NAMB addressing tensions regarding strategy

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been amended to clarify two concerns raised by California Southern Baptist Convention leaders after publication. A reference to “jobs” being eliminated has been changed to “ministry positions.” Also, a sentence has been added indicating that more than 30 percent of California's budget goes to church planting, and the reference to the California Focus 21 Task Force report that 3.2 percent of the state portion of its CP budget directly funds “church planters” (rather than “church planting”) has been clarified.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) -- North American Mission Board President Kevin Ezell has explained the board's initiatives in church planting and evangelism in April 9 and March 6 video conferences with directors of missions and church planting catalysts.

A report on the April 9 video conference appeared in Baptist Press on April 11 and can be accessed at www.bpnews.net/BPnews.asp?ID=37577.

 
In the March 6 video, Ezell largely focused on NAMB strategy for increasing the birthrate of Southern Baptist churches, redeploying missionaries and shifting the board's budget.

The Ezell videos come at a time when several state convention leaders have expressed concerns with NAMB's direction. Other leaders, meanwhile, have voiced support for the mission board's strategy.

"Our mission is to penetrate lostness. We feel like the stronger churches are in North America, the stronger our overall mission will be throughout the world," Ezell said in the March 6 video conference. "The International Mission Board is supported by churches in North America, so the stronger the churches are here, we will penetrate lostness literally around the world."

NAMB's goal is 5,000 additional Southern Baptist congregations in the next 10 years, Ezell said. To do that, the convention must increase its birthrate and decrease its death rate for churches.

'The stronger churches are in North America, the stronger our overall mission will be throughout the world.' -- Kevin Ezell
By 1900, the Southern Baptist Convention had one church for every 3,800 people in North America, Ezell said. In 2010, the ratio was one church for every 6,100 people.

"We're losing ground. In the last 10 years, in the Southern Baptist Convention, we have averaged losing 880 churches a year," Ezell said. "Obviously we have to plant 880 just to break even, and we've not been doing that."

Missiologists recommend one church for every 1,000 to 2,000 people, Ezell said, and some state conventions in the South are achieving that goal. Mississippi has one Southern Baptist church for every 1,375 people, for example, but in New Jersey it is one for every 76,384 people. "That's why we're focusing on church planting," Ezell said.

One strategy NAMB hopes to employ is for 10 churches from each association to plant two churches a year for the next decade, and another is to have one church planting catalyst for every 1 million people in new work regions.

"Part of our problem has been our missionaries were not appropriately distributed across North America," Ezell said. "We have 3.5 million people in Connecticut and do not have a fulltime church planting catalyst there. ... Then we have other state conventions that might have 5 million people and they have 23 missionaries. There was no rhyme or reason about how these were strategically located.

"So we're trying to go back and strategically place them throughout North America. ... They'll be located in areas with the highest population, and we're encouraging them to shoot for a goal of four new churches every year," Ezell said.

Regarding the board's budget, Ezell said, "We have regionalized. We have downsized our staff in Alpharetta by well over 100 people, and every dime of the money that we have either transitioned out of a state budget or out of our budget here in Alpharetta is going to those regions, going to church planter missionaries and church plants."

NAMB's goal is to devote half its budget to church planting, and currently 42 or 43 percent of the budget goes to those efforts, Ezell said.

"We do a lot of other things than just church planting. I made a mistake from our first year when I wanted to help us refocus on church planting," Ezell said. "... My mistake was I just talked about church planting. The reason I did that was to try to get the Southern Baptist Convention to focus on that need. This year we're going to go back and make certain people understand we're still doing the other things. But we have to have a sense of focus here."

CONCERNS EXPRESSED

In January, leaders of the California Southern Baptist Convention distributed a report detailing how changes at NAMB will impact their work. The report contained seven specific concerns stemming from NAMB acting "unilaterally," and most of the concerns were about funding. Also included in the report were NAMB's responses to the concerns.

"CSBC is now functioning in an unknown relationship with NAMB that, in many ways, has abandoned cooperation," the report said at the outset. "The current relationship with NAMB is now a top-down decision-making relationship where NAMB dictates its mandates, strategy and financial support outside a formal, cooperative understanding of relationship."

The California convention report noted concern that NAMB's decision to move more resources to church planting will adversely impact many effective ministries in the state, primarily by eliminating ministry positions.

California currently allocates more than 30 percent of its budget to church planting, according to the convention's chief financial officer. The convention gives 3.2 percent of its Cooperative Program dollars to church planters, which the convention's Focus 21 Task Force had signaled a need to increase.

NAMB, in response, said executive directors in various state conventions agreed to draft a new customizable outline for relationships between NAMB and state conventions. That new template is still being formulated, NAMB said.

Rick Lance, executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, told board members in February that NAMB's emphasis on church planting inhibits its partnership with Alabama Baptists.

NAMB has not articulated how its church planting model compares with the model utilized by Alabama Baptists, Lance said, and has not satisfactorily honored the historic cooperative agreement process between the mission board and state conventions.

"Does the North American Mission Board want to have missionaries in Alabama who are not church planters?" Lance asked, also expressing concern over reduced funding from NAMB. "... Alabama needs NAMB, and NAMB needs Alabama. But NAMB needs Alabama more than we need NAMB."

Emil Turner, executive director of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, also expressed concern about the way NAMB is relating to its partners.

"Of greater concern to me than the impact on Arkansas is the impact on our partners that have to reach the pioneer areas," Turner said. "I am very much concerned that the North American Mission Board strategy for planting churches does not guarantee that churches that are planted will be marked by Baptist distinctives," Turner said. "Their strategy undermines the strength of the churches they plant as they defund associational work and church support."

Bob Mills, executive director of the Kansas-Nebraska Convention of Southern Baptists, said two changes that will hit his convention hardest are NAMB's decision not to provide insurance for missionaries in Kansas and Nebraska who receive less than half of their salary from the mission board and NAMB's decision to alter the funding formula for the two-state convention.

"These two changes will cost our convention and local associations significant dollars," Mills wrote in the convention's newspaper in February. Noting NAMB's shift toward a key emphasis on church planting, Mills wrote, "Kansas-Nebraska, other state conventions and local associations do not have the luxury of being so single focused."

In Ohio, messengers to the state convention last fall passed two resolutions dealing with changes being initiated by NAMB. One resolution said the funding formula change "will require an estimated $3 million be added" to the state convention budget by Ohio Baptists. The resolution requested that NAMB reconsider decisions "which will threaten a potentially disastrous impact" on the missions effort of Ohio Baptists.

The second resolution requested that NAMB trustees "continue their financial support of their missionaries in Ohio," defining missionaries as associational directors of missions, Baptist Collegiate Ministry directors, employees of Ohio's eight mission centers as well as church planters.

Jack Kwok, executive director of the State Convention of Baptists in Ohio, said at the time his state qualifies as an "under-reached and underserved mission field," using terminology included in the Great Commission Task Force report approved by the SBC in 2010.

In February, state convention executive directors appointed a special committee "to evaluate how state conventions and NAMB can maximize cooperation during the transition process of implementing the new NAMB initiatives."

Turner, immediate past president of the executive directors' fellowship, said the committee desires to "cooperate with NAMB in a way that helps strengthen new work conventions."

SUPPORT STATED

Leaders in at least three state conventions have been on record in recent months supporting Ezell's efforts at NAMB. Garvon Golden, a longtime leader in the Dakota Baptist Convention who was elected executive director in March, said the two-state convention will focus on strengthening churches and planting evangelistic churches.

"... Even with some of the changes that have been made, and some of the directions that NAMB is going, they remain a very valuable partner in helping us reach the Dakotas," Golden said. "We want to see the cities of the United States reached for Christ as well as the rural and isolated areas of the West, and we want to be cooperative partners with NAMB in accomplishing this."

The Dakota convention is facing financial challenges stemming from changes at NAMB, but Golden said the convention will take more financial responsibility for its work and will operate with a smaller staff.

"We will find a way to thrive in this," Golden said. "I think in the long run it's going to help our churches, our convention, to be stronger. We're going to get to the point [where] we depend more on God and what He provides, and less on other people, and that has to make us stronger."

Kirk Baker, president of the Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Convention, wrote in a column submitted to Baptist Press that changes at NAMB are spurring his convention to a necessary restructuring that has been put off for years.

"I wanted to encourage Kevin Ezell by letting him know that many pastors like myself see the changes coming from NAMB as positive," Baker, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Idaho Falls, Idaho, wrote. "We see it as our opportunity to line up our work for Kingdom growth."

At their annual meeting last fall, leaders of the West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists also were on board with NAMB despite difficulties brought on by changes.

West Virginia approved a reorganization plan that opens the door to a greater potential for starting churches and reaching more people for Christ, Terry Harper, the state convention's executive director, said.

"We had a great team. They worked really hard and made some tough decisions," Harper told Baptist Press at the time. "They were not easy decisions to make because it affected a lot of people -- our 10 missionaries, our collegiate workers and our worker in resort missions. As painful as that has been, I still think it offers great opportunity for us in the days ahead. I think we're going to see church planting like we've never seen before in West Virginia. That's what it's all about, and I believe we will see that."

The proposal focused on priorities of strengthening, mobilizing and planting churches, and organized the state's 10 associations into five regions, bringing it into alignment with NAMB's plan to support five church planting catalysts in the state rather than the previous 10 associational directors of missions, Harper explained.

Seth Polk, the convention's president and leader of the restructuring group, said West Virginia Southern Baptists want to set an example of aggressively moving to increase the portion of missions dollars going to national and international causes.

"We believe that as people catch the vision for taking the Gospel to the nations, God also is going to bless right here where we are," Polk said. "When we're already working off of a streamlined state convention staff and budget, that's a real faith step for us.... I think that's a big statement about what the heart of the West Virginia Convention Southern Baptists is."


Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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