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 principle 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.
CHALLENGES, OPPORTUNITIES FOR A NEW LEADER
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 Baptists 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 IMBis the stackpole around which the hearts of Southern Baptists are laid when it comes to reaching people for Christ.”
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