Commodities: Cash-Strapped Missionaries Get a New Calling: Home

By Tamara Audi 
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Peter and Jennie Stillman felt a divine calling to preach the gospel abroad. So the Southern Baptist couple left Texas with their three young daughters 25 years ago and became missionaries in Southeast Asia.

Now, the Stillmans are responding to a new call: early retirement. They are among hundreds of Southern Baptist missionaries working abroad who are being summoned home in a move to slash costs, after years of overspending to support missionary work around the world led to budget problems.

“There’s definitely a sense of this being premature, but definitely a sense, too, of sovereign direction from God,” said Mr. Stillman, 59.

The International Mission Board, an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention with 4,800 missionaries and 450 support staff, plans to cut 600 to 800 people from its workforce, a 15% reduction. It is starting by offering voluntary early retirement to veteran missionaries.

Since 2010, the organization has spent $210 million more than it has taken in, officials said. Last year, it had a $21 million shortfall.

The cuts to the program, considered America’s flagship evangelical missionary organization, underscore a fundamental change in mission work as the church becomes more global and the tradition of lifetime assignments for Christian missionaries sent “from the West to the rest” declines.

“There are seismic shifts happening in the nature of missions,” said Jim Ramsay, vice president of The Mission Society, an organization with Methodist roots based in Norcross, Ga. “Our role is changing, and our dominance is changing.”

Mr. Ramsay, a missionary in Kazakhstan for a decade, said that as Christianity spreads, people in the pews are asking if it still makes sense to send American preachers to foreign countries.

“Why would I pay for an American to go to Sri Lanka when I can send an Indian?” he said. “Americans are more expensive.”

Financial realities are forcing some of the cutbacks. The International Mission Board, with an annual budget of $300 million, spends an average of about $50,000 a year per missionary, according to officials.

The organization is supported by church donations, largely collected in its annual Lottie Moon fund drive over Christmas. Giving to the fund, named for a Southern Baptist woman who served as a missionary in China in the 1870s, hit record levels before the recession, and the organization expanded to 5,600 missionaries by 2009. But when the U.S. recession hit, donations stalled.

Giving has recently recovered, reaching new highs of more than $150 million in 2013 and 2014, but that still fell short of an annual fundraising goal of $175 million needed to bridge the gap, officials said. The IMB began reducing its numbers through attrition and cut back on the number of new missionaries it sent. It tapped reserve funds and sold property, but that wasn’t enough to bring the budget into line and stabilize its finances for the long term.

David Platt, a charismatic 37-year-old minister who was appointed president of the IMB last year, said sending Americans abroad for mission work “absolutely remains a priority.”

“We will still send people who are packing their bags and moving overseas with the goal of not coming back, if that’s what the Lord leads them to do,” he said. “At the same time, we want to look at the opportunity for people to go for more short-term assignments, a year or two.”

To be more cost-effective, he said, the IMB might consider sending more missionaries overseas as corporate employees, with college programs or as retirees.

Those eligible for the early retirement offer–staff and missionaries age 50 and older with at least five years of full-time service–have until early November to accept the offer and early December to make a final decision.

“This is one of the hardest moments in the organization’s history,” said IMB spokeswoman Wendy Norvelle, who has worked with the organization for 37 years. “We have personnel around the world who have given their lives to share God’s love.”

Mrs. Norvelle, 62, has decided to take the early retirement offer.

For the Stillmans, the missionaries in Southeast Asia, retirement will allow them to return home to the U.S. and help care for aging parents and be closer to grandchildren. Still, Mr. Stillman said, “leaving is going to be a difficult thing.”

The Stillmans raised their children abroad and learned the local and national languages of their mission country, which they declined to name to safeguard local staff and friends who they say might be persecuted there for affiliating with Christians.

His wife, Jennie, a classically trained soprano, would often fill their home with neighborhood children to help them do school work. When they tried moving to a village, however, some who objected to the presence of missionaries threatened to burn down their house. They moved.

“I’m very optimistic about what the church and the country we’re leaving can accomplish,” he said. “I’m not saying that I like that we’re having to pull back. But God has other ideas in mind.”

Write to Tamara Audi at tammy.audi-wsj.com