Two weeks after laying off nearly a third of its St. Louis office staff and announcing that it also would bring home some of its missionaries, LCMS World Mission eliminated 28 overseas missionary positions -- one-fourth of its career-missionary force.
Eliminated were missionary posts in 18 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Central and South America.
The positions "run the gamut," according to LCMS World Mission Executive Director Robert Roegner, and include area directors, theological educators, church planters, business managers, volunteer coordinators and medical personnel. Most of the layoffs will take effect Jan. 31.
A sharp decline in donations to missions caused LCMS World Mission to take immediate steps to "live within its means." The mission board cut approximately $3 million from its current $29 million budget, and an additional $6 million from the spending plan initially proposed for the 2003-04 fiscal year.
Nearly 78 percent of the mission board's budget comes from individuals, congregations and others who make special gifts to LCMS World Mission, according to Roegner. The remaining 22 percent is derived largely from Sunday-morning offerings and has remained relatively steady.
"In a time of economic downturn, it is not surprising that these special gifts decline," he said. "I doubt that people are any less committed to the evangelization of the world or to the work of LCMS World Mission, but these are just not good economic times for many, many Lutheran people."
Mark Stuenkel, president of the LCMS Foundation, which raises money for LCMS World Mission and other Synod departments, agrees.
The drop in income, he says, "is related to the economy and to the serious two-and-a-half-year downturn in the stock market." He added that it "is affecting all charities," including LCMS districts and congregations.
"We just need to continue to be good stewards and to do as much as we can as individuals and people within the church body to move forward, despite the fact that these are tougher economic times," Stuenkel said.
Roegner called the missionaries individually to inform them of the elimination of their positions, and he noted the caring way in which many of them responded.
"I could never have been prouder of the kinds of people God has called to serve His church through LCMS World Mission than I was when I talked to these people," he said in a Dec. 13 letter to missionaries. "While I tried to minister to them over the phone, they ministered to me."
Several missionary posts were eliminated in Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), West Africa, and one in Eritrea, East Africa, leaving no resident LCMS missionaries in those countries. Mission work in those countries is expected to continue under the auspices of local Lutherans, as well as a nonresidential missionary model in Cote d'Ivoire.
Three other career-missionary positions in Brazil, India and South Africa also are being eliminated, but volunteers will continue work in those countries.
Other countries that have lost missionaries are Germany, Kazakhstan, Guatemala, Kenya, Nigeria, Togo, Japan, South Korea, Macau, Taiwan, Thailand, Venezuela and Vietnam. But other LCMS career and volunteer missionaries will continue to serve in those countries.
The eliminations include 24 missionary families or individuals who are being recalled from the field, and four who are accepting early-retirement offers. An additional three unfilled missionary positions will not be filled.
Among those who are taking early retirements are two area directors -- Rev. Robert Hartfield, who serves Central Europe and the Baltics, and Rev. John Duitsman, East Africa. A third, currently vacant, area-director position -- for Central America and Mexico -- will not be filled.
Roegner said an LCMS World Mission committee is studying the situation to determine how many area directors are needed and how their positions should be structured in relation to staff in St. Louis.
In addition, five of those whose positions were eliminated are considering calls from LCMS World Mission to vacant posts in Fort Wayne, Nigeria, Togo and Panama.
Another, Dr. Rudolph Blank, will continue to serve in Venezuela as a volunteer, along with his wife, Ramona. The Blanks are currently in the United States. They, and other LCMS missionaries serving Venezuela, will return to the South American country when the political situation stabilizes.
In his calls to missionaries, which took place Dec. 10 and 11, Roegner said he tried to "emphasize that although these people may be leaving foreign missionary service for a time, they are not leaving missionary service."
A growing number of Synod congregations are getting involved in evangelistic outreach, right in their own backyards, he said.
"Our returning missionaries should be able to assist the church in this necessary work," Roegner said.
Positions that were cut were "no less important than others," he said, but were seen as perhaps "more expendable in the total strategic plan of LCMS World Mission."
Roegner said the back-to-back staff layoffs have brought him to tears more often than in the previous 10 years of his ministry.
"My tears have been for not only those whose lives have been adversely affected, but also for the hundreds and even thousands who will not hear the saving message that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world," he said.
Still, he says he is committed to the mission board's goal of sharing the Good News of Jesus with 100 million unreached and uncommitted people during the next 15 years.
"I firmly believe that this challenge which we have placed before the church and ourselves -- to reach 100 million people by the 500th anniversary of the Reformation -- is a task God wants done," he said in his letter to missionaries. "Even as we have made our reductions, we have kept this goal ahead of us. Our strategies will change, but we will go forward. God can and will support us."
By Albert H. Lee