Missionary Ron is a great organizer and a great planner. He has a good local network and is discipling them to be effective parts of the team. Good things are happening. The ministry is growing and missionary Ron is fulfilled in leading such a fine group.
But one day, Missionary Ron is gone. The captain has left the ship. Who is ready to take over navigating? No one. The finances are hurt or destroyed. The organization was centered on missionary Ron, and the rest of the group has been given no tools or training to fill the power vacuum. The connections are lost. The authority figure is gone.
A pastor of a church I used to attend believed that any Christian organization grows and succeeds by a single leader, and that same organization is destined to wane and collapse once that leader is gone. And, in truth, many do. Yet I see little evidence that it is destiny. In fact, the same leader whose great drive and vision made the organization great, was the same leader whose hubris and short-sightedness took that same organization down. Many groups have grown, and even thrived, through generational changes of leadership. The Salvation Army is a good example for over 100 years. The fact that it is organized in such a way to train up successors is not unrelated.
But here is the paradox. I worked at a camp where the camp director put up a note that said, “No one is indispensable.” I know that is true… yet I would have liked to see that note with and addition. It should say, “No one is indispensable, but no one is replaceable.” The paradox. God has made us each unique. No one can truly replace us. But when we think that God “can’t do it without us” we are in dangerous territory.
One of the primary jobs of a missionary should be exit strategy. But that exit strategy should come into play from Day 1. Successors must be trained up, and systems need to be oriented to make the missionary eventually unnecessary. Ideally, the missionary should slowly transition from leader to support laborer.
But this is hard. Missionaries look competent when they are in charge of things. It is hard to step back. It is harder to walk away. Yet it is healthy. Ultimately, the missionary will be gone at some point in time. The question is not whether the missionary will be gone, but rather whether the team is ready for that transition or not.