When Jones County native Richard Clark and his family packed up and left the United States to serve as Southern Baptist missionaries in 2008, they thought they’d spend the rest of their careers in the field.
But their plans were cut short when last year the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board called for missionaries abroad to voluntarily come in from the field. Nearly 1,000 missionaries and staff have returned to the U.S.
“It was a big shock, a big change,” Clark said. “We thought we’d be in Romania for another 12 or 15 years, but things change and here we are.”
Mission Board president David Platt said the cuts were needed to right the board’s financial ship. In August, before the recall, missionaries numbered around 4,800, plus around 450 staff.
Luckily, Clark and his wife come from a ministry background – they pastored a few churches in Louisiana before going abroad – but most of their fellow missionaries came from different fields entirely.
“Only one other person in our team had come from ministry,” Clark said. “Others had come from the construction business. Some were school teachers, a few were factory workers. We even had one guy who worked for Nike. They were all planning on being in the field for the rest of their careers.”
Now, the SBC and affiliated agencies are working to assist these missionaries in their transition back to American life, which presents a whole new set of challenges.
Starting over again
Marc Howard, director of the Lee and Itawamba County Baptist Associations, said becoming a missionary is no easy task. Only about a tenth of those who apply actually make it through the screening process, which requires physical, psychological and spiritual evaluations, along with seemingly endless paperwork and recommendations.
“It takes between a year and two years to complete the screening,” Howard said. “Depending on where you’re going, you might have to learn a new language. It’s also required for our missionaries to be debt free when they go into the field.”
In the past, Howard said, missionaries would raise their own funds by traveling and soliciting money from churches. This method often resulted in missionaries spending more time fundraising than actually being in the field.
“Now, a percentage of every church’s offering is directed toward international missions, and the International Mission Board directs those funds,” Howard said. “International missionaries are the pride of Southern Baptists – they’re the largest mission force in the world.”
Missionaries expect to spend at least six years abroad serving a number of functions. Some plant churches, others develop fledgling pastors in their assigned region, others teach in a seminary-style setting, like Clark.
“We taught at the University of Bucharest in Romania and focused on church planting,” Clark said. “It was very fulfilling. We’d minister to people and gather them into small groups. Hopefully, that would become a church plant.”
The Clarks returned in February of last year, but the bulk of recalled missionaries returned in December.
“Most of the people on our team are in their fifties, so it’s hard for them to find jobs. They never thought they’d have to start over again,” Clark said. “A good missionary doesn’t always equate to a good pastor or youth minister or music director.”
According to Howard, of the 1,000 missionaries returning home, between 50 and 60 have Mississippi ties. These missionaries are turning to churches to “adopt” them through their transition. Clark said Baptist congregations are rising to the occasion, like the churches in Hattisburg and Sumrall who helped support his family as they got back on their feet.
“These churches have really gone above and beyond,” he said.
The Woman’s Missionary Union is another organization endeavoring to re-situate returning missionaries. The WMU is hosting a retreat in Clinton next weekend to connect these missionaries with church staff in the state. Church representatives were asked to compile a list of jobs that may be open within their church or district.
“We’re thankful that the Mississippi Baptist Convention has such a strong support system,” said WMU executive director Cindy Townsend. “Most of them have served most of their adult life in the field. Whatever connections they had in business have likely been severed. Their challenges range from simply getting all their possessions here to trying to find a home and transportation.”
The Macedonian Call Foundation was assisting in loaning vehicles and automotive services to these missionaries. Mississippi Churches, individuals and associations have offered up 22 houses and apartments in the state to provide temporary housing for the missionaries.
“It’s a team effort,” Townsend said. “The WMU has been collecting gift cards to places like Wal Mart and Subway, cards for practical things that can be used anywhere in the state. We’re also trying to pair the missionaries with retired missionaries who know the experience of moving back home.”
Howard, Townsend and Clark were all optimistic, and said the reduction in international missionaries is temporary.
“We hated to see it happen, but I thought the leadership made a wise decision,” Clark said. “I think we’ll rally and see an increase , especially with so many churches around stepping up.”
Howard said the next few years would be a mere adjusting to the SBC’s way of doing mission.
“In general, the convention was strategic in who they relocated. Our emphasis now is on areas of the world where people haven’t heard the gospel at all,” Howard said. “There will always be a place for the career missionary.”
Townsend said that place might be right here in America.
“This is something we never dreamed of seeing as Southern Baptists,” Townsend said. “America has never been so diverse in culture and language. I think a lot of the skills missionaries used abroad could be applied here, as well. This is a time to stop, assess and pray. We’ve always been a denomination that wants to grow and reach.”