From the Field: A Missionary Reflects on Platt’s Tenure

IMB President David Platt asked the trustees of the IMB to begin searching for his replacement.

I could stop there, get some popcorn, and open up the comments section. I never thought I’d outlast the Energizer Bunny. We assumed Elliff’s brief presidency would remain an aberration, and Platt would resume the tradition of long-serving presidents.

I realize you’re all waiting with baited (bated?) breath for my opinion. “Please,” you beg, “tell us all about your own personal, field-based perspective so we can assume you speak for everyone. Let the golden words drip from your lips to our ears.”

I hear your cry, my children.

++++++

We searched for the perfect hire for 6 months and got three and a half years. So…roughly seven months of service for every 30 days of searching.

I expected more.

People decry the ever-declining average tenure of an IMB worker. I believe it lies somewhere south of 7 years, a number skewed by the loss of many long-term workers during the VRI and HRO. Still – I didn’t think turnover at the top would be part of that shortening trend.

I don’t like it.

Here’s a small collection of slightly paraphrased responses from my circle of colleagues; I emphasize these are my contacts because it’s possible we fly together because our perspectival plumages are similarly colored.*

“Not even four years? Did he sign up for an apprentice term or something?”“All this talk of sacrifice and commitment for less than 4 years of service? Good riddance, Mr. Radical.”

“Oh, did the plane land? Or have we crashed in the mountains? Last I heard we were still at 10,000 feet.”

“Seems to be a bad time to leave, with the organization still in such chaos.”

*Small sample size, take with a grain of salt.

As you’ll see below, I consider Platt’s tenure to be a qualified success. Even so, I can’t avoid a sense of incompleteness, as if he’s leaving before completing the job of re-organizing. I appreciate his passion, distinct in its expression from the quiet, resolute demeanors of Rankin and Elliff.

But it begs the question: did his fervor – like Rutger Hauer’s spark in “Bladerunner” – burn brightly yet necessarily briefly?

++++++

Platt’s legacy should be his willingness to streamline the organization so it functioned in a financially sound fashion for years to come. In reality, he’ll always be the guy who brought in Sebastian “The Executioner” Traeger to trim the fat. And by “fat” I mean expenditures, which means jobs.*

*Yes, this is an overly simplistic definition of Traeger’s work. I’m truly sorry, Sebastian, wherever you are, because you deserve more. Become IMB prez and we’ll talk.

To avoid verbosity, allow me to bullet-point:

  • Repaired financial damage
  • Restructured organization for better efficiency
  • Reduced internal, top-heavy structure
  • Simplified Manual for Field Personnel (MFP)
  • ­Rolled back rules on missionary candidates, including divorced candidates
  • Changed emphasis from evaluating missionary effectiveness based on baptisms to faithful sharing of the gospel
  • Improved accountability, especially of middle and upper management
  • Created new pathways for partnerships and field workers
  • Reorganized support positions in order to maintain field focus on missions

He hired smart people. While their decisions were painful and sometimes poorly executed, those were desperate days. The times were uncertain, and much anguish accompanied the resignations, layoffs, and firings.

Despite the pain, Platt had a successful tenure. He stood up and did what was unpopular but necessary in order to continue the work for God’s kingdom.

+++++++

I struggle with the notion that all this upheaval was worth it. I know we needed to arrange things financially, and that required a more efficient structure. I’m thrilled we’ve achieved this, and I acknowledge that a smooth system often suffers from invisibility. Giving credit is difficult when you don’t notice things are error-free.

I guess I thought my working environment would change somehow. I imagined improved supervision, more efficient affinity structures, greater transparency.

Ah, that’s a sensitive one: transparency.

We have four departments: Training, Mobilization, Support, and Global Engagement. I could not tell you what those first two are doing, despite the emphasis on greater internal communication. For all the talk of becoming a more cohesive organization free of personal fiefdoms and informational silos, from the field we seem to be just as fractured. I cannot perceive any connections with sections of the organization which are intended to be a part of the work we do. Without the ability to force anyone to talk to me, I sit back and realize I’m better off assuming they don’t even exist.

No one should shoulder the blame for this – not Platt, Traeger, or the trustees – but I wonder what changed. Are we just leaner, but otherwise exactly the same? I honestly do not know; and my ignorance certainly isn’t anyone’s fault.

Where are we on the 100,000 church planting teams? What about the global initiative cities? And those US-based guys who were brought in because they were visionary enough to help the field – how did they pan out? Are more churches supporting their own field workers?I’m not being snarky here – really, how did it all work out?

++++++

When field workers leave, gossip grows like mold in spring. The more experienced among us have learned to listen to the reasons, and respond with a certain, um, insight (aka, cynicism).

You know – the family with the straight-A, freakishly gifted athletic daughter suddenly needs to leave for “academic reasons.” Six months later the kid is at a national sports training center. Or the family with a high standard of living that an IMB wage cannot support feels called to work as a self-supported missionary. Their house in southern Asia, paid for by donors, could only be described as palatial. A family leaves for “family reasons,” but you know it’s only because both their kids are about to have grandbabies.

But the reality is that we all know sometimes you make hard decisions and you hope no one challenges you. You pray and struggle and it never seems ok and yet you realize that even if you make a mistake in following God it’s still better than never even trying to follow Him at all. People look at you and think exactly what a friend told me about Platt, “Dude came here and made a huge mess. Fine – sometimes you have to. Of course, you should have the decency to hang around long enough to clean it up.”

And you still leave because giving in to the rumors and critics would be to turn your back on what you prayerfully discerned to be the right call.

I’ve learned to trust my colleagues in matters of calling. After all, I didn’t challenge anyone’s discernment when they chose to join this frail, flawed, human organization with a noble, worthy call. I didn’t question the judgment of those who join my team or pick me as a partner. Am I going to challenge Platt just because, in this one case, his personal calling inconveniences me?

It doesn’t change my feelings. I still chafe at his short tenure and the apparent chaos still extant; but I’ll trust my brother enough to let him go without too much judgment.

I’ll leave someday, and I might need the same grace.



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