AUSTIN, Texas (TEXAN)—If ever a pin could have been heard dropping, it was on Tuesday morning (Feb. 25) as International Mission Board President Tom Elliff surprised the board of trustees with news of his resignation. A handful of trusted colleagues and board members sworn to secrecy kept their word so the veteran pastor and missionary could relate the news from his own heart.
“God gave me what is specific leadership,” Elliff said in recalling a moment months ago when he was awakened to sit by his fireplace and be alone with God. He discerned “not only the decision he wanted me to make, but that I was to make it now,” he explained, aware that his three-year tenure had been brief.
Former board chairman Jimmy Pritchard picked up on what some might view as a frustration, recalling advice he received from another Texan when the presidential search team drew close to settling on Elliff in 2011. “Richard Land said, ‘Three years with Tom Elliff would be better than 10 years with anyone.’”
Pritchard, pastor of First Baptist Church of Forney and SBTC president, voiced the depth of gratitude expressed during a standing ovation to thank Elliff and his wife Jeanie for the determined pace they’d kept in ministry in serving the missionaries deployed worldwide by the largest non-Catholic denomination.
“He has given us a passion for what matters,” added current board chairman David Uth, pastor of First Baptist Church in Orlando. “Everyone of us in this room has had an incredible blessing of serving with Tom Elliff.”
Uth told the board, “had it been anybody else, I would have said, ‘Lets talk about this,’ but I have never served with anyone whom I felt walked more closely with the Lord.”
Uth quickly appointed the committee that will seek Elliff’s successor, saying he had sought input from Pritchard, who chaired the last search. Uth said he added himself as a member of the search committee and named himself as chairman after noting he has only one meeting left as chairman of the board. There are no other members of the search team from Florida. “I really believe God has given me the most incredible opportunity I’ve never asked for. You didn’t see this coming and you wouldn’t, but it’s appropriate we now move through the agenda.”
Staff and trustees alike conversed in the hallway after the news was announced, clearly moved by their association with the Elliffs. Uth reminded the board to keep their focus on the missionary mandate.
“The stuff that doesn’t matter? Hey, it’ll be all right,” he said in remarks delivered prior to an hour-long plenary session.
Psalm 46:10 provided Elliff with the text for his decision, he said, quoting it. “‘Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations.’”
He encouraged the search to be done with “utmost expediency, but not with careless haste or abandon” and “with prayerful and tireless deliberation.” His instruction to the few staff members with whom he had confided prior to the announcement was to “do this the way it ought to be done—not just the right thing, but the right thing the right way.”
Jeannie Elliff, who has been a constant partner in ministry, echoed her husband’s appeal for prayerful and tireless deliberation. “Praying for the new leader to come,” she told the TEXAN following the news, adding that her prior battle with cancer did not motivate her husband’s decision. She noted a recent doctor’s visit found them both in good health.
“There’s one person out there whom God has right now,” Elliff reminded trustees as he reiterated the board’s responsibility to pray for the search committee. “We must work and pray together as we have to make this transition as seamless and effective as possible,” he added, cautioning that field personnel “don’t need any hiccups.”
Reflecting briefly on his tenure, Elliff said, “As I look at the many initiatives we’ve seen put in place by working together—and that’s the key word, together—over these years, both the pace and the implementation of those initiatives has been almost breathtaking to me.”
He marveled at how easily the changes he championed were accomplished, crediting the grace of God and harmonious spirit of staff, trustees and personnel serving abroad.
Taking a moment to compose himself, Elliff concluded, “So here’s what I want you to know—you can rest assured in this—we’re going to run through the finish line.” Not ones to say they weren’t up to it or drop their bags and give up, Elliff said he and his wife would run the course the Lord set before them with wholehearted reserve. “Along with you, we must go together to the ends of the earth.”
Additional Florida Baptists serving as IMB trustees are Debbie Brunson, First Baptist Church, Jacksonville; Waylon B. Moore, Christ Fellowship, Tampa; Richard Powell, McGregor Baptist Church, Fort Myers; and Marvin Pittman, First Baptist Church, Bartow.
Uth told the Witness Elliff has done a “tremendous job and will be deeply missed by missionaries, staff and trustees. We have learned to love Tom and Jeannie over the past three years and wish them all the best in the years ahead.
“My greatest appreciation for Tom is his passion for lostness,” Uth said, on a more personal note. “He weeps every time he talks of the lostness of the nations!”
Brunson said: “Southern Baptists owe Tom Eliff a genuine debt of gratitude. The IMB has never been stronger, our mission clearer, and our commitment deeper. Tom and Jeannie have been true servant leaders who have challenged us to give more, go more, and do more for Kingdom work around the world.”
Responding strongly to Elliff’s announcement, Waylon Moore, a former pastor and IMB trainer, called Elliff “irreplaceable.”
“I was shocked at his resignation,” Moore told the Witness. “He has successfully led us to penetrate unengaged, and unreached people groups; (and) blessed us with practical new ideas to advance the number of missionaries serving. His warmth, servant heart, and strong work ethic made every Trustee meeting a joy. He is irreplaceable. But God has His man being prepared. My heart is heavy at his going.”
Powell, senior pastor at McGregor, asked Florida Baptists to join him in prayer.
“Dr. Elliff has been tremendous blessing to all Southern Baptists during his three year service as our president. As one SBC leader said, ‘Three years under Tom Elliff is like 15 years under almost any other person’s leadership.’ I agree.
“Join me in praying for Tom and Jeannie in this time of transition and pray for the search committee as they seek God’s new and perfect leader for IMB,” Powell said.
With additional reporting by Joni B. Hannigan, managing editor of Florida Baptist Witness.
Tammi Reed Ledbetter is managing editor for the Southern Baptist Texan, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.
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