North American Mission Board President Kevin Ezell shared the total with leaders attending the annual Woman's Missionary Union board meeting on Jan. 9 at Shocco Springs Baptist Conference Center in Talladega, Ala.
"Thank you for all that you do," Ezell told the WMU gathering. "We are dependent upon you as you serve the Lord and promote the Annie Armstrong Offering. We are thankful for the $54.3 million from the offering and how that is being used." All funds from the offering go directly to pay the salaries and ministry needs of missionaries serving in North America.
"One of the blessings of being at NAMB the last three months has been learning the stories of our missionaries," Ezell said. He told of recently meeting an inner-city missionary serving Los Angeles, a church planting missionary in Connecticut and a church planter in Boston who is starting two churches, one English-speaking and one Russian-speaking.
"There are courageous heroes of the faith that we so often don't hear about," Ezell said. "And meeting them and hearing their stories has been a blessing."
WMU President Debby Akerman told attendees, "We pledge to continue praying for our brother as we've been doing. It's not always easy to give up what you desperately love doing to pursue what God wants you to do."
Turning to changes taking place at NAMB, Ezell said the goal is to bring more resources to the North American mission field. Of the 99 NAMB staff members who retired or accepted severance packages at the end of 2010, Ezell said, "We are going to operate with fewer people in Alpharetta for the sole purpose of more money going to missionaries on the field. We are going to save $6 million this year through those staff transitions."
Ezell said details of NAMB's new strategy and how it would be implemented will be shared at the Feb. 9 meeting of NAMB's board of trustees, but he gave insights into what to expect.
-- NAMB's Alpharetta staff will stay lean. "We don't all have to be in one location anymore," Ezell said. "You cannot judge the strength of an entity by how many are at its headquarters. You have to look at the efficiency and effectiveness of it out in the field."
-- State conventions are being asked to prioritize their work. "Right now we are working with each state and asking them to let us know their priorities," Ezell said. "And as a part of that, we are saying, 'These are our priorities. We are trying to narrow our focus.' And then we are asking, 'What is it that you do best? What is it that NAMB does best? And what is it we want to do together?'"
-- New money for church planting will be directed to areas with the largest unreached populations. "What we're going to do with the money we're getting from these reductions is to come into areas with the greatest lostness and put church planting on steroids and do it with a greater degree of intensity there. We are going to come up with a strategy that can be implemented everywhere, but when you have limited resources, you go with where the greatest degree of lostness is."
Ezell said executive directors from the state Baptist conventions "have been wonderful to work with and have been a huge help to me. I'm very grateful for them." He said discussions with state leaders have been about shifting more resources to "new work" states and that NAMB would have written agreements with every state convention that wanted one.
"There doesn't have to be whiplash on this," Ezell said. "We don't have to accomplish all of this by June. We are going to get there and we will find a way to get there together. It takes longer to do it together, but it will be a much better result in the end, and it will produce what we want."
Ezell said not all NAMB missionaries would focus exclusively on church planting. "We're going to have all sorts of missionaries, but they all need to be connecting people to a church. We want to help people, but it's help so they can see the Hope. And it's not just so they have a hope and it ends there, but it's about them getting connected to a local church. We're trying to make sure everything is church-focused."
Ezell took questions at the end of his presentation and was asked whether NAMB's work in missions education would continue. "It's not going away, but we want to utilize all of the partners available to us," he said. "We are in the process of making it better -- not to see it dissolve, but to utilize partners to do it even better."
In addition, he said NAMB's work with local associations will continue but might be accomplished in new ways, utilizing staff members outside the Alpharetta building.
Asked if he felt called by God to lead NAMB, Ezell replied he "absolutely felt called."
"Part of the reason I led my church the way I led it was I felt like the system was broken," Ezell said. "I didn't feel like enough money was reaching the missionaries. And I disengaged. But I feel like God said, 'Hey, it's put-up or shut-up time. Do you want to fix it? I'm going to let you fix it.'
"We have a lot of work to do," Ezell said. "I'm very excited about the future. Change is difficult, but with God's grace and help we are going to take it step by step and get there. I'm very excited about it."
The 2011 goal for the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions is $70 million. All money from the offering goes directly to missionaries serving on the field.
Mike Ebert is vice president of communications for the North American Mission Board.
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