Virgil Olson, Missions Motivator
Both Virgil and Carol met us as we were changing planes. Carol gave our Benji a set of David C Cook's Bible stories in cartoon form, which he read over and over again. They also gave our boys some cassette tapes of stories, which they literally have memorized. Actually, we don't know if these were the thought of Carol or Virgil. But it is something that has dropped into the spiritual development bank of our kids, and we appreciate this thoughtfulness.
Jim and Barb Jacobson's recollection of their last moments on American soil tell a lot about the man who has led Baptist General Conference world missions since 1975.
Virgil Olson, ably supported by his wife Carol, brought to the job a pastor's heart. Those who have worked closest to him see him as much a personal counselor as an administrator. His concerns for people always overshadowed his concern for programs.
An only child, Virgil is the son of the late Adolf and Esther Olson. He describes his parents as being at their best with the common people, "the salt of the earth." His father's piety, theology and lifestyle reflected above all else the grace of God. Although circumstances kept the older Olsons from their dream of becoming missionaries, they were able to instill in their son a concern for people far away, who needed to hear of God's grace. "AS a young boy,l never knew which missionary I'd wake up with in the morning, because my parents always opened our home to furloughed missionaries."
His home church Bethany, St. Paul he recalls as being missionary, minded. From this influence and from the countless missionary biographies he read, young Virgil concluded that the greatest thing in the world would be to become a missionary. He remembers others who encouraged him too. Like Esther Sabel, professor of Greek and Christian education at Bethel Seminary, who clipped articles from the American Baptist Foreign Missions paper and sent them home with Adolf for Virgil to read.
From his own family, his uncle and aunt, Walfred and Ann Danielson, went to India. "When I visited India the first time, many places were recognizable because I'd seen so many of the Danielsons' pictures."
Prior to his coming into the world missions office both Virgil and Carol studied for a month at Fuller Seminary's School of World Mission, desiring to prepare themselves as much as possible for what lay ahead.
When Virgil came into leadership of BGC world missions he came as a man of prayer. His heart cry was that he be both visionary and practical, emphasizing that we must walk more by faith, less by sight Carol is also a person of great faith and prayer. Often she has picked up the phone to call the office and ask what needs she could pray for.
His experience as a teacher sharpened his communications ability, so he never seemed to be without words. Soon he was asked to prepare research papers for the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association. "Women's Role in Missions Today" and "The Unsupervised Missionary" were two papers which he shared in the wider circle.
He came with his missiology pretty well worked out. Reading a lot of the mission strategy which developed in the 1950s and '60s, his ideas of partnership had roots. It is something b he had been thinking about for years. His historical perspectiveknowing where we came from and where we should be going has affected many decisions.
Virgil Olson came into the office as a proven administrator, having seen Bethel College through its relocation process. Not one to leave loose ends dangling for any length of time, he sees a thing through.
One of the things that has made it fun to work under Virgil is that when he gives the staff a job to do he not only expects them to do it but he backs them up. He affirms his staff, never embarrassing or contradicting them. He brings out the best in people.
A Man of Many Goals
But what has he done for missions? Virgil came to world missions leadership with specific goals¬goals based on needs he saw. He had helped pen the overall Conference mission goal, and then as head of the mission was responsible for implementing programs to better focus activities toward that goal.
One goal was to heighten the communication level of missions. The number of speaking assignments he's carried out in Conference churches indicates he's been an able articulator for missions. His 'From My Perspective" column in the Standard has had wide readership, and his fourpage "Go Between" has given cohesiveness to the mission family.
Aware that national churches would have to be given more recognition, he instituted the partnership concept "Our mission has made rapid progress as most others in this," he feels. But he's not unaware of the problems partnership may cause for some missionaries.
One of the greatest needs during his term in office has been management control, to get more mileage from missionary dollars. "If we'd spent what the Conference promised us [what they voted in yearly budgets], we would be close to $900,000 in the hole. But they didn't give it to us, so we set up a program to be fiscally responsible. We've lived not only within our budget but within our income."
A fourth need Virgil saw was to develop more flexible types of programs to meet emergencies. When we had a surplus of medical missionaries after turning most of our medical work in Ethiopia over to the government, we helped alleviate a shortage the North American Baptists were facing in Cameroon. When World Relief Corporation desperately needed medical help for their refugee program in Thailand, we sent one of our doctornurse teams. A skilled communications team, unable to return to Ethiopia, now is assigned to Daystar in Kenya, where the couple teaches and helps prepare learning materials for non readers in Ethiopia.
A fifth need to develop a missions education program for our churchesis still beyond us because we lack both resources and manpower to do it.
When asked what his greatest joy has been during these six years, Virgil thought for a moment. "Well, I've certainly enjoyed my fellowship with the missionaries and staff, but then I had similar fellowship at Bethel. I would have to say my greatest joy has been the opportunity to get acquainted with Christian leaders in the nonWestern world to have the privilege of a global friendship, realizing the wonders of the household of faith."
That feeling is mutual. One of the Ethiopian believers received a note from Virgil after his visit "Look at this," he exclaimed. "He's the first person like this to have written especially to me to say thank you and to tell me that I'm a partner with him." Again, people above programs.
Not a traditionalist, Virgil has tried to get us to think new thoughts. The missionaries know that. So does his staff. But one wonders how many of the churches have recognized it. The greatest disappointment to Virgil, the one that has caused him the greatest concern, is the paucity of support from churches. "It's a very disconcerting feeling to see that churches are spending proportionately more on themselves and less and less on global evangelism. That's been the heaviest, most frustrating aspect of my missions career."
Those who understand inflation and the purchasing power of the dollar know ifs been pretty much of a hold, break even time for missionary dollars. He had higher expectations than that
An article about Virgil wouldn't be complete without mention of his humor. It's incomparable! He has learned not to take himself too seriously. But about the things that are important the grace of God, people, unmet budgets he's very serious.
Those of you who have heard him speak or who read his column regularly, know the important place Virgil's family has had in his ministry, He has left Carol for weeks at a time on his overseas trips and on almost endless weekend assignments. The several times she did accompany him overseas the letters of appreciation about her equalled those about her husband.
Virgil and Carol have handed down to their three children their concern for others. Linda (Mrs. George Gianoulis), with a degree in teaching English as a second language, teaches Spanish at St. Paul Bible College. Ann (Mrs. Robert Neilsen) is a recreational therapist, working with mentally ill patients. Dan, in his final stages of earning his Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Chicago, is teaching part time at Wheaton College.
Florence Jacobson is editor of world missions publications for the Baptist General Conference. Used with permission from The Standard, July 1981.
I believe that God who is on mission is opening the door to evangelicals around the world for another great movement in world evangelism.
At the beginning of this century, one of the greatest programs for recruitment of volunteers for world missions was in full operation. It was the Student Volunteer Movement. A hundred thousand students on university and college campuses across America signed the pledge to be a part of the mission to "evangelize the world in this generation." 20,500 of their number actually became missionaries in foreign nations.
After a few decades, the fire of the SV movement died down. Mission zeal began to lag. But then at mid century another burst of mission energy took place following World War If. Young men and women who had returned from military service overseas challenged churches to respond to the open doors for missions, particularly in Africa and Asia. Many new mission societies were organized. Radio ministries were established. Relief programs, often associated with evangelical mission programs, significantly underscored missions as being both creeds and deeds. Of the 663 mission agencies listed in the 12th edition of the Mission Handbook, 405 were organized following World War II, using 1944 as the first year of record.
It was my privilege to be a part of this post war mission advance in my own denomination, the Baptist General Conference. The Conference decided in 1944 to organize its own foreign mission program. In a few years, missionaries were serving in ten nations.
During the past four decades churches have been planted in nearly every nation in the world. Partnership relationships are being developed between western and non western churches. However, many of the mission agencies have continued to concentrate their personnel in areas where churches have been planted. Only a small percentage (10 per cent or less) are directly engaged in pioneer strategies and mission penetration among the people groups who are without a Christian witnessing community.
But the mission perspective is changing!
There is a new awareness developing among Christian leaders, mission agencies, churches. Many are responding to the vision of reaching 16,750 human groupings of people with sociological, ethnic identities.
The very reason for the existence of the U.S. Center for World Mission is to develop strategies, mobilize mission agencies, churches, students to give primary priority to the task of planting churches among the many large blocs of people groups, the total of which include over half of the world's population.
The vision, this missionary challenge has drawn Mrs. Olson and me to Pasadena to be a part of a fellowship which is committed to "walk by faith," which believes that the bafflers to the frontiers of the unreached people groups (Hidden People) can be broken. Already the Spirit of God is moving. It is up to us to follow.
Because of the changing political structures, the peculiar distinctives of cultures resistant to the gospel throughout the centuries, we believe that strategies and methods of mission penetration need to be re evaluated, researched and re designed. The new situations will call for increased skills in communication, coupled with educated sensitivities to meet the priority needs of developing nations.
The William Carey International University campus is becoming a locale for front line thinking, training, research for the new missionary advance. Although the university program is in the early stages of development, I believe it already has the marks of promise of being a creative, constructive instrument to help develop legitimate and authentic cross cultural communication bridges with the many population blocs who are without the presence of a Christian witnessing community among them.
I grew up in a home which was influenced greatly by. the missionary challenge of the Student Volunteer Movement. Fresh out of theological seminary, I was privileged to be a part of the development of one of the many mission agencies that arose after the last great war. At this stage of my life, I can think of no greater privilege than to be at the center of mission research, strategy and mobilization, where the vision of the mission mandate is epitomized in the goal: A witnessing community of churches in each of the 16,750 people groups by the year 2000.
Dr. Virgil A. Olson President, William Carey International University March 11, 1982.