DALLAS—International Mission Board trustees elected as president of the missions agency Tom Elliff — a 67-year-old longtime Oklahoma pastor, one-time missionary and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. And despite his age, Elliff insists he has "no intention of being an interim."
Elliff received a unanimous vote by secret ballot at the trustees’ March 16 meeting in Dallas, said IMB Trustee Chairman Jimmy Pritchard, pastor of First Baptist Church in Forney, who led the presidential search committee.
The committee received 80 names of missionaries, pastors and educators submitted by about 300 individuals before bringing in four men for second interviews, but members could not reach consensus until Elliff’s name came up in a Dec. 13 conference call, Pritchard reported.
“God spoke to every one of us. God’s peace settled upon us. This is God’s man,” Pritchard said in a telephone press conference with representatives from Baptist newspapers.
Southern Baptists have entered “a new day” in terms of “an incredible unity of partnership” between the IMB, the North American Mission Board and the convention-related seminaries, Pritchard said, adding, “Dr. Elliff is the glue that will hold it together.”
Elliff dismissed concerns about his age, saying, “I have no intention of being an interim.”
Looking at biblical examples, Elliff concluded: “When God calls a man, the issue has never been his age. It has been his obedience.”
Elliff acknowledged he “had to pray about whether to pray about it” when Pritchard initially contacted him. But once he “sensed God’s favor” and responded positively, he added, “God began to paint a vision on the walls of my heart.”
Three questions will guide the IMB as long as he is the agency’s president, Elliff pledged:
• Is it biblical? Unless every decision is measured against the “plumb line” of Scripture, missions agencies risk being “carried away by the stream of sentimentalism” or “the stream of pragmatism,” he asserted. Elliff noted he hopes to bring on administrative staff “someone to wave the banner for theological cohesion.”
• Is it balanced? Specific strategies change, but every IMB program should be evaluated to ensure a balance between evangelism, discipleship and church planting, he said.
• Is it bold? “We don’t have time not to be bold,” he insisted. “Being bold is not always neat and clean. Sometimes it’s messy.”
The greatest challenges the missions agency faces are the world’s overwhelming spiritual lostness and the urgency of mobilizing churches to take the gospel of Christ to all people groups, Elliff said in an interview with Erich Bridges, an IMB global correspondent.
“We must realize that we’re in a world that is hostile to the message of the gospel, yet there are so many people who are longing to hear,” Elliff said. “That’s why we must go to the uttermost now. Frankly, I think we live in a generation of students who are asking: ‘Why do we keep hearing about these unreached people groups? Why don’t we just go reach them?’ I believe we are seeing, even in our own convention, a groundswell of men and women of all ages who have the heart and are willing to go to the unreached now.”
Elliff succeeds Jerry Rankin as president of the mission board, which serves Southern Baptists and the 5,000 missionaries they send worldwide. Rankin retired July 31, 2010, after 17 years as IMB president. Executive Vice President Clyde Meador has served as interim president during the search for a new leader.
Rankin, who recruited Elliff to a high-level IMB assignment during his tenure, praised his successor.
“Tom brings an amazing combination of qualities to the task,” Rankin said. “He has a deep personal walk with the Lord that inspires and challenges others. His heart for missions grows out of a personal calling. His understanding of mission strategy comes from years of involvement as a missionary, pastor and senior executive team member at IMB. He has great communication skills, genuine passion to reach a lost world, the favor and respect of missionaries and IMB staff, and he is well-connected with the churches and Southern Baptist Convention leadership.”
Southern Baptist Convention President Bryant Wright, who attended the trustee meeting, also praised Elliff’s election.
“Tom Elliff is a pastor, a missionary, a godly man and a prayer warrior,” said Wright, pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga. “The preparation of God in this is just fantastic. I’m excited, and I’m thankful that the search committee kept waiting on God, for God’s timing and God’s man. They are to be commended.”
Born in Northeast Texas, Elliff is a third-generation pastor. He served with his wife, Jeannie, as a missionary to Zimbabwe in the early 1980s. They resigned in 1983 after their daughter, Beth, was seriously injured in a car accident there.
Elliff was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1996 and 1997. He has led several churches in the denomination, including First Southern Baptist Church of Del City, Okla., where he was pastor from 1985 to 2005.
Elliff served as IMB senior vice president for spiritual nurture and church relations from 2005 to 2009. In that role, he taught and counseled missionaries and helped mobilize Southern Baptist churches for missions involvement.
Since then, he has led Living in The Word Publications, a writing and speaking ministry he founded. He is the author of numerous books about prayer, spiritual awakening and family life.
I have a huge burden on my heart for spiritual awakening,” Elliff said. “Perhaps God may be gracious enough to choose the IMB as a catalyst for spiritual awakening in our nation.”