by James A. Smith Sr.
BRANDON, Fla. (BP)—In spite of the Great Commission Resurgence report that many expected would end jointly funded missionaries with state Baptist conventions, North American Mission Board President Kevin Ezell says “strategically placed mobilizers” in southern states are necessary to accomplish NAMB’s church planting goals in the rest of North America.
Ezell, who was elected NAMB’s third president in September, spoke with the Florida Baptist Witness in a 30-minute, wide-ranging interview following a missionary commissioning service at Brandon, Fla., First, March 20.
Ezell said NAMB and the states would continue to have “jointly funded missionaries in every state. We’re not going to totally reduce all those.”
The GCR report, adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention last year in Orlando, he said, “calls for allowing NAMB to decide” what to do about the historical practice of jointly funding missionaries with the states.
Although the report does not explicitly recommend ending jointly funded missionaries, it does suggest NAMB “budget for a national strategy,” while calling for a seven-year phase-out of cooperative agreements to be replaced with “a new pattern of strategic partnership with the state conventions.”
“After examining it, we feel like it’s in the best interest to accomplish what we want to accomplish in the other four regions. We need to have strategically placed mobilizers, jointly funded missionaries in the South with our partners to get it done in the other regions,” Ezell said.
As part of NAMB’s new “Send North America” strategy, the continent has been divided into five regions— South, Northeast, Midwest, West and Canada (Oklahoma is in the South Region).
While NAMB is “downsizing and realigning” budgets for jointly funded positions, he said there will continue to be “jointly funded missionaries in every state,” adding it’s “important” that NAMB be “invested in every state.”
State conventions in the South, which he said currently receive about 20 percent of NAMB’s funding through cooperative agreements, will “probably end up being somewhere around 10 (percent)” as part of the reprioritization of church planting funding in regions outside the South.
“We want to mobilize churches in the South and states in the South to partner” with non-southern regions and “we need missionaries and connections in every state to help us mobilize,” Ezell said, while noting it would be “foolish” to “not continue to plant in our strongest base—in the South.”
Still, “our focus is going to be in those other four regions,” he said.
Ezell emphasized that money—“absolutely every dollar”—withdrawn from the states as a result of the new strategic partnerships “will be invested in church planting. Every cent.”
Significant changes Ezell anticipates with the new strategic partnerships—of which NAMB has begun sharing drafts with state convention executive directors—are common definitions and greater accountability.
“We’re going to come up with some consistency of expectations of excellence. . . . There are 42 different levels of excellence out there, and we just want to bring everyone up to the same level,” he said, noting he is soliciting and receiving the input of state executives.
While there is accountability currently, Ezell said, “It’s just not consistent across the states.”
Although there would be region-to-region differences, Ezell said the process would be “standardized” within each region.
“Right now you have church planters that compare Indiana, Illinois and Ohio together and then decide where they’re going to plant a church much like a high school prospect deciding on where he plays basketball because they’re all so different,” he said.
The strategic partnership agreement drafts include six-month evaluations for all NAMB missionaries. Ezell said NAMB will be relying upon “our state partners to do that.”
He elaborated: “I feel like I have the responsibility to Southern Baptists to make sure every missionary—be they volunteer or paid —is evaluated to make sure they’re representing Southern Baptists in the way Southern Baptists desire them to represent us.”
The “overwhelming majority” of state executives have been supportive of the heightened evaluation process, including the new six-month reviews, Ezell said.
Ezell confirmed the draft strategic partnership agreements include a requirement that missionaries affirm the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, the SBC’s confessional statement.
“We’re going to hold all of our missionaries to that expectation,” he said, adding that he is unaware of any objection to the BF&M requirement from the states.
Ezell said he anticipates finalizing the wording of the new agreements this summer, although some state executives may require approval by their respective boards or state conventions before they are formally executed in time for implementation in 2012.
Calling it a “paradigm shift,” Ezell said 37 percent of NAMB staff positions have been eliminated, while many of the staff who remain are being reoriented to NAMB’s heightened focus on church planting.
“It’s much easier to talk about narrowing a focus than actually doing it,” he said, noting that changes made already have resulted in making $9 million more available for church planting in 2011, which he anticipates to grow to $15 million in 2012.
“We’re very serious about the task of planting churches—and planting churches where we’re not doing so well,” he said, naming the four regions outside the South.
“We want to be much more focused and put a scope on what we do so that people understand when they think about (NAMB) they think of planting churches all over North America,” he said.
Ezell said NAMB has experienced a reduction in revenue from Cooperative Program and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering the last two years totaling about 20 percent, necessitating NAMB staff reductions and apparently state funding.
“What we’ve tried to do with the states is to make it as painless as possible—to look for vacancies . . . and unused monies—so that we’re not affecting their personnel in 2012,” he said.
Ezell said NAMB will ask Southern Baptists meeting in Phoenix this June during the SBC annual meeting to “confront the brutal facts” of where their missions efforts actually stand in North America.
In other settings, Ezell has indicated his team is unable to verify previous NAMB claims concerning the number of church plants, suggesting the total is less than those claims.
NAMB will be “very honest with Southern Baptists on where we are and where we need to be. Defining reality has to happen in order for us to know where we are so that we know where we need to go,” he said.
Ezell said NAMB also would formally launch the new “Send North America” strategy during the annual meeting.
Saying he is “very encouraged” by early, anecdotal reports of greater giving this year to the annual Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions, Ezell said he’s “very thankful and appreciative” of Southern Baptists’ support for the offering.
This year’s AAEO goal is $70 million, which was also the goal last year, although giving in 2010 was only $56 million. The annual goal has not been met for several years, he noted.
“Whether you were for GCR or against GCR. If you like me, don’t like me. It’s not about me; it’s not about GCR. It’s about missionaries. . . . Whatever you do, we need to support our missionaries. We can work the rest of this stuff out. But we don’t want to do it at the expense of our missionaries,” he said.
Ezell expressed appreciation for executive directors of the state Baptist conventions who have been “very gracious” to and “very patient” with him, admitting he has had a “large learning curve.”
Citing Florida Baptist Convention Executive Director-Treasurer John Sullivan, Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma Executive Director-Treasurer Anthony L. Jordan and their colleagues in Alabama and Georgia, Ezell said the leaders have “helped tutor me” as the new NAMB president.
James A. Smith Sr. is executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness.