Shelia and Arville Earl speak at First Baptist Church in Savannah last month. (Jeff Brumley/ABPnews)
Shelia and Arville Earl speak at First Baptist Church in Savannah last month. (Jeff Brumley/ABPnews)

Retirement marks shift in CBF missions

Shelia and Arville Earl retired Sept. 30 after 20 years as CBF field personnel, reminding Fellowship Baptists that the face of global missions is ever-changing.

By Jeff Brumley

Arville and Shelia Earl have been eyewitnesses to the historic changes in missionary life the past three decades, first as Southern Baptists then as field personnel with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

But the shifts made possible by advances in communication — and necessary by theological shifts — likely will be nothing compared to the most recent change for the Georgia couple: their retirement from CBF in late September.

That milestone ended two decades serving in Albania and Macedonia, a period of service that included ministering through wars and major political and social upheavals in that region.

They told an audience at First Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., recently they will miss their friends and ministries in that part of the world, but will likely continue speaking at churches to promote global missions.

But even as the Earls find a new way to live out their ministry, their retirement serves as another reminder that the way CBF conducts global missions is evolving.

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When they came on board in 1994, CBF field personnel were primarily couples and had their basic living and operating expenses covered by the Fellowship. That has largely changed today. More singles are being commissioned and missionaries must raise all or most of their own funds — though more recently with fundraising help from CBF.

The Earls were among the earliest group of missionaries recruited by the then-fledgling Fellowship, leading the way in the organization’s commitment to reach populations largely ignored by other denominations.

“We have been pioneers in that,” Shelia Earl said of field personnel hired in the early 1990s to preach primarily through meeting social, health and educational needs instead of strict evangelism. “We broke out of that mold a long time ago.”

‘Ministry evangelism’

That time was one of great change in Baptist life and ushered in new approaches to mission work, said Keith Parks, CBF’s first global missions coordinator.

“We focused on unreached people and did not work through local Baptist conventions,” Parks said. “We set up teams based on the people they were working with, rather than focusing on nations.”

Some of those teams were naturally comprised of missionaries uncomfortable with the changes occurring in the SBC. But disenchantment with the convention wasn’t a qualification for becoming CBF field personnel, he said.

“We didn’t want malcontents,” Parks said.

CBF also wasn’t looking for missionaries interested solely in handing out Bibles and staging crusades. Instead, Parks said the emphasis was placed on meeting the core needs of the populations being served.

“The CBF model was less specifically on verbal evangelism and more ministry evangelism,” Parks said.

In migrating from the SBC, he added, the Earls made it to the top of the list at CBF and were quickly assigned to work with Albanians, including those living in neighboring Macedonia.

“They had a very strong ministry and were meeting needs of people — especially of children and single women,” said Parks, who retired in 1999.

‘Continuing ministry’

James Smith said he and his wife, Becky, are all that remains of the very first group of missionaries commissioned by CBF in 1993.

But Smith, interim CBF global missions coordinator, said Fellowship Baptists needn’t worry about a massive loss of experience in the missions field. He said about 30 field personnel appointed in the 1990s remain in service.

“These are valuable field personnel who continue to provide much needed stability for work around the world and for helping to provide an experienced network for continuing ministry,” he said.

Smith reflected that having such a long-serving cadre is especially encouraging given the Fellowship’s uncertain beginnings.

“When my wife and I came on, CBF as a whole was new and many predicted the movement would not last,” he said. “To have missionaries serving for 20 years shows stability.”

During their visit to First Baptist, Savannah, days before their Sept. 30 retirement, the Earls presented a picture of missions and ministry that was anything but stable.

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They shared how now-heralded educational, health care, community development and reconciliation ministries in Macedonia began on the fly as they ran through doors God suddenly opened for them.

Improvisation and creativity were the keys to building lasting relationships and ministries, Shelia Earl said.

And the couple said it’s something they will continue in retirement as they continue to speak at churches about the needs of the world’s underserved popluations.

“The underlying motto we have used … is that we who are the followers of Christ are to be the presence of Christ wherever we are and wherever we happen to be going,” Arville Earl said.