A year and a day after his unanimous election to head American Baptists’ international mission enterprise, Hector M. Cortez found himself out of a job.
American Baptist Churches, U.S.A., Board of International Ministries voted June 25 in executive session to fire Cortez as executive director, saying the board “lost confidence in his leadership.”
A news release did not elaborate on reasons behind the termination. Board president Elizabeth Burger, pastor of Freedom in Christ Baptist Church in Middlesex, N.J., did not respond to an e-mail seeking additional comment.
Cortez’ brief tenure was marked by transition.
Hailed as “a motivator and visionary,” International Ministries hired Cortez last June 24 away from another American Baptist organization, National Ministries, where he was associate director, specializing in cross-cultural ministries.
Taking office July 1, Cortez faced a financial challenge. In November International Ministries reported a $3 million shortfall between mission gifts and commitments for 2004, prompting a 20 percent reduction in staff, program cuts and reduced overhead. No missionaries were recalled, but Cortez said at the time he could not rule out the possibility if further cuts were required.
International Ministries responded with a new strategy, called Missionary Partnership Teams, which asked missionaries to take an increased role in fund-raising. The teams, gathered by missionaries themselves, consist of small groups of people providing spiritual, emotional and financial support to one or more missionaries.
The plan, to be phased in over seven years, does not require missionaries to raise their own support single-handedly, but would require that all missionaries be involved in establishing personal relationships with churches and individuals desiring more personal involvement in missions.
Sources say some missionaries grumbled when on the heels of 11 terminations of home staff, Cortez filled two upper management positions with friends of his, prompting accusations of cronyism. About 40 missionaries wrote an open letter criticizing Cortez last fall, and others later signed on.
Other criticism of Cortez concerned a “top down” leadership style and a lack of appreciation for the ways International Ministries had functioned in the past.
The International Ministries board initially defended Cortez, telling the missionaries they should have gone directly to him with their concerns instead of airing them in an open letter. Missionaries on the field thought the controversy was over, until the board abruptly fired Cortez at its semi-annual meeting in June.
The board announced the action in a two-sentence statement released through American Baptist News Service: “After much prayerful deliberation and discernment, the Board of International Ministries terminated the employment of Rev. Hector Cortez as executive director because the board lost confidence in his leadership. The board wishes Rev. Cortez well in his future ministry.”
The board did not announce the vote to terminate Cortez, but one report circulating on the Internet counted it as 50-2 with one abstention.
Charles H. Jones, a former pastor and Baptist leader in Liberia, was named acting executive director. He has served with International Ministries since 1997, most recently as area director for North, West and Central Africa.
“The Board of International Ministries will continue moving forward into the God-given vision expressed in the Go Global Strategic Plan adopted in November 1999,” Burger said in a news release announcing Jones’ appointment. “The board expresses its thankfulness for the continued commitment and dedication of all missionaries, staff and national partners to the wonderful ministry that God has done and will continue to do through International Ministries.”
The American Baptist Churches General Executive Council questioned International Ministries about a process it said “did not afford dignity” to Cortez.
“We affirm that the leadership and members of the Board [of International Ministries] pursued this serious matter with diligence and faithfulness,” the executive council said in a June 28 statement. “We affirm that they are people of integrity and wisdom. We appreciate that the officers and the board sought competent legal advice.”
“However, we, the members of the General Executive Council of the ABCUSA, are concerned about the process as it pertains to the relationships within our family. Based on our perception, we feel that the process did not afford dignity to the Rev. Cortez. We grieve the brokenness this has created within our body and pledge to work for reconciliation and advocate for a better process in the future.”
Roy Medley, general secretary of ABCUSA, who chaired the search committee that recommended Cortez in 2003, said in a statement: “In these extremely difficult circumstances we lift in prayer Rev. Cortez, the staff, missionaries and the Board of International Ministries, and indeed our whole family of churches, confident that his gifts will be used by God and that God’s grace and mercy will draw us toward God’s vision for our common life.”
Cortez succeeded John Sundquist as head of International Ministries. Sundquist held the post 14 years before retiring last August.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.