RICHMOND, Va. – In the fall of 2018, Paul Chitwood was elected to serve as the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board. Previously, he served as executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention (from 2011-2018) and earlier as a pastor of various churches in Kentucky for 18 years. He was an IMB trustee from 2002-2010, and from 2008-2010 he served as the board’s chairman. During a phone interview, July 30, we talked about the IMB’s financial status, about the growth of its missionary force, and about the way God continues to work through Southern Baptists overseas.
You have a unique opportunity, in your role, to see the amazing things that God is doing across the world through Southern Baptist missionaries. Tell me about what you’re seeing.
“That is one of the great blessings of my role in this position. We’re seeing a huge movement in the Muslim world, unprecedented, of people being saved.
“Also in some of the areas where governments are severely persecuting the church, we’re seeing the church continue to do its work and in fact flourish in that work in the midst of suffering and having to pay a stiff price – individually, families, churches – for remaining faithful. And that’s very encouraging.
“Southern Baptists are engaged heavily right now in refugee work. To visit some of the places that I have been able to visit this year – to see the pain and the brokenness of people who are fleeing from their homeland, but to see them picked up, loved and cared for by Southern Baptists, their needs met, joy being restored, many of them come to faith – has been very encouraging.
“The work among the deaf has really gotten momentum, and we’re seeing a lot of deaf come to faith. Scripture translation into sign (language) for the deaf, but also Southern Baptists have gotten really interested in funding translation of the Bible into languages of unreached, in some cases unengaged, people groups. And that’s been encouraging to see, as well.
“I could go on and on…. There seems to be a real boost of morale among our personnel, a lot of excitement about the work and where we’re heading. And so that’s good.”
As you know, in 2015, the IMB faced a financial crisis that resulted in hundreds of missionaries leaving the field. In retrospect, could you shed some light on the nature and cause of that crisis, and could you bring Missouri Baptists up to speed on the IMB’s current financial health?
“I think (the 2015 crisis) was sort of the tipping moment that we hoped would not come, if I can put it that way. Going back to around 2007 or 2008, we recognized that Cooperative Program giving and Lottie Moon Christmas offering, essentially the donations and funding, were not keeping up with the growth in the IMB, in terms of missionary personnel. It was also becoming more expensive to send and to keep people overseas. We had been putting off making adjustments, hoping that there would be a resurgence in the giving that would meet the needs.
“And when we realized that wasn’t happening, a plan was set in place to begin to draw down the force, the personnel head count. And that was carried out by attrition, as people retire or resign; we won’t be aggressive in replacing and pull those numbers down. At our height, we were up at about 5,600 or 5,700, and the plan was to bring that down to 5,000, which we thought would be manageable. But you know, we ended up having a recession, and we lost a lot of investment income, and we continued to see a stagnation in giving. It just leveled out basically, where Lottie was growing a little bit, but it was not growing enough to keep pace. We had cost-of-living increases and other increases in spending. So by the time David Platt came in, they realized a more aggressive correction was going to need to take place.
“That (course correction) did put us in a good, strong financial position, and we continue to be in that today. We’re keeping a close eye on things to make sure that we don’t get back into that situation. We’re trying to pace the growth.”
How is the IMB working to prevent such financial crises in the future?
“A couple of things: One, a more conservative approach to our budgeting. And, two, we’re working really hard to engage our churches and our donors to try to do all we can to increase the funding. We’re beefing up our mobilization team that keeps us connected to churches and state conventions and associations. We’ve moved what’s called the advancement or fund development team into the President’s office, where I’m working hands on with them, with donors, to hopefully tap into some resources that the IMB has not been able to tap into in the past.
“And we’re encouraging our missionaries to work hard on the mobilization side, to engage in churches, stay in contact with their churches, to get a more personalized approach for the churches. And again, we’re optimistic that, as Southern Baptists get to know more about their missionaries and get to know more about the work, the funds will follow.”
Where do we stand, as far as recruiting and sending missionaries is involved?
“We are thankfully in a place where we have more fully-funded positions than we have candidates to fill them, although we’re beginning to see a reversal in that trend. The missionary appointee pipeline was very low when I got here. I think there were like 82 people in the long term appointment process, which would not even keep pace with people who are retiring and resigning at the end of their term. So we’ve really tried to work hard to get the word out on that, and people have responded. All told – (for both) midterm and long-term (missionaries) – I think right now we have over 900 candidates in the process. So we’re thankful for that. And we’re excited about filling those unfilled positions and excited about growing the force, although it will be a very measured growth.”
I’ve heard rumors that some people who left the field as a result of the 2015 financial crisis may have the opportunity to return. Is that true?
“We’ve already seen some of that happen, and what I’m saying to our missionaries on the field is, ‘If you lost a coworker who was effective and is back in the states, and if you think there might be the slightest interest on their part of coming back out, then reach out to them and let them know that there are opportunities.’”
Do you have any advice for how Missouri Southern Baptist churches can help to raise up a new generation missionaries and continue the growth of the IMB’s missionary force?
“I would hope that pastors would – if they’re not already doing it – that they would incorporate into their invitations and or appeals for response to the preaching of the word, the invitation to answer the call to missions.
“I would also appeal to churches to get engaged hands-on in missions, particularly volunteer missions. We’re going to be releasing some research data next year – a research project (that we’ve done) with Barna that shows the transformation that takes place in a person’s life when they have been on a volunteer mission trip. They become much more generous in their giving to missions. They’re more focused on praying for missions, and there’s a greater likelihood that they will hear and answer the call to missions.”
Now, following the 2015 crisis, the IMB announced plans to downsize or reshape its communications efforts. Then, when you stepped into your role at IMB, you announced your intent to improve efforts to tell Southern Baptists about the IMB’s work overseas. How are you and your team working to make this happen?
“We’ve created a vice presidency role for communications and marketing. I’m looking forward to filling that role and growing our communications staff and our effectiveness. We haven’t been as effective at telling the story of what God’s doing around the world, telling Southern Baptists the stories of their missionaries. And so we’re going to be using some of our resources to that end. We’re very excited about the potential and opportunity. I think Southern Baptists want to know what their missionaries are doing. And so we’re going to work hard to get those stories out. That was one of my primary goals in coming into the role.”
As the former executive director of a state Baptist convention, how would you describe the relationship between the IMB and the state conventions? How do you hope to improve these relationships?
“It’s very strong. Our state convention Executive Directors are our most vocal supporters.
“I’m working to continue to build that by being with them at their fellowships and meetings, by inviting them to be with us at events that IMB is hosting. I just returned from overseas, where we had a gathering with some of our missionaries. And three state execs were there at that gathering. We’re going to be very intentional about inviting all of our state execs to come to gatherings overseas, where they can get to know our personnel, get to see work, learn more about it.
“So we’re prioritizing this. I’m also prioritizing being accessible to our state execs and present in the state convention. So I think I’ll be at five or six state convention annual meetings this fall. I accepted every invitation that I can squeeze on my calendar and those that I’m not able personally to attend, we have other IMB team members who will be there or at least be available if the state convention desires them to be there.
“And just being present, building the relationships and hopefully strengthening the partnerships – a lot of that begins from an attitude of gratitude on the part of IMB, where we recognize that most of the funding that we receive comes through state conventions. So our state convention partners are very generous, and we want to express our appreciation to them for all that they’re already doing and all that they’ve been doing.
“And also local associations: I’ve spoken at some gatherings of associational missionaries, and I’ve been very well received. And I know there’s a lot of interest (on their part) in the work of the IMB. They want their association churches to be engaged in missions overseas, and so we’ve found them to be good partners.”