By Will Hall, Baptist Message Editor
ALEXANDRIA (Baptist Message) – Southern Baptists’ overseas mission forces will be reduced to levels not seen since 1993 with the departure of about 22 percent of its personnel, including 983 missionaries leaving the field and 149 severing ties from various stateside assignments.
International Mission Board President David Platt announced the 1,132 terminations Feb. 24, stressing the “voluntary” nature of most of the departures.
However, 30 communicators with approximately 500 years of IMB service among them, which included bringing IMB communications into the Internet age, were fired in January.
Platt said in a Baptist Press report the team was “way behind in developing the digital mindset” and “struggled to form new methods for reaching a changing audience.” Yet the group included award-winning writers and photographers who are featured speakers at national conferences for their expertise.
Platt declared in September 2015 his goal of 600-800 terminations, including personnel “here and overseas,” saying such were needed in order to balance IMB’s books after the agency had spent $210 million more than it received from 2010-2014.
He rejected the notion of using natural attrition (retirements and other separations) as too slow. IMB loses approximately 300 missionaries a year, which would have meant reaching its goal of 4,200 missionaries (600 fewer) in two years. Instead, his plan targeted missionaries who were at least 50 years old in order to reduce personnel levels now, while still hiring new missionaries.
Platt indicated in earlier discussions his reason for hiring novices while releasing seasoned field personnel (each having at least five years of experience), was his desire to keep faith with churches that were sending missionary candidates to the IMB.
IMB spokesperson Julie McGowan confirmed to The Baptist Message that IMB hired 403 first-time missionaries in 2015 (136 for long-term appointments and 267 for short-term assignments) and projected another 340 initiates will be appointed in 2016 (135 long-term and 205 short-term).
Platt said the missionary sending agency had met its goal of 600-800 terminations during its first phase of reductions, which offered an enhanced set of separation benefits called the Voluntary Retirement Incentive (the financial particulars were withheld from the public by IMB). This package was taken by 702 missionaries on the field and 109 who were working in a myriad of capacities in the United States (811 total).
Moreover, when phase two was offered (called the Hand Raising Opportunity) another 281 missionaries took a reduced severance deal after turning down the enhanced VRI offer, and another 40 stateside did the same, presumably including the 30 fired communicators who were not aware their positions would be eliminated when the VRI was being tendered.
In the end, despite taking these drastic measures in order to deal with deficit spending, the personnel reduction will necessitate continued overspending by the IMB for at least one more year.
The 2016 budget included a planned $23 million shortfall, covered by operating reserves, for the costs of terminating 600-800 personnel, IMB reported. However, actual departures (1,132) exceeded estimates by nearly 42 percent and possibly could drive the deficit toward $33 million.
NOT QUITE TRANSPARENT
Platt told a group of Southern Baptist journalists Feb. 16 he had assured all IMB missionaries they did not have to leave the mission field if they sensed “the Lord” was telling them to stay.
He went further to say “many of our personnel instead of calling the VRI the voluntary retirement incentive started calling it the voluntary reemployment initiative because they really saw, ‘This is not me stepping off the sidelines in missions. This is stepping into a new phase, new place of involvement in missions.’”
However, Platt balked at allowing the terminated missionaries the freedom to tell Southern Baptists for themselves how they viewed the situation.
According to a missionary who wishes to remain anonymous, a paragraph included in the VRI release states “Missionaries will not directly or indirectly at any time, make any disparaging remark, either oral or in writing, regarding IMB or any affiliated entity or any of their respective employees, officers, directors, affiliates, or agents, either individually or in any representative capacity. Notwithstanding the foregoing, this provision shall not preclude Missionaries from making truthful statements to any government agency or pursuant to any lawful subpoena.”
When asked by The Baptist Message during a Feb. 16 question and answer time whether he would grant missionaries permission to share “truthful statements” with Southern Baptists similar to the freedom they had to share “truthful statements” with the government, Platt refused.
Saying at first he did not understand the question, Platt followed up by saying the verbiage was “pretty standard procedure.”
But when pressed, he insisted that “for the good of not just the IMB but the SBC” he was “going to encourage our missionaries to do everything that legally they’ve agreed to do.”
“I am confident that what has carried out, people have signed, is legally for their good, for the good of the IMB and for the mission of the IMB and so I encourage everybody to do exactly what they said they were going to do,” he added.
Trustees likewise are prevented from expressing concerns publicly.
A document published by Baptist Press outlines the IMB’s guidelines for trustees, including the statement that “trustees are to speak in positive and supportive terms as they interpret and report on actions by the Board, regardless of whether they personally support the action.”
The insistence that missionary terminations were voluntary, and, the imposition of an oath of secrecy on former IMB personnel likely have to do with the specific targeting of 50 year olds in the force reductions.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act forbids age discrimination against people 40 years old or more, and the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act adds the specific requirement that an employee must make a “knowing and voluntary” informed choice whether or not to sign a waiver of these protections when terminated for age.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the national entity charged with enforcing labor laws, requires that waivers must:
— be written to be clearly understood;
— specify rights or claims arising under the law and must expressly spell out “Age Discrimination in Employment Act,” and not simply refer to it by ADEA;
— provide 21 days to consider the offer;
— give employees seven days to revoke the waiver;
— not require an employee to surrender rights and claims that may arise after the date the waiver is put into force; and,
— be supported by “consideration” (pay and benefits) in addition to that to which the employee already is entitled.
Additionally, when a group of employees is terminated, each one must be given written notice of layoff and at least 45 days to consider the waiver before signing it, and the waiver must specify eligibility terms and state definite time limits.
Employers also must inform these individuals about the “decisional unit” (class of employees) from which the employer chose who would and would not be terminated, and, provide a table listing the job titles and ages of all individuals who were terminated as well as those who were not terminated in each decisional unit.
Although the IMB is required to give this table of information to those who are leaving, the agency declined to give the same information to The Baptist Message.
In response to a request for the EEOC information, McGowan wrote back that “IMB complies with applicable EEOC reporting requirements.” She also said the request was denied “to safeguard the privacy information of its employees,” and the data is “for EEOC use only.”
Platt, who turns 37 in July, faces a number of imposing challenges in leading the Southern Baptist Convention’s largest evangelism entity, while having limited executive experience and evangelistic success.
He came to the IMB in the fall of 2014 having served eight years as senior pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama. The year prior to his arrival, the congregation averaged 5,047 in weekly worship attendance and baptized 159 new believers, according to data extracted from the Southern Baptist Convention’s Annual Church Profile database. In his last year with the church, attendance averaged 4,608 and 58 converts were baptized, an internal church document shows, and the proposed budget for the next year was about $9.3 million.
Meanwhile, the reported IMB budget for 2015-2016 exceeds $304 million, and information shared at the SBC Annual Meeting last year indicated more than 190,000 baptisms and 13,000 church starts resulted because of the work of IMB missionaries (2013 data collected in 2014 reported in the 2015 SBC Annual). Both numbers are down from highs of more than 600,000 baptisms reported for 2006 and nearly 27,000 church plants in 2007, although it is not known how much of the respective drops are due to changes to reporting procedures that began in 2009.
However, Platt has brought aboard three IMB outsiders to assist him with the organizational reset — Sebastian Traeger, Rodney Freeman and Lukas Naugle.
Traeger is described in an IMB press release as “an entrepreneur, business professional and management consultant” who led several businesses focused on communications (Village Phone), self-publishing (Christianity.com) and crowd funding (Razoo.com). He was a member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and served as an elder with the Reformed congregation before coming to the IMB in 2014.
Freeman was an executive with two international pharmaceutical companies, according to Baptist Press, managing budgets of $1 billion (Merck) and $120 million (Schering-Plough), and leading staffs of 950 and 490 personnel, respectively. He was a member, deacon and Sunday school teacher of Somerset Hills Baptist Church in Basking Ridge, New Jersey.
Naugle was a rebranding consultant (ChangeGoat.com) who named such clients as Together for the Gospel and The Gospel Coalition (both groups advocate Reformed theology), as well as Darrin Patrick (an Acts 29 church planter) and Radical (Platt’s book and resource website). Naugle was a member of Redemption Church in Phoenix, Arizona, a non-SBC Reformed congregation.