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ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)--It's been eight months since I stepped into the role of president here at the North American Mission Board. I'd like to thank you, Southern Baptists, for allowing me a few months to get a better understanding of how we do what we do. I appreciate your patience and your prayers. My hope is that I can clearly communicate our direction in the midst of a very complex transition.
You have been more than gracious, and please know I am striving to bring a sense of strategic focus and efficiency to our North American missions efforts. I have listed below several areas that many have expressed interest in these past few months. Thank you for your prayers.
When I arrived at NAMB last September, I told our trustees I would embark on a process to bring focus to NAMB and build a strategy that would help Southern Baptists reach North America for Christ in the most effective way possible. We are well down the road to completing that process, and I would like to share some of that progress here.
Throughout its history, NAMB has been plagued with the reputation of being a well-meaning ministry with lots of good intentions but not very much focus. Over the years, the effort to respond to a long list of valid ministry needs resulted in an organization that was trying to move in too many directions at once, doing a lot of good things, but not so many great things.
Since September, we have aimed NAMB squarely at the goal of helping Southern Baptists plant thousands of effective, evangelistic churches in North America that will be lighthouses for the Gospel in their communities for years to come.
The first step toward prioritizing church planting was to transition more money to the field so we can place churches where they are needed most. We took a big step in that direction by offering our staff in Alpharetta a retirement incentive late last year. The result was a 37 percent downsizing of our in-house staff. Even after retirement benefits are paid, that translates into a $6 million savings each year.
I don't believe that you can judge the effectiveness of an organization by the size of its staff. We intend to stay lean and accomplish more with less infrastructure.
After staff reductions we cut internal operating budgets -- including a 50 percent reduction in travel -- which brought additional millions in savings. All of this money is going into our Send North America church planting fund.
These budget shifts have not been easy. It's never an easy process to move an organization through the process of downsizing more than a third of its staff. And cutting operating budgets requires finding new ways of accomplishing things and saying no to many requests.
But the budget changes have positioned us to quickly put many more resources on the field for new churches. NAMB will put an additional $9 million toward regional church planting in 2011. That number will grow to $15 million in 2012.
SEND NORTH AMERICA
We're calling our national church planting strategy "Send North America." Our goal is to mobilize thousands of Southern Baptist churches for direct involvement in church planting. Right now, only about 4 percent of SBC churches are directly involved. If they need help, we'll equip churches that want to plant new churches with what they need to get started. Large churches might work on their own. Smaller churches can join with clusters of other churches to get the job done.
To implement this strategy we have organized our work into a regional approach, dividing North America into five regions -- Canada, Northeast, West, Midwest and South. This will allow a united, national strategy that can be carried out in a way that allows for cultural, economic, geographic and other characteristics that make each region unique to itself.
We are also committed to increasing the quality of our church plants. A new nationwide church plant tracking system we are developing will show us week-to-week statistics that will reflect how a plant is doing in key areas. This will help us see early on if a plant is running into trouble so we are able to help church planters make adjustments and improvements. Each plant will be tracked for five years.
To help undergird the priority of church planting in the regions where it is needed most, we are re-shaping the role of NAMB-funded directors of missions (DOM) so they will more intentionally be focused on facilitating new church starts in their areas of assignment. They will still serve and help mobilize local churches, but with an emphasis on helping those churches play a role in church planting. Their job title will change to "church planting catalyst." This transition only affects NAMB-funded DOMs who primarily serve in under-reached and under-served areas.
We are also committed to taking better care of our church planters. We have extended the years of medical insurance coverage for our Nehemiah church planters. Those serving in the South will have insurance extended from the current two years to three years. Those in under-served regions will go from the current two years of coverage to four years.
Throughout this process, I want to be clear that we are committed to planting healthy Southern Baptist churches. NAMB only plants Southern Baptist churches and all of our planters agree to uphold the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 for the theological guide for their ministry. They also agree to support the Cooperative Program. We don't prohibit people of other denominations or networks to contribute to a church plant or church planter, but we do expect our planters to be faithful to Southern Baptist doctrine and practices.
EVANGELISM IN EVERYTHING WE DO
With all of our talk of church planting these last few months, some people ask if NAMB is still committed to evangelism. To be honest, it's a question that surprises me because sharing Christ is the whole point of everything we do. If a church plant is being implemented correctly, its members will primarily be comprised of new believers who have been led to Christ through the ministry of the church plant.
NAMB's GPS: God's Plan for Sharing is moving forward at full strength as we join with our state convention partners to help Southern Baptist churches and individuals spread Christ throughout their communities. We have prepared dozens of new resources for the 2012 GPS emphasis that will help churches sponsor special events designed to attract unchurched members of their community.
In addition, we have developed a full media campaign that includes television and radio ads, billboards, yard signs, banners and other media designed to support next year's GPS emphasis. On top of that, we have set aside $1 million to purchase advertising in each state in partnership with our state conventions.
I have a strong conviction that Southern Baptists need to continue to focus on how we can reach the next generation for Christ. I want to be sure that NAMB is being as effective as it can in the area of collegiate ministry. With that in mind, we are launching an in-depth study of this ministry area to determine the best way to proceed in reaching college campuses for Christ.
Southern Baptists have accomplished so much for the Kingdom through partnerships over the years, and I believe we are at the beginning stages of what can be even more exciting results.
I am thankful for how the state executive leaders of our state conventions have been open to working with me during these months of transition. They have negotiated and related to me with a sense of cooperation and united mission. We might not always agree, and sometimes we might even frustrate each other, but in the end we understand that the mission is much greater than any of us. They have become true friends and partners to me.
We are currently working to develop new budgets and agreements for how NAMB partners with each state convention. Each state has its own needs, so the budgets will be unique as well. But our desire is to partner with every state as we seek the most effective way to impact lostness from region to region.
As this transition takes place, NAMB is shifting some of its funding from state budgets to our Send North America church planting budget. These funds will primarily be spent in under-reached and under-served regions. State conventions located in the South region have the option of choosing to which region they would like their transitioning funds to be invested.
As these funds are shifted to our Send North America strategy, each of NAMB's regional vice presidents will work with their coalitions to develop and enact a church planting strategy for their region. These coalitions will include representatives from SBC churches, associations and state conventions.
In addition to the budgets NAMB has with each state convention, we also have cooperative agreements that outline how NAMB will work with each state. These agreements are also in need of updating and will be replaced with strategic partnership agreements. I'm not going to rush this process. We can continue operating under the current arrangements until we are able to agree on a new document that will move us forward together.
I'm also excited about the partnerships we have been able to form with other Southern Baptist entities. I have always believed that Southern Baptists expect us to get along with each other and to work together at the national level. But that hasn't always been the case in the past.
Shortly after I came to NAMB, LifeWay President Thom Rainer and I began discussing ways NAMB and LifeWay can work together. One of the first and most prominent results of that discussion is NAMB's partnership with LifeWay on World Changers and PowerPlant.
World Changers has a rich, 21-year history of mobilizing students to renovate sub-standard housing in needy areas and share Christ in the process. PowerPlant teaches students about church planting and allows them the opportunity to work alongside a church planter. By moving World Changers and PowerPlant operations to LifeWay, we will be able to take advantage of LifeWay's outstanding ability to market and implement events like this. And NAMB will still be a partner in selecting project sites and the content of the missions experience each student participant will have.
We are also in the process of partnering with WMU in our missions education area. The sole focus of WMU is missions education and they do it well, so we are partnering with them as they assume operation of Royal Ambassadors (RAs) and Challengers, our missions education resources for young and teen boys.
In addition, I have had good conversations with Tom Eliff at the International Mission Board, and we are both looking forward to finding new ways our entities can cooperate with each other to more effectively reach people groups regardless of their geographic location.
Sometimes people ask if NAMB is doing anything to help existing churches grow stronger. We are and we want to do more. One thing we are expanding is our leadership development area. Recently, we forged a partnership with the Timothy Barnabas Ministry. For several years, Timothy Barnabas, under the leadership of Johnny Hunt, has been a great equipping resource to pastors.
NAMB's partnership with Timothy Barnabas will allow us to take this resource to a much larger group of pastors and church leaders. We want to help pastors be as effective as they can be. In addition to providing office space for the Timothy Barnabas staff, we will work with our state convention partners to make the conference affordable to those pastors who otherwise might not be able to attend. We want every Southern Baptist pastor who desires leadership equipping to be able to obtain it, because we believe stronger leaders in our pulpits will lead to more evangelistic churches that are focused on reaching the world for Christ.
MISSIONARIES AND VOLUNTEERS
Our missionaries are very important to us. They are the front lines in our effort to penetrate lostness in North America. In addition to supporting them, we also want to be sure that the roles they are filling are indeed the most strategic and most effective they can be. We will continue to have several categories of missionaries as we try to expand opportunities for people to serve.
Volunteerism has always been one of Southern Baptists' strengths. We are at our best when we come together to serve those in need. NAMB is still fully engaged in helping Southern Baptists respond to crisis through Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (SBDR). We are grateful to our state conventions, associations and churches that put so many resources into purchasing disaster relief equipment and training volunteers. Thanks to them, the Southern Baptist Convention is among the largest relief organizations in the world.
NAMB is happy to provide logistical assistance and coordination when disasters reach proportions that require multi-state responses. We've seen such responses this year with the spring flooding, the Southern tornadoes and most recently the tornado that devastated Joplin, Mo.
It has been one of the highlights of my time at NAMB to spend time visiting and encouraging some of our disaster relief volunteers as they serve in disaster settings. They are truly being the hands and feet of Christ as they offer much-needed physical assistance, but also bring the spiritual assistance and counseling so needed in times of tragedy. NAMB remains committed to this very effective and vital ministry.
We are not only making improvements in the way we do many of our ministries, we are also trying to improve the way we conduct our meetings and training. Instead of having training events all over the country and practically every week on some topic or for a particular group, we will transition to six regional training events each year. These events will provide learning tracks for every area NAMB supports. This will allow us to significantly reduce costs and provide a higher quality event.
As we continue to look for ways to improve the effectiveness and the quality of what we do, I appreciate your patience and your prayers. We live at a critical moment in time. My prayer and my goal for NAMB and for Southern Baptists is that we can fully meet the challenges and opportunities of our day. I'm pleased to be partnering with you as we take Christ to North America.
Kevin Ezell is president of the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.