retired couple who drives around the American West to encourage missionaries is on the same footing as a seminary trained couple who have been serving 10 years.

And, while they do receive some training from NAMB, it does not come from AAEO gifts.

A further look at the figures reveals a disturbing trend: Under NAMB’s administration, the funded career missionary headcount has actually declined by 329 between NAMB’s first year and Dec. 31, 2005 – a full 10 percent – while the MSC volunteers have jumped by 827, or 34 percent.

To put it in layman’s terms, nearly half of today’s North American missionary force is funded by individuals in churches (friends and family) who may or may not be redirecting missions dollars from Annie to support those who are more eloquent speakers when they come asking for dollars. MSC [volunteers] cannot directly solicit funds from churches but they can accept funds if they are offered.

That was the common approach Southern Baptists used for decades and why the Cooperative Program was founded – churches pooling their dollars to fund an army of missionaries. But the old adage that Southern Baptist missionaries are more effective because they don’t have to return home to raise their support is no longer absolute truth. At least, not as long as Mission Service Corps are included in their ranks.

The International Mission Board, on the other hand, does not include any volunteers in its headcount. While it is far more expensive to place international missionaries on the field, the IMB has still been able to outstrip NAMB in the number of funded missionaries.

Comparing the same time frame – from 1997 when NAMB was founded until December 2005, NAMB’s headcount of funded missionaries actually dropped 329 or 10 percent, as previously stated. But the IMB’s headcount jumped 917 to 5,165, according to Scott Holste, IMB associate vice president for research and strategic services.

International missionaries have always been the perceived favorites of the Southern Baptist missionary efforts, perhaps due to the lure of the foreign and the remote. But while the IMB has received substantially more funds due to higher overseas operating costs and currency fluctuations, it still has similar expenses as NAMB such as escalating medical costs and retirement benefits which constantly erode those funds. Yet, they are still able to grow their missionary ranks through priority funding.

 

Reaching a Bold Mission Thrust Goal – with gratitude to MSC

In a January 21, 2000, Baptist Press story, NAMB stated that it had reached the Bold Mission Thrust goal of 5,000 missionaries, right on schedule. But that total reflected the established practice of including MSC, which gave Southern Baptists a false sense of accomplishment.

Bill Graham, then-manager of NAMB’s missionary personnel unit, attributed much of the increase “to more dollars made available for missionary support because of efficiencies gained from the restructuring of the SBC in 1997.

“The intent of that restructuring has been to put money forward in the field, and I think we are seeing the results of that action. And the commitment that the agency is making is showing up in the numbers,” he said.

But that momentum in funding career missionaries seems to have been short-lived.

 

James Dotson/BP

NAMB pressed a fire truck into service to promote its campus Elevate leadership conferences. It lost $600,000 in its first year and never broke even, though it was expected to be a significant source of revenue.

Increased efficiency

Two years later at the June 2002 meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, NAMB President Bob Reccord gave a progress report on the first five years of the agency’s existence. The committee leading the SBC restructure anticipated $34 million in savings during those early years.

“I’m here to tell you we didn’t make it – we surpassed it” by $6 million, “redirecting to front-line ministries a total of $40,387,000,” he said.

The redirected funds, he said, made possible Strategic Focus Cities church planting and evangelism efforts ($14.1 million), the Nehemiah Project ($7.3 million) training and mentoring program for church planters and other ministries. But the efficiencies attributed by Bill Graham that were directed to missionary support in those early years has not carried over to future years.

And while NAMB has lower overhead, it has also been able to draw down the cash reserves it received from the former Home Mission Board at its founding. In 1997 NAMB began with a $55 million cash cushion for emergency operating costs. The balance, according to the 2004 SBC annual, is $23 million – a decrease of $32 million in 7 years.

 

Belt tightening … and belt loosening

NAMB has apparently swung between periods of erratic belt tightening and loosening. For example, in August 2003 it announced it was trimming its 2004 budget by 6 percent, eliminating 31 positions and reducing program support due to a softening economy.

But the following year, when staff were being asked to do more with less, NAMB launched the first of five college leadership conferences called Elevate.

NAMB confirmed to the Index that the 2004 conferences lost more than $600,000. But rather than canceling the two conferences scheduled for 2005 it held the course, losing so much on the first conference that it cancelled the second just weeks before it was ready to begin. A fifth conference in the series, set for next month in Atlanta, has already been cancelled.

Another expenditure was the creation of a high-tech walk-through exhibit called the Vision Center, which was constructed in NAMB’s lobby. Modeled after a similar interactive information center at Focus on the Family, the three-dimensional, interactive experience of sight, sound, and touch using ultra-realistic professionally-designed sets was built, sources say, at a cost of $1 million.

The exhibit was debuted during the 1999 SBC meeting in Atlanta and was the crown jewel in NAMB’s early years. But the repeat crowds failed to materialize and the center was shut down four years later.

 

Church planting numbers slow to grow

A look at church planting numbers shows a similar period of less than stellar growth for NAMB, given the efficiencies that were expected. As recent as the Feb. 8 meeting of NAMB’s board of trustees Reccord reiterated that comparable overhead between it and the three agencies it replaced had dropped from 25 percent in 1996 to less than 12 percent today.

SBC church planting increased slowly yet consistently for the eight years prior to NAMB’s launch. Under NAMB, congregational starts have been on a roller coaster ride. It’s most recent year shows an increase of 132 church plants from the Home Mission Board’s final year of 1996. See chart on page 12.

The most significant increase was for the years of 1999 and 2000 following Reccord’s announcement of providing an additional $2 million for church planting and evangelism. When those one-time funds were put on the field, results were almost immediate – church plants jumped 258 to a record 1,747 in the first year and baptisms jumped 12,078.

But when the funds were depleted, the momentum ceased and growth came to a standstill.

Like evangelism, church planting is an increasingly difficult assignment in a post-modern world and the work is not to be taken lightly. Strong churches make a strong society, but Baptists remain weak in showing sustained growth.

 

InovaOne

In early 2003 NAMB brought in Steve Sanford, said to be a personal friend of Reccord from their days in Virginia, to conduct an audit of NAMB’s media strategy. The repercussions from that audit continue to reverberate throughout the agency to this day.

Sanford presented the audit to Reccord in the Fall of 2003. When the dust had settled, 40 positions were eliminated and 31 employees were terminated before the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season. And, by coincidence or not, much of the work was handed off to InovaOne – a perceived conflict of interest for a consultant to directly benefit from an audit he conducted.

While InovaOne's own case study details the 2003 timeline of the study, a check with Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox’s Web site shows the company was not registered in the state until the following year – on Dec. 1, 2004. In fact, Sanford registered three other business entities on the same day: InovaOne Aviation, InovaOne Enterprises, and InovaOne Strategies.

While Chuck Allen defends InovaOne (www.inovaone.com) as simply a transition company helping NAMB outsource the workload, employees feel their jobs are slowly going to a secular company that was created to take away their ministries. That corporate mindset, they say, has permeated NAMB’s culture since it was founded. NAMB has maintained that it is not a church but a business, and will operate as a business.

The final sentence in the InovaOne case study of the audit, which was downloaded from its Web site, paints a dim future for NAMB staff: “It (NAMB) is now well-positioned to operate with a substantially reduced head count and more cost-effective communication systems.”

The bulk of the fall terminations removed many long-term employees from NAMB’s ranks, some with more than 25 years experience with former agencies such at the Home Mission Board and Brotherhood Commission. Gone were the editors/writers, graphic designers, and video production team.

NAMB’s newest evangelism initiative, called “Who Cares?,” will be nearly a year behind schedule when it launches this summer.

If InovaOne is just one of many vendors NAMB is using, the agency has certainly developed a strong affinity for its products. Reccord endorses the company – a secular for-profit entity – as an equal partner in its “Who Cares?” evangelistic campaign (www.seewhocares.org/) and Reccord, NAMB Chief Counsel Randy Singer, and Mike Carlisle, vice president of strategic communications, have offered similar endorsements at the InovaOne home page. But NAMB has not been as generous – or at least not as public – with praise for the printers who produce their magazines or airlines with whom they partner through negotiated group fares.

 

Shifting jobs to InovaOne

Throughout 2005 InovaOne began taking on more of NAMB’s workload and was given the contract to produce the “Who Cares?” evangelism strategy and the new 316 Network – both of which Reccord unveiled in June at the SBC annual meeting.

And in December InovaOne produced NAMB’s first video Christmas greeting from Bob and Cheryl Reccord, which is still available for viewing at www.inovamedia.com/president_christmas_card/video.nocss.html?tr=y&auid=1277734.

But NAMB is a little inconsistent in its explanation of the outsourcing, at least as it relates to its video production. In an interview with the Index, Allen said it was becoming too expensive for NAMB to stay current with ever-changing video production technology. But during the interview he admitted that NAMB was updating its basement production studio to expand onsite recording – without a staff to run the equipment. Observers say it would seem inconsistent to use mission dollars to update a studio if NAMB was wanting to get out of the video production business.

InovaOne, who has already been working in the studio, is the obvious frontline candidate to provide the manpower. And the longer NAMB waits to dispose of the equipment, the less valuable it becomes – another inconsistency in its business plan.

Allen also said there was a strong possibility that NAMB would someday sell off all of the production equipment to an outside vendor and close the studio completely. But on Feb. 9 he affirmed that all of the equipment purchased with Cooperative Program dollars belongs to NAMB and none has been sold.

But if the equipment belongs to NAMB and is just used by InovaOne – and other outside vendors – employees are confused about why the area has become restricted while InovaOne employees roam freely. Locks have been changed and NAMB employees no longer have unlimited access to the area.

If NAMB believes secular outside vendors such as InovaOne can do a better job of communicating its message to churches than Southern Baptist employees on staff, InovaOne’s case study should raise a red flag. Its first paragraph identifies NAMB’s audience as “43,000 churches, 1,200 local organizations, 42 state conventions, and tens of thousands of missionaries throughout the United States and Canada.”

The “1,200 local organizations” should be more correctly identified as Baptist associations – and the missionary count is “tens of thousands” more than the 5,364 currently employed. It appears that InovaOne has a problem defining NAMB’s identity in its own audit report.

 

Promise Keepers

A primary focus of NAMB has been “partnerships” with like-minded evangelical groups. NAMB has branched out of the Southern Baptist fold to embrace ministry options with groups such as Focus on the Family, Campus Crusade, and others with proven benefits.

But it has sometimes been difficult to determine when its president has been speaking for NAMB or for his own personal ministry, Total Life Impact. The ministry, which lists Reccord and wife Cheryl as motivational speakers, sells a variety of their books and $49 custom-made plaques for children’s rooms.

Allen defends Reccord’s speaking engagements – especially one at Focus on the Family where the couple’s appearance was reported by a Baptist Press story. Allen maintains that Reccord keeps a clear separation between what is a NAMB-related speaking engagement and what is his personal ministry. But if the couple were speaking as private individuals, it would not be necessary for Baptist Press to run a story on their appearance.

Reccord’s speaking engagements have been prolific but they may not have all been to promote North American missions. For example, he has spoken on the Focus on the Family national radio program, was featured at Promise Keepers, has been a guest on The 700 Club and granted interviews to publications such as Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

But on all of those – according to their Web sites – he has spoken on general topics such as how to raise your children and safeguard your marriage against infidelity. Topics well and good, as affirmed in NAMB’s staff policy manual, but not necessarily in keeping with the agency’s primary objectives.

According to the policy manual in relation to when honoraria can be accepted, “… messages on marriage, general leadership issues, ethics, sexual purity, etc. may be good topics but are not considered a reflection of NAMB’s six MMOs (Major Missions Objectives).”

The conflict, for many, comes when Reccord speaks on those topics and promotes his own books and the ministry’s Web site at www.totallifeimpact.com. If he is introduced as president of NAMB it would be expected that he would be an advocate for the mission agency’s family evangelism unit. But such is not always the case.

So, when is Reccord speaking on behalf of NAMB and when is he speaking on behalf of his and his wife’s ministry? That’s difficult to determine.

Some observers question the wisdom of such a move, even if Total Life Impact lists his wife as president rather than himself. The ministry, they say, is in conflict with NAMB’s family evangelism unit and undermines that unit’s effectiveness. They maintain that Delta Air Lines would not allow CEO Jerry Grinstein to set up a personal charter jet service that would compete with the airline’s day-to-day operations, so why should NAMB allow any employee to launch a business that competes with the agency’s objectives?

The waters will become even muddier this summer as Reccord speaks at all 19 Promise Keepers rallies nationwide. He has already told staff that he has reworked his schedule to accommodate the request and may be unavailable for any additional NAMB speaking engagements for that time frame – nearly half of the year’s Friday evenings.

While NAMB board members have not questioned the move, it may not be the gold mine for Southern Baptists that Reccord alleges it will be. Justifying the engagement at NAMB’s board meeting on Feb. 8 he told trustees that 56 percent of Promise Keepers attendees have a Southern Baptist affiliation – implying that the men are just the market to hear his message and be ushered into an on mission lifestyle.

But when contacted by the Index, Steve Chavis, communications director for Promise Keepers, painted a slightly different picture.

“We don’t actually break the denominations down by individual groups,” he said. “But our research shows that 25 percent of our attendees claim some kind of Baptist affiliation. That includes all groups across the Baptist spectrum – Southern, American, National, whatever.”

NAMB's staffing levels have gone through waves of restructuring and downsizing. The Dec. 2, 2005 telephone list shows the fall vacancies versus levels two years ago.

Chavis then added that the next largest category chosen by participants is “non-denomination” with a 24 percent affiliation.

Based on those figures, instead of speaking to a group that is 56 percent Southern Baptist, Reccord will actually be speaking to a group of whom at least 75% are not Southern Baptist.

 

Looking to the future

What does the future hold for NAMB and the Southern Baptist Convention? Allen does not believe there will be any more terminations for 2006 on the scale of past years. He states the headcount will remain where it is without substantial reduction in the workforce. And, he adds, he does not believe many employees are actually fearful for their jobs – regardless of the InovaOne audit report on the need for outsourcing.

NAMB remains the primary agency to lead the denomination forward in implementing a national strategy in evangelism and church planting. And while the missionary force continues to grow through volunteer labor – the future of its funded career force may continue to slide without increased giving to the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering.

But the longterm implications are even more critical to the future of the International Mission Board. If church planting and evangelism continue their slide there will be fewer congregations being birthed that support the Cooperative Program and related offerings. And with a slide in offerings, international missions may find itself on the ropes. The bottom line is that if we lose the homeland, we lose the world.

 


Related articles with additional information:

Southern Baptist baptism momentum
Southern Baptist church plants
Are Southern Baptists moving toward a self-funded missionary force?