With a budget shortfall in the tens of millions, the Southern Baptist Convention -- the largest missionary group in the U.S. -- has cut its missionary force by almost 1,000.
One out of every five Southern Baptist missionaries overseas has agreed to voluntarily leave their post, the Religion News Service reports.
In 2009, the Convention employed more than 5,600 missionaries, according to Christianity Today. That number was reduced to about 4,700 by August 2015.
As of late February, there were 3,800 missionaries. Ongoing financial troubles for the organization, which has spent $210 million more than it collected in donations since 2010, have led to the decrease.
The financial troubles follow a general trend of decreasing membership in the Convention, the second-largest Christian body in the U.S. behind the Catholic Church. Membership has dropped from about 16.3 million in 2003 to less than 15.5 million in 2016.
“The denomination was founded as a missionary-sending denomination, and to cut back the numbers is very significant and it’s something they’ve tried to avoid for several years,” Bert Hickman of the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary told the Religion News Service in November 2015.
Although missionaries from other organizations are often volunteers, Southern Baptist views missionary work as one of its core projects -- and pays missionaries a salary to live and evangelize overseas. Missionaries typically earn about $51,400 annually, a figure that includes reimbursements for expenses and lodging.
Church leaders say they're looking at restructuring the organization's finances to make ends meet but they remain committed to missionary work.
“We have not been able financially to sustain that number of missionaries on the field," said David Platt, president of the Convention's International Mission Board.
Tim Cearley, a lifelong missionary who agreed to retire as part of the Convention's latest round of cuts, hopes to focus on proselytizing in the U.S., especially to foreign students and foreign nationals working in the country.
“They go back home without ever really feeling the love of an American, much less the good news of Christ,” Cearley said. “We can just help awaken the eyes of Americans, but also Southern Baptists. We want them to be on mission where God puts them, where God has them.”