The Southern Baptist Convention's international mission agency will cut its overseas force by as many as 600 missionaries in 2010.
Due to a severe budget shortfall, the International Mission Board decided to reduce the number of missionaries it has on the field, with the process already starting this year. The board will not bring home missionaries already serving on the field, but the reduction instead will result from natural attrition.
"We are simply not going to be sending as many new missionaries," explained Wendy Norvelle, IMB spokesperson, to The Christian Post on Wednesday.
Some missionaries serve two- to three-year terms, Novelle pointed out, and the IMB will simply let those terms expire. Other long-term missionaries will retire or resign to take on positions in other ministries.
There are currently a little above 5,500 IMB missionaries overseas and the plan is to decrease that number to about 5,000 by the end of 2010.
The decision to reduce the missionary force is based on several factors, but mostly because of the economy, Norvelle said.
IMB has three major sources of income: regular offering in churches through the Cooperative Program, investments, and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, which makes up more than half of the agency's annual budget.
Last year, all three sources of income were down by millions of dollars each. The 2008 Lottie Moon Christmas Offering was $9 million less than the total received in 2007. Moreover, it was $29 million short of the $170 million goal.
A smaller budget means less money to support overseas missionaries.
Norvelle said reducing the number of missionaries will have an effect on the Southern Baptist Convention's mission work.
"Obviously, what we are about is taking the Gospel to people who never had the opportunity to hear and sending fewer people means there will be fewer forces and personnel on the field taking the Gospel where it needs to go," she said.
"So yes, it will affect us. We are not able to, for instance, put some new personnel in an unreached people group."
But Norvelle said SBC churches are widely becoming aware that the resources provided for mission work were not adequate and are discussing the concern. Many SBC leaders are "sounding the alarm" and saying the situation is unacceptable, she said.
"Southern Baptist [churches] took in $12 billion in 2008 in their offering plate," the IMB spokesperson pointed out. "And so some of it may be a matter of priority of how churches choose to spend their dollar. Whether they use it to focus on reaching the lost world or spend it on programs and ministries that benefit themselves."
The International Mission Board is an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest evangelical denomination. The SBC claims more than 40,000 churches with nearly 16 million members.