How to treat and evaluate missionaries well

A friend sent this article to me recently. I heartily commend it to any of you who ever interact with missionaries. The author lists ten things missionaries struggle with but usually don’t tell people.

Our family served with a missions organization in Spain for only eleven months, and we knew it was short-term. Even still, we felt nearly all of these. We saw long-term missionaries there struggle with all of them.

(For what it’s worth, I watch pastors struggle with a few of these, too.)

That experience has helped us treat missionaries––and other pastors, where it pertains––with more charity. A few things that has included:

- Read newsletters and reply with empathy.
When we were in Spain, we sent occasional newsletters to friends and family about what we were doing. One friend, Barbara, replied to every single one. Some replies were only two or three sentences long. Even so, they meant a lot. Those brief replies were a nice reminder that someone from home was following and hadn’t forgotten us, as the linked article mentions.

For the missionaries we know, I now try to respond to their letters with a personal note. I especially look for something to celebrate with them, something to grieve with them, or something to pray about.

- Celebrate the things that may draw criticism or skepticism from others.
The author of the article is certainly right about the discomfort of sharing pictures from a vacation or anything else of the sort. He’s right, too, about anxiety over sharing results that may not sound impressive enough. When I see that missionary friends took a trip for fun, I especially try to celebrate that with them. When I see they tried something new and got a response (even a small one), I send a note to celebrate it.

- Scrutinize the integrity of the person and the credibility of their missions organization. Don’t scrutinize their budget or the exact nature of the work.
Our family has enough opportunity to support missionaries we know, so we’re not picking random people off a page. That means we already know them well enough to know if they’re faithful Christians and diligent workers. That’s of first importance to us. I’m happy to support someone like this, even if they don’t know exactly what they’ll be doing. Put a hard-working, faithful Christian on a mission field, and I’m sure something good will come.

Over the years, I’ve had a handful of requests for support from people whose work ethic or depth of faith was questionable. We chose not to fund those.

I also want to know that the missions organization someone is serving is reputable and has good systems of accountability in place. That makes more sense than scrutinizing the budget or mission plans of a particular missionary. The organization understands the realities of mission work better than I do. I’m wary of people trying to serve without the cover and accountability of a good organization.

When I see some of the expected costs for missionary living, I confess they surprise me and seem high. The costs for travel and language school often surprise potential supporters. I can now say that good language learning is essential and merits its significant cost. And I understand travel costs differently now. One emergency trip back to the States can break a missionary couple’s budget for years. The author of the linked article mentioned not being able to attend his father’s funeral. I was with a missionary who watched his father’s funeral by Skype. The physical and financial toll of an emergency round-trip were going to be too much.

The article above also mentioned intense scrutiny from church missions committees about the exact plans for a missionary’s work. I’ve talked to several missionaries who lament what they have to do and share with States-side missions committees to get their support. It often feels exploitative––pictures of dirty, hungry children and the like.

We should leave scrutiny about the details of the work to the missions agency. We don’t know the situation in many of these cultures. We don’t know what’s truly needed. And sometimes the missionaries and agencies don’t know either. What they really need is to do some exploratory work. That’s hard to sell, but essential to the long-term work.

- Prioritize long-term missionaries.
I’ll still contribute a bit to someone who’s going on a 10-day trip to Mexico or a 6-month trip to serve in the Philippines. But what I contribute is a small show of support. I try to save most of our giving to missions for the long-termers.

Having seen both, and having been much closer to the short-termer side, I believe the long-term work needs and deserves the lion’s share of financial support. Let’s be honest, a 10-day trip is probably better termed “cross-cultural experience” than mission. It does some good, supports the long-termers, and maybe whets someone’s appetite to serve in a bigger way. But it’s still at least equal part sight-seeing trip (even if the “sight” is a VBS in a third-world country) compared to the deep, hard work of long-term mission.

I know this is probably an unusual position, but I look for someone going on a short-term trip to be financially invested. Some people can treat a short-term missions trip as a semi-vacation that others will pay for.

So when anyone who’s considering a short-term trip asks me about fundraising, one of my first suggestions to them is that they find a way to self-fund a significant portion. When we went to Spain, we received support for about 40% and used savings for the other 60%. That financial support from others was an incredible blessing. But as short-termers, I wouldn’t have felt right about it if we didn’t pay for a significant portion ourselves. (And if anyone is looking to do something like this just as a get-away, not for the sake of mission, I urge them to find a way to pay for all of it. No “Go Fund Me” campaigns.1)

Hear me in this: I believe those short-term trips are (usually) good and important! I’ve taken them and encourage others to. I only want to communicate here that those trips make a tiny impact compared to the long-term work. I want our major financial contributions to support the major, long-term work.

- Your financial support is more than just financial support.
I heard this several times before, but I never really believed or understood it until people began giving us support. The financial support was great. But just as significant was the vote of confidence it represented. I remember a few friends who made commitments that we knew were significant sacrifices on their part. Some of those came at our times of highest anxiety and doubt. Those commitments said, “I believe in you” in a tangible way when we most needed to hear it.

- Do not treat missionaries as if they live on vacation.
They may live in a spot that you’d go on vacation. You may even go on a 10-day missions trip there, and it will feel a bit like vacation because it’s a break from your norm.

But for them, it’s everyday life. And because it’s in a foreign culture and often a foreign language, those everyday life things are harder. Even after several years of being there. While we were in Spain, the extra mental (and sometimes emotional) effort of going to the grocery or the bank or the Emergency Room (twice!) caught us by surprise. Simple things we take for granted in the States were taxing. It got easier as we went, but even in our final month, normal life required more energy than it does here. If we were both trying to put in full-time work hours and then live normal life, we couldn’t have done it.

Those who have lived there 20 years have obviously gotten much better at all this. But even for them, the work of normal living was more than it would be in their home culture. (This is also a good reminder for us in the States who know refugees or others who came from a different culture. Everyday life is more taxing for them than for us “natives.” Good to give them some extra grace.)

- When missionaries are in the States, welcome them with open arms and don’t expect too much.
I’ve talked with several missionaries who say their hardest times are the times back in the States. They’re away from home, staying in others’ houses, on others’ schedules, and often traveling a lot. And then those receiving them assume that they’re on vacation.

That experience has helped me ask a lot of questions that begin with, “You don’t need to give me the acceptable line here, just tell me the truth…” And then ask questions like, “We were thinking about setting up this event while you’re here. Would that be more of a blessing or a burden to you?” “How can we arrange your time and living situation here so you leave refreshed, not tired?” “Is there food you’ve been craving or food you’re sick of?”

 

If you didn’t, you should read the article linked at top. If you found these suggestions helpful, share them with a friend, a pastor, or someone on your church’s missions committee.

I’ll open the comments on this post for any of you to provide other suggestions (or critique mine).


  1. Linked campaign is a parody. Please don’t donate!

People or Systems

There’s a popular book for entrepreneurs titled The E-Myth (later titled The E-Myth Revisited, and then a whole host of spin-offs). It focuses on creating a “foolproof, predictable business”—a “systems-dependent business, not a people-dependent business.” The premise of the whole book: if you want to create a successful business that you can sell, you need to minimize your dependence on people and personality. You don’t really want people; you want robots. You’re using people because they’re cheaper.

The book offers several helpful suggestions. I’ve recommended it to many people. But it’s based on a false premise––that the only reason you would create a business is to make money and sell the business (as opposed to all the other possibilities—to create something that’s good and beautiful and contributes to the community, to create meaningful and enjoyable job opportunities…) The book assumes you need a system that requires no subjectivity. You’re managing a mass of people who are expected to check the right boxes. Most of what they do is true or false, sometimes multiple choice, almost never essay response.

This kind of world is a dream for higher-level administrators. If only people and progress could be measured in True or False checkboxes. And at McDonald’s, they mostly can.

But we try to extend this kind of thinking to all kinds of other worlds where it doesn’t fit. We do it because it’s easier to manage by “foolproof” systems than by subjective decision-making. It’s easier to manage one uniform mass than a collection of diverse individuals. So mandatory rules tend to grow exponentially with the size of an organization. When you oversee a large number of people, rules are just easier than subjective judgments.

Of course, this also leads to a lot of stupid rules. I spoke to someone who works in a medical lab about how they have to place expiration dates on items that don’t expire. When the “expiration” runs out, they peel off the piece of tape and re-label with a new, false expiration date. Why? Because administrators four levels up passed a rule that everything had to have an expiration date, no exceptions. If you’ve been in a large organization, you’ve probably experienced something similar.

To set uniform regulations is easy. To know people and their situations––to have open, two-way dialogue with them––is much more difficult and far more time-consuming.

As organizations get larger, this means we’re likely to waste more and more of people’s time. Administrators several levels up pass rules to be uniformly followed, whether they’re beneficial to everyone or not.

This leads to mediocre performance for the organization, as they waste more of their valuable people’s time.

It leads to depleted morale, as employees find themselves doing more meaningless things, less things that really matter. (The person in the medical lab above was lamenting the reduced level of patient care because of the number of silly rules that were instead consuming their time.)

Finally, some of the best performers leave. They’re looking for a place to make a difference, not to check meaningless boxes.

The church is hardly immune to this. It would be much easier for churches to handle discipleship with a foolproof system, much easier for denominational leadership to mandate the same things for all of their clergy. But tending souls is as far from robot-work as anything. We can put the check mark in the right box and congratulate ourselves, but our system may not be having nearly the positive effect we’re assuming.

Preaching and the preacher’s soul

Don’t let sermon preparation be your only Bible study.” or “Your sermon preparation doesn’t count as your devotional time. You need to nourish your soul, too.” I hear several warnings like that in pastor circles. I understand the point and don’t disagree. Don’t read Scripture only under the pressure of developing it into a sermon. Read for your own nourishment.

And while I read Scripture for more than just sermon preparation, I can also say that my greatest growth and nourishment have come from the texts I’m going to preach. The extra weight of asking what God has for us in this word––the extra time and focus that demands––bring me to my greatest wonder and awe and conviction.

Preaching is good, if nothing else, for the preacher’s soul.