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!

Can an elephant give birth to rabbits?

rabbit - elephantA few years ago, BarnaBooks put out a book titled The Rabbit and the Elephant: Why Small Is the New Big for Today’s Church

The premise of the book: If you put two elephants in a room together and close the door, in three years you may get one baby elephant. Put two rabbits in a room for three years and you better watch out when you open the door. There’s the potential for just over 100,000 rabbits.

And then there’s the issue of history. Historically, the church’s growth has looked much more like rabbit reproduction than elephant reproduction. Early Christianity spread by the increase of new, small churches across the land.

No one should know a history like this better than Methodists, whose circuit riding preachers spread the faith across England and the United States by establishing new churches everywhere they went. It’s telling that when Methodist preachers met with their district superintendents in those early days, they were to report how many churches they had started. Now, they must meet with their district superintendents to receive permission to start a new church. What a change in roles and assumptions!

I come across a lot of people who agree with the premise of The Rabbit and the Elephant. I get the sense that more and more people in the Western Church are coming to see the “strategic advantage” of spreading like rabbits.

Not just a different strategy, a different organism

What I’m not sure is taken into account: rabbits and elephants are different organisms altogether.

An elephant can’t survive if it’s the size of a rabbit. Baby elephants are ~260 pounds at birth. We see that mentality plenty in the church: “You need at least 75 people for critical mass to start a new church.”

And a rabbit’s health isn’t measured by becoming the size of an elephant. What do you call a 15-pound rabbit? Obese.

The difference between rabbits and elephants isn’t just size, but the very makeup of their internal systems. The same is true of rabbit churches and elephant churches. A typical American elephant church will spend about 50% on staffing, 20% on debt and property expenses, and the other 30% on programs, missions, and denominational dues (give or take 10% on each item). Though they all differ, elephant church staff/leadership structures are relatively predictable: senior pastor, discipleship, missions, music, age-level ministries, and administration.

Look at the budget and leadership structures of the early churches and the early Methodist movement, and I bet you’ll find a significantly different internal system.

What are America’s small churches? Rabbits or little elephants?

Most of America’s churches are relatively small. The mega church isn’t the norm. So you might say that most of our churches are more like rabbits. I don’t think they are, though. I think most of our churches are very little elephants. In fact, they might be such small elephants that their odds of long-term survival are pretty slim.

Look at our little churches and you’ll see budget allocations that are roughly the same as the big ones, though they may be skewed because the churches are too small to handle the needs of a typical elephant structure. Look at their leadership structures and you’ll see something quite a bit like those elephant churches, though three people may be filling all of the positions, and some (e.g., youth ministry) may be future goals rather than present realities.

Look at our little churches’ aspirations, and you’ll see a little elephant mindset. If they could, they would become full-grown elephants, with a 50-person choir and the VBS that everyone in town wants to come to. They go to conferences at jumbo elephant churches to learn how to do things like them. Their denominational leadership sets elephant-like goals for them (i.e. growth = success).

Can an elephant give birth to rabbits?

You see, I think a lot of people in the American Church see the strategic advantage to rabbit-like multiplication.* But they’re still elephants. They think like elephants, they act like elephants, and their “success” is judged on elephant scales.

Which leads to my question: can an elephant give birth to rabbits? I’m dubious. I think it’s as likely for God to create a rabbit ex nihilo as it is for God to bring forth a rabbit from the womb of an elephant.

I know I’ve more clearly defined/identified an elephant church than a rabbit church. I’ll save further definition of the rabbit church, and my reasons for preferring its nature, for the comments or a later post.

I’ll close with a great quote from “Messages from the Chinese Church: An Army of Worms” [pdf]:

It will not be an army of elephants that marches into nations like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran with the gospel, trampling down the strongholds. Sometimes it seems as if a lot of mission effort consists of “elephant” plans – huge and grandiose strategies for overwhelming the devil’s strongholds and making him surrender his captives. But it is easy for border guards to detect an elephant entering the country! It makes a lot of noise and is impossible to hide. Elephants are easy to catch because they move slowly and are so visible. This seems to be how much mission work is conducted today. (Please understand we are talking in generalities here, for we know many of the Lord’s people from all around the world have faithfully been
laboring in these difficult nations for years. God bless them!)

[…]

While an elephant cannot advance into sensitive areas, little worms and ants can go anywhere. They can go into temples, mosques and even into king’s palaces.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Agree, disagree, want to ask a question?

————-

* Although let’s acknowledge that elephant-style growth — two elephant churches create a baby elephant every three years — would be breathtaking compared to current rates of new church plants. The reason we’re not seeing even elephant-like growth: giving birth to a 260-pound baby elephant is no easy task. And it requires a healthy elephant to begin with.

 

Pastors, theologians, and seminaries — consider Spanish!

The Hispanic population in the US is growing rapidly. A good reason to consider Spanish.

The Hispanic population in the US is growing rapidly. A good reason to consider Spanish.

If you’re an aspiring pastor or theologian, I think you should consider learning Spanish. If you’re a seminary, I think you should consider offering it.

For pastors — with the increase of Spanish-speakers in the U. S., and the small number of Spanish-language worship services by comparison, I expect one of the church’s greatest new “frontiers” in America to come in the form of churches and worship services that use the Spanish language. Whether aspiring pastors are preparing to lead these churches, or simply preparing to more effectively communicate with those who do, I believe they can benefit greatly from facility with the language.

I’ve heard the United Methodist Church has had trouble figuring out what to do with non-English-speaking Hispanics who are pursuing ordination. Ordination guarantees an appointment, and they don’t know what to do if there’s not a Spanish-speaking appointment to give them. That’s something the UMC will need to figure out and get over soon, or they’re going to miss a significant, growing portion of the American population.

For theologians — I expect Spanish to be an important language for upcoming theologians. It’s pretty common to see German offered in seminary, and sometimes even French, so you can interact with the bulk of non-English scholarly work of the past few centuries. With the rise of Christianity in Spanish-speaking countries, I could easily see Spanish becoming the most important non-English language for interacting with 21st century theologians.

(Aspring) pastors and theologians, think about it. Might it be worthwhile to study some Spanish?

Seminaries and divinity schools, might you consider offering Spanish courses? You’ll be preparing your students well for ministry and theological work in the 21st century.

For a good laugh, here’s a look at some of my early stumbles trying to learn Spanish while living in Spain: “The most humbling experience of my life…”