Mission Lab

IMB President Tom Elliff announces plans to step down

Anticipates CP priorities, Baptist identity & communications as top challenges for new leader

February 27th, 2014 / By: Joni Hannigan / comments

AUSTIN, Texas (FBW)—In describing his request to the trustees of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board to convene a search team to name his successor, President Tom Elliff said he neither “resigned” nor “retired,” but heeded God’s plan for the next step in his life.

Elliff, who turned 70 just last week, was unanimously elected to the post three years ago in Dallas.

In a 40-minute conference call with reporters Feb. 26, following the plenary session of an IMB trustee meeting where he shared a letter attributing his decision to “the Lord’s clear leading,” Elliff pledged to pray with his wife, Jeannie, for a “seamless transition.”

Responding to a question about why he chose to step down at this moment in time, Elliff said, “I didn’t choose it. I think God spoke to me.”

God, however, did not tell him to “resign” or “retire,” but to prepare the board to look for his successor—“and the minute they find that man or woman, I need to join the ranks of all the other people who are holding up his hands and praying for him,” Elliff further elaborated.

Sharing with reporters a formula he and his wife developed years ago, Elliff said their family has endeavored to live by a purpose statement. “We wanted to be living illustrations of the faithfulness of God to any person who will take him at his Word.

“We have come to believe that God’s plans are revealed to the man of God or the woman of God by the spirit of God and by the Word of God. That has been the foundational principal by which we’ve made every critical, every key decision of our life,” Elliff added.

Knowing it could take a long period of time to find a suitable replacement, Elliff said he is unwilling to put the stability of the organization, with nearly 9,000 personnel in the field, at risk.

“We chase the dark spots of this world and thrust the light of the gospel into it and so this is not a time for a hiccup in our organization with so many thousands of people deployed overseas,” he said.

A new IMB leader will have challenges and opportunities, because they are really one in the same, Elliff told one reporter who asked what a new leader might face: “In every challenge is an opportunity for the Lord to prove himself strong, so let’s just call them all the same.”

Referencing a little town “just up the road” in Texas, Elliff said it is roughly equivalent to the size of our missionary force—although that force has been declared the largest in North America or in the world. Noting the IMB will send only people to the field that it can support, Elliff said there are 4,816 missionaries on the field and about another 4,000 of their children with them—for a total of about 9,000 people. 

“People say we are the largest evangelical mission organization in the nation maybe  … in the world. People say, ‘Does it make you proud?’ … Actually, it makes me ashamed,” he said. With nearly 17 million Southern Baptists, that means only a tiny percentage of our Southern Baptist population is on the mission field.

With the Cooperative Program plateauing after a 30 year decline, and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering the primary means of support for the IMB, Elliff said a new leader will be challenged to find out the resolve of Southern Baptist in reaching the lost through showing the priority in their pocketbooks.

 “I think Southern Baptists are facing an opportunity to determine just where their heart is in terms of missions,” Elliff said. “That’s one challenge. It’s always there; it’s an opportunity. It didn’t just show up when I showed up; it’s not gonna go away when I go away. It has always been there,” he continued.

“Where our heart is, that’s where our treasure is. Is our heart for reaching the world?” Elliff countered with a question of his own. “There are other issues Southern Baptists are going to face. All of them impact the IMB because the IMB
is the stackpole around which the hearts of southern Baptists are laid when it comes to reaching people for Christ.”

Elliff added that Southern Baptists need to answer questions including:

  • Who in the world are Southern Baptists?
  • What are Southern Baptists saying? What is our message? How are we saying it? Who is listening?
  • Are we passionate as a convention about what God’s passionate about?
  • Are we serious about stewardship?

About stewardship, Elliff told reporters that people support what they help create. For many forged in an era of the Conservative Resurgence—time has moved on and a new generation is saying “I’m gonna go help create a network out here or something else.”

On the other hand, mission strategy, “missiology,” has made some things easier, while technology has morphed into opportunities to document new churches in unprecedented ways. “We’ve never had greater losses in the world, but we’ve never had easier access than we have right now,” Elliff said.

 Unsolicited advice is rarely welcomed, Elliff said, but his “one little bit of counsel” is to “live there, live there—live life in prayer.”

Deflecting a question asking about board “dynamics” affecting the timeliness of naming his successor, Elliff said the committee will no doubt wrestle with a number of issues, but is overall “characterized by a gracious sweet spirit” and chaired by David Uth, pastor of First Baptist Church in Orlando.

In his opening statements, Elliff listed a number of initiatives he said he has seen take place since his time at the IMB. Among them are EMBRACE, Ready Reserves, Marketplace Advance, Global Connect, SBC Direct and School of Prayer for All Nations. 

“It’s just amazing to me to see how our trustee board has worked together so well,” Elliff said. “My hat's off to them.”

Elliff said he and his wife have yet to have the long walk and talk—and prayer and fast—about what they will do in their future. With children and grandchildren on the mission field, he said it’s not impossible they will spend some time traveling.

“I have no earthly idea,” he said, noting when the search team came calling in 2010 he had a number of projects in the works. “It was not  a bucket list, but I turned a lot of projects into a bucket.”

“He will give us a real vision, paint a picture on our heart of what can be by His grace and I feel really good to do that,” Elliff said. “We are not intimidated by that, but this is a new journey for us.”

Tammi Ledbetter, managing editor of the Southern Baptist Texan newspaper, asked Elliff to share his favorite ministry opportunity over the years.

“Honestly whatever Jeanne and I have been involved in at the moment,” Elliff said has been the hallmark of his service.

Comparing ministry to the operation of a fulcrum and a lever, Elliff said, “I have just always seen wherever we were as that fulcrum. And God gives you the leverage for prayer. He puts that in your hand and you can move the world from wherever you are.”

Before the IMB, God gave him and Jeannie full lives, and that has continued at the IMB where he has passionately pursued his calling.

“This has been exhilarating to this day and to the end of my tenure here,” Elliff said. “I will wake up energized—there has never been a day that I haven’t loved, just absolutely loved what I was doing.

“I am just so humbled just to think that God would give me the gift of being around people … at the IMB. I have trustees, staff, and missionary personnel,” Elliff said. “It has been just absolutely delicious.”

Elliff and his wife, Jeannie, served as missionaries to Zimbabwe in the early 1980s. He was president of the Southern Baptist Convention 1996-1997 and pastor of First Southern Baptist Church in Del City, Okla., from 1985 to 2005.