Quote on Missionary Flexibility

I have suggested that the three main characteristics of a good missionary are:

  • Willingness      (a volitional quality)
  • Flexibility         (a psychological quality)Missionary qualities
  • Resiliency         (a spiritual quality)

<You may feel that “spiritual” is the wrong word, but if one accepts the definition of spiritual as the intersection of power and meaning, a lack of resiliency means either a breakdown in power/determination or wavering of meaning/purpose. Within the Christian context, such meaning/purpose is largely found in Christ.>

Focusing on the 2nd quality, psychological flexibility, the following quote is provided

“Missionary work, though it may occupy a missionary’s lifetime, is essentially temporary in nature.  The missionary always looks forward to the time when this part or that, or even the whole work will be completed. What does this mean to the missionary? It means that if he is a competent worker, one of two things will happen. Sooner or later he will have to change his location, as each job is completed; or he will have to have the mobility within himself to change his type of work as the old needs are filled and new ones present themselves. In either case he needs to be mobile.”

-Quote from Harold Cook in “Maximum Impact Short-Term Mission” by Peterson, Aeshliman, and Sneed.  p. 210-211.

This “mobility’ is essentially psycho-emotional flexibility. If the quote included cultural flexibility, I think it is approaching the broad sense of the quality in missionaries.

Imagine a World With Limits

Picture two artists tasked to create works of art.

mending the hurts
“Mending the Hurts” by Rebekah Munson 2011.  Charcoal and Colored Pencils

Artist A is given limitations. He is told that it must be a painting on a 1 meter by 1 meter canvas. He is also given time constraints– perhaps 4 weeks. Further he may be given subject constraints— perhaps the one who commissioned it is a wealthy person who wants the painting to express hope in overcoming cancer.

Artist B is given essentially no limitations. There are no guidance as to the size, or even type of art. There are no time constraints— take as long as is needed.  And there are no subject constraints— just make the artwork “awesome!”

Who is likely to create the better piece of art? Most likely it will be Artist A. That is because most of us tend not to do well with no constraints. Most of us lack the discipline to keep working as hard when no one is holding a clock to ensure that we are making progress as agreed upon. Most of us would struggle to be creative when there are no limitations in media. For example, consider the massive creativity involved to apply paint to a limited size 2-dimension surface to show great vistas of outdoor scenery, or abstract imaginings? This requires a great deal of creativity.

Essentially, creativity is the act of overcoming the limitations of media or time. How does one create a moving 2-D image on a screen, with sound) that tells a story of huge battles in outer space? Or record a chariot race in a hippodrome in a setting that had disappeared 2 millennia before the film was produced? How can words on paper or sounds in a radio play draw one into the story so effectively, that years later one cannot recall whether one read it, heard it, or watched it as a movie.

I am presently reading “The Golden Bough” by James G. Frazer. The edition I am reading is almost 800 pages long. It is a LONG book… a compendium of minutiae. On a certain level I appreciate the bits of cultural trivia that are brought together to explain culturally the somewhat obscure ritual of the Arician Grove. While I may appreciate the book, I must also believe that the book would have been stronger as a creative construct if it was about 1/3 the length. There is far too much of — Group G has this practice… and Group H has a pretty similar practice… and so does Groups I, J, and K, although contrasting somewhat with Groups L and M. The book would certainly be easier to appreciate if it was shorter. Perhaps Fraser would have said, or did say, that it needed to be that long to cover the topic fully. I have heard some preachers make the argument that they have to preach for ______ minutes because they have to say what God told them to say. But it is quite likely that they would tell what God told them to say better and more effectively if they recognized that they were limited in time and in the attention span of the recipients. Preachers would most likely be better at preaching if churches put limits on their oratory.

Now suppose, surprise surprise, that Artist B produces a better work than Artist A. Is that possible? Certainly. There is no guarantee. But Artist A is LIKELY to do better because we thrive with REASONABLE limits.  An artist who gets paid minimally for making 2 minute caricatures of people at a carnival may have too many limiters to grow beyond a certain limit. But at the same time, the limitations of that situation may still motivate the artist to hunger (literally and figuratively) for bigger things    Too great of limitations MAY crush the creative spirit, but it can also act as a fire the drives growth.

But suppose that Artist B (without limitations) does do a better job than Artist A (with limitations) at that time.  What if the situation repeats itself? Who will improve the most? Almost certainly Artist A. Pushing against the limitations of media, subject, and time, exercises the creative “muscles.” Artist A is likely to grow as an artist through the discipline provided. It is likely that A will overtake B, all else being equal.

Sometimes there seems to be exceptions to this. The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família in Barcelona, designed by Anton Gaudi, seems like an exception– an extravagant piece of art with very little constraints. Almost a century later, the building still is not complete. The Taj Mahal, and the frescoes on the Sistine Chapel seem to point to greatness coming from no limitations. But my argument is that creativity grows through constraints. The artist grows through limitations… and in this culture of limitations and discipline, growth occurs. That creative growth and discipline provides the environment for an artist to shine if many of the limitations are removed. (I would still argue that time constraints are still needed… the Sagrada Familia’s century of build is hard to justify as a design project.)

Ministry is creative as well. And in a similar manner we need limitations.

It is good to have time and money limitations. I have seen ministry projects where money and time were not key constraints. The results were wasteful and sloppy. It is also good to have people who provide limitations through guidance and accountability. We simply do better with those things.

But suppose you are one of those unfortunate people in ministry that does not have a lot of accountability or constraints… what can you do? Well, you can create constraints.

  • If asked to speak/preach somewhere, ask for the topic. If they say to speak on whatever you would prefer, seek preferences or find out what are the concerns. It is comfortable, and lazy, to fall back into one’s own favorite topics.
  • If others don’t place limits on you, such as for preaching, set them for yourself. Maybe aim for a 20 minute or 30 minute sermon. While there are some cultures that appreciate longer sermons (especially where oratory is more of a performance art, rather than an act of prophetic ministry), most groups lose attention soon past 30 minutes. Don’t fall in love with your voice so much that you think the longer you speak the more effective you are.
  • If you head an organization, place people over you. Billy Graham established a board over him who guided him and even determined his pay. In the mission field, missionaries sometimes are in a position where no one (at least no one within a few thousand miles) has oversight. If you have none, find some.
  • Develop accountability partners. Today, some pastors serve in churches where there is no one they are accountable to. The same is true of missionaries— especially now that we are in an era where some missionaries are self-sent.
  • Tighten the limitations. If one has 10,000 dollars to accomplish something, establish a budget of $7,000. That not only gives you $3,000 for emergency, but it also pushes you to find creative solutions.
Of course, every time one gives advice, one risks someone (strangely) taking the advice too much to heart. I have known medical missions here in the Philippines that are very wasteful… depending on foreign medicines and foreign professionals, to say nothing are burning money wherever they go. Yet there are other ones that cut TOO many corners. They use expired medicines or doctors samples, and use underqualified medical professionals. Creativity is driven by oversight that sets limitations, but also maintains quality control.

I hope you will look for opportunities to be limited in your ministry!


Ministerial Recovery

We all fail sometimes. Sometimes the failure is minor… sometimes it can be spectacular. Sometimes one has control over the situation of the failure, and sometimes not.

Failure is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, failures are great opportunities to grow. But not all failures are equal to each other. Consider three forms of failure.

  1.  Failure of Vision. A minister lacks visiona clear vision or perhaps the minister’s vision proves to be leading in the wrong direction.
  2. Failure of Competence.  A minister lacks the skill-set and/or experience for what he/she is doing.
  3. Failure of Trustworthiness. The minister violates trust by cheating, or breaking a promise.

The last one, failure of trustworthiness needs a bit of explanation. After all, to fail in doing what one promises to do is not automatically a trustworthy issue, in my opinion. For me trustworthiness has to do with the martial virtues– Courage (doing what is right despite fear), Duty (doing what is right regardless of preference), and Honor (doing what is right despite lack of oversight). Failure in these virtues is a failure of trustworthiness. These failures are all very different.

What is easiest to personally correct?

Trustworthiness Failure. In theory this can be done quickly with repentance. However, in practice it can take awhile because failure in the area of trustworthiness will continue to be a temptation during stress. Ministry has lots of stresses.

Vision Failure. Nehemiah went from no vision to a very clear vision in four months. Paul and Moses got at least a start of a vision in a very quick event (Damascus Road and Burning Bush), even if they needed new vision adjustments periodically. I believe vision is a human AND divine activity. Ultimately, a lack of vision I believe is a failure on the human side, rather than the divine side. But it is correctable.

Competence Failure. Training, mentoring, and experience can be gained in a few months to a few years.

What is the easiest to recover from?

Vision Failure. People will commonly accept the transition from a muddy vision to a clear vision, or a change of direction, especially if the change can be clearly articulated.

Competence Failure. People generally understand that people start out without skills and knowledge. They may wait awhile for the person to prove himself/herself but another chance will normally be given.

Trustworthiness Failure. Some understand and give another chance and some don’t. We don’t know why John Mark quit on the first missionary journey… but probably an issue of lack of courage or duty. His uncle Barnabas was ready quickly to give him a second chance. Paul, on the other hand took a few years to warm up to him. Some will never forget a failure of trustworthiness.

What do we tend to emphasize?

Competence.  Preparation for ministry often focuses on learning skills and doctrine.

Depends. Some focus more on morals or trustworthiness, while others more on calling/vision. Either way, they are often given less priority than ministerial competence.

What failure is most risky?

Trustworthiness Failure.  Regardless of whether one is in charge or a worker bee, a failure in this area can sour future opportunities for ministry (especially if due to failure in terms of honor).

The Others. One can learn as a mentee (protege or apprentice) without a lot of risk. Additionally, in that role, one doesn’t really need to have a clear vision. One can learn while working helping another’s vision. These are bigger issues if the person is a leader.


Buying Status

We think of status normally as Ascribed or worship_facilityEarned, but it can be bought as well. Of course in the broadest sense, buying status is Earned status, but it is not the type of earned status that most of us would find particularly praiseworthy. Consider the following story. It is completely fictitious, but describes what is happening over and over again in many countries.

Ben is a young missionary sent out by a small denomination. He is well-supported but has no real connections in this place. He is the first of his denomination to work in this new region of ministry. His denomination also doesn’t have the tradition of working cooperatively with most other denominations. Further, his mission agency presumes that a “real missionary” must have no familial, ethnic or cultural connections to the place. <Seriously, why did so many missiologists buy into this silly idea?> Because of this, Ben also has no relatives there either.

But Ben does have some money. Not far from where he lives is a small but growing church. The church building is pretty meager, in fact only a rental, but the people there are friendly, and the pastor, although young, seems to be doing a good job.

Ben sets up an appointment with Pastor Emil. At a coffee shop the two talk about ministry, and particularly how things are going at Ptr. Emil’s church. Even though Ben was new to the area, he had been there long enough to know that most churches there cannot afford a full-time pastor. Some pastors are bi-vocational, while others struggle to get by with help “in kind” from the church members. Ptr. Emil worked as a store clerk on weekdays.

Ben had a solution. He would help the church out financially. That way, they can have a real church building rather than a rental, and Ptr. Emil can quit his day job and commit himself to full-time ministry. What an exciting opportunity!

Of course there is a cost. Ptr. Emil and his church are part of a different denomination. They would have to switch to Ben’s denomination. Additionally, the church would have to change its name to show its change of status.

It’s a win-win. Ptr. Emil and his church are on good financial footing, and have a new building. Ben now has a church that he can take pictures of and send to his supporters as the fruits of his labor for the Lord.

But is it really win-win?

  • Ptr. Emil is being paid, but now the ministry is no longer his, but is someone else’s. Theologically speaking, the work is neither Ptr. Emil’s nor Ben’s. It is the Lord’s. However true that may be, it disguises the issue of power. Ben now controls the church since he controls the money. The church no longer owns itself.
  • The church is now dependent on an outsider. They were poor before, but God had provided. But that is over now. Sadly, dependency often leads to a form of “learned helplessness,’ where neediness becomes the goal rather than being self-governing, self-propogating, and self-sufficient.
  • The supporters of Ben are being hurt since they most likely were giving financial support to grow the kingdom of God, not “sheep stealing.” There are some people and some groups that are so prone to denominatio-centric thinking that anytime one pulls people to one’s own denomination, it is a success. I have met such people and such groups. But a missionary should help one’s supporters at home to think bigger– kingdom big– not in terms of simply denomination. In this case Ben perpetuates that attitude.
  • Ben is hurt since he learned a bad lesson. Money Is Not Missions.



Struggles with Short-Term Missions

A lot of Short-term Mission teams come from “The West” to the Philippines. And quite a few STM teams leave the Philippines to serve in other parts of the world as well.

And they can do genuine good. When they come in as genuine partners of local ministries, when they come in with welcome skills (especially) and resources, when there is a humbleness of spirit, such teams are great. The best teams, from what I have seen, are small… less than 10. Some of the best ones are just 2 or 3 people– there for transfer of specific needed skills. STM can also be a reminder that the church is not merely local, it is universal– it is not merely united, it is diversified.

But then there are other STM teams. They are a different story. There are many sub-stories in this, but I would focus on five groups. These groups are somewhat related and overlapping.

  1.  Churchy Vacationers. People who join STM often have jobs or school, and so are investing their limited vacations in the trip. But even though it is vacation time, it is still not vacation. Some focus on sight-seeing and creature comforts. Others are shutterbugs taking pictures of (exploiting) people who are struggling. It is tempting, and in many parts of the world, the rules of hospitality can make this attitude seem okay for STMers. At the other end of the spectrum, rarely, one can see the opposite where a STM trip was set up to work, work, work, and leave. However, a properly designed STM trip is more like work, work, fun, work.  Mixing a bit of fun with the work will also help make the work more fun.
  2. Cultural Critics. Some come as (very poorly trained) cultural anthropologists. They bring their ethnocentric views of their home with them, and can’t help but note how the food is not as good in their ministry location as it is at home– How the people are so “primitive”– How their houses are so crude, their clothes so odd, and their work so unorganized. Of course, a good cultural anthropologist would not come in and critique compared to one’s own culture. And in STM, one is not generally in a location long enough to critique competently anyway. Even if one is competent, it is commonly wise to keep one’s mouth shut anyway. None of us really enjoy outsiders coming in a disrespecting our country or culture.
  3. Unwitting Burdeners. Some STMers come in and want to help. But too many people helping too much can prove a very big burden on the locals. A team of 15, for example need to be fed, housed, and driven around. Even if the team comes with finances to cover the costs of their stay, the visit can still be a logistical nightmare, and a drain to time, and energy. When we have had short-term mission teams come, I have talked to my church here first, and let them know that it is likely that the STMers will gain more from the experience than the church. Is that okay? That understanding up front really can help. I have seen short-term mission trips where the host got the impression that the STM trip would be a financial and ministerial boon for them. It may or may not be true, but it is certainly not a healthy attitude regardless.
  4. Visionary Dominators. Sometimes, STM teams come in with a clear vision of what they want to do and what they don’t want to do. In many cases, the local hosts are seen more as means to accomplish their vision, rather than partners in ministry. Since locals are experts of what is needed, typically, the vision should come more from them. Often locals have a greater sense of what needs to be done, but are not able to bring that across to the STM mobilizers who are dictating what will be done.

Often STM is touted as a great boon for missions, or even a substitute for a long-term mission presence. Such views are far too rosy. A more realistic view is needed. On the other hand, some see STM as a problem, or at best a good way to inspire the members of the STM team to greater missions awareness. That may be true, but short-term missions can be far more than that.

Motivation for Missions

Reading through “Encountering Theology of Mission” by Ott, Strauss, and Tennent. In Chapter 7 they list 13 motivations for doing why_go_graphicmission work. They divide them into two categories: Questionable Motivations and Appropriate Motivations. For me, I would like to play with the list a little bit. For me, some of the questionable motivations are poor motivations, while some are simply inadequate. Of the appropriate motivations listed, one seems to me to be Inadequate, and one Poor. Two I thought should be combined into one. I decided to move the list of 13 into three groups:    Poor, Inadequate, Appropriate. 

Of course, one could argue that even the ones described as Appropriate may still be Inadequate if other motivations are completely absent. Still the list feels good to me, and am in no way suggesting my organization is superior… it just works better for me. I don’t plan to add a lot of  commentary at this time. Perhaps later, I will look into some more thought and text.

Poor Motivations

Civilization, Colonialism, and Cultural Superiority — Cultural or Governmental Imperialism is clearly poor since each culture has strengths and weaknesses. Those that seek to transform a culture or place under the subjection of another typically are blind to their own weaknesses. It is an act of power, not love.

Ecclesial Power and Denominationalism — Similar to the previous one, it is a misguided use of power and of personal kingdom building rather than building God’s kingdom.

Condescending Pity — Both of the previous ones assume that the missionary or the missionary’s culture, or the missionary’s denomination or agency is superior to alternatives. This is tied to that but also more personal— much like Jesus’ story of the pharisee in the temple praying and thanking God at how awesome he (the pharisee) was compared to that sinful tax collector near him. It is a mixture of power and pride.

Asceticism — Some have traditionally (and perhaps still do) go on missions as a form of self-denial. Some may do it in the form of penance (Green Martyrdom) or more focus on service (White Martyrdom). This (and the other items in the Poor section are probably not as bad as the first three, but it still is essentially self-serving (yes self-denial can be a form of self-service).

Adventure and Romantic Ideals– One could list this as inadequate… but it is VERY inadequate. If one wants adventure and the “romance” of doing really cool and awesome things, there are better choices out there.

Eschatological Motivation— In the book, this motivation was listed as acceptable. For me, it is no better than inadequate, and probably more in the poor category. So much bad missions has sprung from reaction to the belief (right or wrong) of the imminence of Christ’s return or even (shockingly) the belief that doing certain things will speed up Christ’s return. Perhaps if what was meant was support of Christ’s kingdom, in terms of its connect to Eschatological (or Salvation) History, maybe I could accept it as an acceptable motivation. But even then, it seems more like a useful understanding of missions, rather than a motivation for missions.


All of the three that I put as inadequate are related to the passion that God has placed in us to grow and fulfill some sense of purpose. Perhaps I could have put the desire for adventure heref, or even asceticism… but these three seem superior to those two.

Self-realization and Edification —   This is clearly inadequate since missions is other-centered or God-centered, not self-centered. However, it is fine and appropriate to want to find a sense of purpose in the work.

Gender-related  — Historically especially, although of course still present, women would join missions seeking to serve God when other formal roles of ministry were denied to them. This is a very understandable motivation… but inadequate by itself.

Divine Calling or Inner Compulsion — This was listed in the book as Appropriate. But I can see it no better than inadequate. And considering the fact that no mission board that I know of sees a sense of calling as enough to approve commissioning, I don’t think I am alone in this. Also, the theology of divine calling often pushes people into redefining desire for self-realization, overcoming gender barriers, or even romantic adventure, as a divine calling. Anyway, since it is a self-centered motivation, unlike the ones that follow, the best that could be said is that it is inadequate.


Compassion and Human Need — The most common emotion ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels is Compassion. Compassion implies action as well. Missions can be seen as an appropriate response to the second part of the Great Commandment— to love one’s neighbor (one in need) as one loves oneself.

The Love of Christ… and Obedience to Christ’s Command — These were listed separately in the book, but I see them as going hand-in-hand. If one loves Christ one keeps His commands. The Great Commission, additionally can be seen as an application of the Great Commandment… loving God with one’s entire being. I can see one choosing to separate these, but for me at least, the two go hand-in-hand.

Doxology… the Glory of God — Missions can be seen as an act of worship. Additionally, one can be motivated by the desire that all creation (all tribes, nations, tongues, peoples) worship God… in spirit and in truth. The image of Revelation 9 can be a great motivation.

Even with these “Appropriate motives” a missionary should probably have all three, not just one. He or she may also have some inadequate, but not necessarily bad, motives. They may even have some poor motives…. such as desire for adventure, or advancing one’s denomination.

Any missionary or missionary candidate should, thoughtfully and honestly, consider their motivations.

Problems with Spiritual Gifts


Years ago I used to lead some seminars on Spiritual Gifts, and Spiritual Gift Assessments. They have value… I think. But maybe it is time to rethink their value. I recall people 10 years ago saying that for centuries Christians had ignored the important role that Spiritual Gifts have in the Bible… but that now things have changed. Even back then when I was leading these trainings, I was wondering about that statement. Spiritual Gifts really aren’t particularly emphasized in the Bible;  and even when they are talked about, there are more questions than answers. If one removed all places where spiritual gifts are explicitly referenced, the Bible would not look much different.

  • First, a lot of the information provided in the training for Spiritual Gifts was simply made up. These programs would give answers to questions such as: How many spiritual gifts there are? How many gifts each Christian has? Does every Christian have at least one spiritual gift? When do we get our spiritual gift or gifts? Can we lose spiritual gifts? Can we make God give us the gifts we want? The problem is that for the most part, the answers were manufactured by the writers of the training… there is little to no guidance given in the Bible to these answers. But I think the lack of information actually tells us something. We probably should focus more on where God is leading us, recognizing that God will gift us in doing what needs to be done. In other words, we should not try to discover our spiritual gifts to figure out what we should do. Rather, we should discover where God is leading us and understand that He will empower us to do what He wants us to do.
  • Second, the spiritual gift assessments often assume that the individual is the one best suited to determine God’s giftings. Not surprising. These assessments tend to be written in the United States, where individualism is the focus. But often the individual is the least suited to recognize God’s giftings. I have had people come up to me and say that God has given them a certain gifting. A common one is discernment— Someone would tell me that they have the gift of discernment. I would smile and nod… but I am thinking to myself… “Oh no you don’t!!” Often the church as a whole is more competent to identify spiritual gifts. The better assessments don’t just ask the individual to fill out the form, but also ask members in the church to fill it out for the individual as well. Still, if one has a higher score for “Helps” than one does for “Wisdom,” that is pretty minimal evidence that one has a spiritual gift. 
  • Third, often spiritual gift assessments are used backwards… to suggest what each of us SHOULD NOT be doing. “Oh… I can’t go visit my neighbors, I don’t have the gift of evangelism.” “I can’t serve food, I don’t have the gift of helps.” “I can’t lead a small group… I have no gift of teaching.” Such arguments are often self-serving… and God often uses people, at least for a short time, to do things that they lack skills, gifts, or passion for (talk to Jonah about that one). God is often glorified most in our succeeding in weakness.
  • Fourth, spiritual gifts when spoken of in the Bible have a lot of warnings built into them. The gift to speak in other languages is talked about a lot by Paul, but much of his talk minimizes the gift, or provides distinct cautions. There is a lot of warning regarding prophecy as well. Having a spiritual gift in no way implies that one will use it wisely. Solomon, gifted with wisdom, still made some decisions that were clearly foolish in the long-term. Just like the Bible never suggests that a person should be taken as a pastor of a church by identifying a “divine calling,” it also never suggests that prophecy is true if it comes someone with a gift of prophecy. For prophecy, the test is God’s canon. The Bible even makes it clear that miracles (seemingly undeniable proof of divine empowerment) are no proof that the person is a follower of Christ.

My suggestions are two-fold.

A.  Look at the big picture. I like SHAPES:   Spiritual Gifts, Heart, Ability (natural and learned), Personality, Experiences, and Sphere of Influence. A broader self-understanding is likely to say more about what one should do than simply one small aspect.

B.  Understand that as part of a community of faith, the needs, and evaluations of the (spiritually mature) church are often better at evaluating one than a self-evaluation. Recall that it was an outsider, Barnabas, who recognized the potential in Paul to serve in Antioch, and it was the church leadership of Antioch, led by the Spirit that identified Paul and Barnabas to serve as apostles. The Damascus Call of Paul may have been important to him… but in serving the church, the confirmation of the Twelve, along with the church of Antioch were critical.

So how does this apply to a potential missionary?

  • Mission agencies don’t simply look for that (ever elusive and theologically doubtful) thing called a missionary calling. Nor do they look for the “gift of apostleship.” They seek to look at the big picture— a more holistic evaluation.
  • It is probably best to see the call or gift for missions in terms of identifications by the church, rather than some personal experience. Even if one has a clear personal experience, if the heart, ability, and gifting cannot be recognized by the church, there is some problem. (Yes… the problem might be the church… but it is still a problem to address.)
  • Take a big picture view of one’s Christian path. Don’t just look at where you are right now, but where have you been and where do you see God leading. Calling is not a place or an occupation. It is a path… and that path goes back years in the past and continues years into the future.
  • Take a big view of missions. Some agencies only want people with “a heart of evangelism” or perhaps “focus on churchplanting.” That is fine— it is their right. But Christian ministry is diverse. Broaden your view of ministry to God’s, don’t narrow your view to that of a particular church, denomination, or agency.




Life Stories

This is a presentation that we use for Clinical Pastoral Education class. However, I it is quite relevant to missionaries. as well. It draws a bit from Narrative Counseling. “Bible Heroes,” as well as missionaries throughout history have complicated and painful lives. Part of their success was in embracing God’s perspective rather than their own. Some of that is also in my book “Theo-storying,” which is described in MY BOOKS.

2003 Missions Reflections

This is a sermon I spoke at Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary chapel, on February 28, 2017. Actually, I suppose it is more of a testimony than a sermon.


A number of you will be doing internship this Summer: It could be Short-term Missions (STM), it could be church internship, it could be Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). Some won’t be officially doing internship, but will be serving God somewhere, perhaps your home church, during the Summer break. You can look at it as a burden… a task you just got to do… Or you can learn and grow through it– become a better person and minister through it. I like the fact that PBTS now requires Interns to give a testimony of their summer. When I was a student, this was not done… and that was truly a missed opportunity.

I am going to use, primarily, the example of a short-term mission trip I joined way back in 2003. That was a year before my family and I came to the Philippines. I joined a group that went to Londrina, Brazil.

Lesson #1. Talk About It.

Talk about your internship. I don’t mean up in front of church showing a couple of pictures of you standing in front of a Buddhist Temple, or dressed in a Highlands costume. I don’t mean a quick little “Praise God” testimonial. I mean find people who have the interest and the ability to understand non-judgmentally what you went through and talk to them about the good and the bad, the miracles and the struggles. That is not always easy to find. When I came back from Brazil, I never had much of a chance to share my feelings about the trip with anyone except family and a couple of team members. Until today…

A couple of years later that happened again. Celia and I, and our kids, went to the Philippines for a year. We promised ourselves we would stay at least a year and then see what God has for us. We decided to stay long-term, but returning to visit our sending church I expected people would be so interested in wanting us to talk about what we had experienced. Surprise surprise, they really weren’t. Sure, they would ask a question or two, but then would quickly switch the topic to something they were more interested in– purchasing a new car, refinancing their house, local sports. So boring… I was really quite surprised. Then a friend of mine, came over and started talking. He said “Bob, I would like to share with you about my mission trip to Belarus… because I know you would understand. I had been in the Philippines for a year, and he wants to talk to me about a 2 week trip to Belarus? But I thought for a moment. He must have had a similar problem of people who did not appreciate what he had experienced. Something important happened in his life and he needed to be heard. He thought I would understand. So I listened. Soon after, friends who did a mission trip to Italy shared about their trip, and we listened. It’s important. Since then, we found two families at our home church who understood and would listen.

Years ago, Randy Friesen, a missiologist from South Africa, did his dissertation on the results of Short-term missions– particularly on the participants. Many of the results were positive. One negative, however, was that participants in short-term missions commonly were less involved in their home church one year after the trip. Why was this? Part of it was that there was no debrief, no evaluation, no follow-up to the trip. The church never helped them put their experience into proper perspective and to integrate that into their spiritual life journey.

The church assumed that the STMers had not changed, but they had. The church sought to put them back in their old roles in the body, but those roles no longer fit. The STMers no longer felt that they fit in their home churches. This is completely unnecessary. Debrief not only helps the STMer understand what they experienced, it helps the church understand as well… and then to work together afterwards.

Talking provides an avenue for personal reflection. We went to Londrina, Brazil to build a church building. We also did some speaking, some music, and two members worked with a children’s ministry.

The local pastors asked a favor from us. People who come up to us will ask us, either in Portuguese or in very very broken English, what we do back in the United States.

American STMers typically don’t like to answer that question, but will give some Christian-ish phrase like “Well, I am just a fellow brother in Christ” or maybe “A sinner saved by grace, just like you.” (Much like the Greenwich commercial: sobreng cheesy.) The Brazilian pastors asked us to answer truthfully. The reason? Brazil has that Portuguese/Spanish belief that professionals do not get their hands dirty with hard work. If you are a nobody, you do menial work… if you are a somebody, you don’t…. that labor is somehow, degrading. The Brazilian pastors said that they wanted to change this attitude. They wanted the people in their church to recognize that all work done for God is honoring. On our team I was a mechanical engineer, but we also had an electrical engineer, an owner of a construction firm, a retired Air Force major, a company manager, two teachers, and more. It actually seemed to work. We did have at least some small role in changing attitudes at the mother church– Igreja Batista Monte Siao (Mount Zion Baptist Church).

The time there was strange. The church put us up in a 4-star hotel. Crystal Palace Hotel. Strange… We could have stayed in the host church. It was a big church. We could have stayed at a livelihood center they owned. We could have stayed in a much simpler hotel. Hey, we could have stayed in tents on the construction site. We don’t need to be at a fancy place.

We would get up and have a wonderful breakfast and Brazilian coffee (50% espresso, and 50% milk) at the hotel restaurant. Then we would dress for work, and drop off our keys with the concierge, walk through the atrium of polished marble past bellboys and doormen in perfect uniforms and load up in a van to go to the worksite. We would put in a long, hard, day. Then we would get back to the hotel. We would walk past the doormen and the bellboys in perfect uniforms, while we were covered in dirt and sweat dropping bits of red Brazilian mud onto the immaculate polished marble floors of the atrium. I would go up to the conscierge and say “Dos Sero Seis” (206) to get my room key– I still remember the room number. We did this day after day after day. It was actually rather embarrassing.

But then we would clean up and they would take us to a churroscaria or a rodizio-style pizzeria— absolutely fabulous Brazilian-style restaurants, drink a LOT of guarana (a wonderful Brazilian drink… non-alcoholic in case you were concerned) and then go back to prepare for another day. But all the time I kept wondering. “Do they think that just because we are Americans, we expect things to be this fancy?”

Finally it hit me. I understood. Our partners in Brazil put us in a fancy hotel because they were putting into practice what they were teaching their people. Every work for God is honoring, and everyone serving God is honored no matter what they do. To make that clearer to their church members, they treated us with honor. It makes sense. If you want people to honor someone, don’t just talk about honor… you demonstrate honor. That revelation came to me two months ago as I was preparing for this talk… 13 years late. We need to talk to others, who are interested and have some understanding of our experiences, and through this, reflect on it– learn and grow.

Lesson #2. Respect the Hosts as Experts

One of the former students here at PBTS was telling a story of talking to an American guy who was doing short-term missions in the Philippines. This American guy liked to describe himself as a “cross-cultural missionary” and threw around some fancy terms in missions, but my student quickly, correctly, realized that this guy really knew next to nothing of cross-cultural interaction and missions. This can happen. Many who do short-term missions go with enthusiasm but without knowledge. But even for the best prepared, the best trained STMers, they know less about what is needed in a community than the host.

We were working on the church building, and discovered that there was a 5 meter wide lot right next to the church lot that was for sale. We started discussing amongst ourselves. Maybe our team could come up with the money to buy that plot of land. If we can’t, maybe we could contact people in our church to come up with it. It could be used for parking. They only have parking for like 3 vehicles. It’s crazy!!

That’s not enough. We tell our hosts, and they smile and say that is not necessary. We persist and they say, “Thank you… but no.” We still persist, and finally one of our hosts, the one with the strongest English talks to us and says. “Look. They don’t need that land. They don’t need more parking, and if you did raise money for that land, they would use the money for something else… something that they need more.” So we stopped. And over the next few days, we learned about our hosts. They took us to their prayer room, where they prayed as a group and did their strategic planning. They showed us the master map in which they are sketching out their churchplanting activities. The churches they have completed, the ones presently being established, and the ones planned over the next few years. They talked about why they chose the location for the church we all were building. The location was a bit out of the way, but in 5 years, the new airport would be opening, and the road the church is on will be on the primary road to that airport. During our visit we met the members of that new church and the pastor of that church. Close to two years before they move into the new church building, a pastor and core group had already been established for the church. We realized that the Brazilian Baptists were an awful lot more organized and diligent in their planning than we were in the United States. They knew more about what they have and what they need than we know.

On the final Friday, three days before we were flying home, our hosts said that tomorrow we were going to the hot springs. We said, “No no no. There is so much more that can be done. Sunday is the commissioning of the church building, we want to get more things done.” They said, No. Enough has been done, it is time to rest. They were right. Enough had been done. Short-term missions is not primarily about getting stuff done, it is not about being experts, but it is about relationships that develop with others from other parts of the world. A reminder that God’s church is ultimately a unity despite its diversity, and because of its diversity.

Lesson #3. Have Proper Priorities

On the final Friday that we were there, we were concreting the floor. This was no simple thing. It is a large church and was designed stadium-style so much of the floor was sloped. In Brazil they build backwards. Roof first, then the walls, and finally the floor. But it seems to work.

They used to build smaller churches but found that the membership would exceed the building capacity within 6 months. My task was to shovel sand for the concrete. I was partnered with Cesar, a Brazilian man. We developed a bit of a competition.

Who could go the longest shoveling sand without taking a break. It was hard. Cesar was a good worker… but I kept going, pacing off of him. I felt tired, I wanted to quit… but I told myself that I wasn’t going to lose, I had to win. On and on it went. But I refused to give up. I kept looking at him and screaming in my head, “Why don’t you stop!!” Finally… Cesar put down his shovel, grabbed a water bottle, and sat down. I kept going ten seconds longer just to make it quite clear that I had won, and then I rested.

Do you think I felt good about that victory? Truthfully, not that much, for a few reasons. The first reason was that Cesar was twice my age. Literally. I was 38 at the time and he was 76. Second, he was half my size. I was 100 kilos. He might have been more than 50 kilos, but certainly not more than 60. Third, is that Cesar did not know that we were competing. I didn’t tell him we were competing and since he did not know a single word of English, it would not have helped if I had told him. In fact if he knew that we were competing, he probably would have just kept going until I was taken to the hospital. So NO… I did not feel all that great about winning. And perhaps, fourth… competition is not really a good motive for missions anyway.

But we struggle sometimes, because we bring our strange quirks and motives into missions. It is uncomfortable feeling like little children, unable to communicate. It is embarrassing to need help with some of the simplest things. I remember the first time I had to use the CR in the Philippines. I went in and could not figure out how to make the toilet flush, nor the shower to work. I had to ask for help. It’s frustrating. These stresses sometimes bring out the worst in us. We bring our pride, our selfish goals, our ignorant expectations into our missions. Frankly… we can’t really do that much about it. You can’t remove your attitude and prejudices and lock them in a drawer at home while we travel on mission. They come with us.

But some motives have to be set aside, or we must be set aside. Barry Philipps, a missionary that visits PBTS periodically, wrote a book on short-term missions and he tells a story of a guy he knew who joined a short-term mission team who clearly came with the intent of exploring the potential wonders of international dating. His behavior, in fact, sabotaged ministry work in the area for years. Another, appeared to think his role is to be taken care of hand and foot like he was staying at beach resort. The local hosts were too kind to complain, publicly, but the following year when the same church wanted to send a team, the hosts had to tell the US church that this one guy will not be accepted back and that the church needed to do a better job of screening applicants.

Some other motives are not as bad as long as they are not given priority. For those who want to experience “new places and adventure”– no problem, but that should not be your highest priority. For those on internship, getting credit so you can graduate… no problem, but that really shouldn’t be your highest priority either. What about the Great Commission? Should that be your highest priority? At risk of being controversial, my answer has to be NO… the Great Commission is simply an application of the Great Commandment. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart soul and might, and love your neighbor as yourself.” I feel like if that is your priority, much of the rest of the chaos that is missions will become more clear.

So for upcoming 2017 Interns, here is my advice:

  • Talk about it. Share concerns, questions, and insights, before, during and after your internship. Reflect on your experiences, open to gain new insights from it. Find those that are able to understand, and willing to listen non-judgmentally…. rejoice with you, grieve with you… pray with you. Don’t wait 14 years.

  • Respect the Hosts as Experts. Are they experts? Maybe… maybe not. But they know their community better than you do, and are the long-term presence there… so work with them, not over them, and not against them. Be a learner.

  • Have proper priorities. Loving God through serving others needs to take priority over the other motives that we tend to bring with us. But acknowledge that you have other motives and desires. If you take care of what is most important, there is a pretty good chance that the less important things will turn out okay.

And if you want a fourth bit of advice. Try to have fun… but even if you find it miserable (and that does happen sometimes)… be ready for God to still use it to transform your life and the lives of others… flowers for ashes… making all things beautiful in His time.

Thank you for taking the time to listen.

Pastoral Recovery- Knowing What’s Good For You…

I deal with a lot of missionaries andrecovery pastors who are suffering with burnout, with traumatization, with moral failure, with relationship break-down. There can be many reasons for this. Within classic ‘Biblical Counseling’ the answers tend to be along the line of:

  • “You need to ‘get right’ with God”
  • “You need to confess and repent”
  • “You need to work on your ‘quiet time,’ and other spiritual disciplines”

And really, all of these are true… to a point. The problem is that this system of thought commonly identifies a symptom and then guesses at a root cause. The symptom is any problem in the personal life, relational life, or ministerial life of the individual. The associated root cause is then seen as personal sin. While often a pretty good guess, there are important caveats.

 First:  While many problems are associated with personal sin… there are other sin-related causes. Two obvious ones: (a) The consequences of sin are often commonly experienced not only by the perpretrator of the sin, but by the victim of sin done unto him or her by another  Most people would cringe at the thought of blaming the rape victim in being raped, but doing exactly that, blaming the sufferer and playing Job’s ‘friends,’ is often Christians’ default mode. (b) The consequences of living in a generally sinful (fallen) world. Even here, Christians often try to find meaning (blame) for victims of natural disasters or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Second: Even when sin is personal, there often are root factors as to why the minister sinned. We often simplify things to the idea that the one who committed the sin is immature… or ‘given over to Satan.’ But essentially that is little more than washing our hands of the problem— a quick answer, a Procrustean Bed, that allows for a simple non-personalized response. But while sin may be inevitable, the specific temptation that a minister falls to is tied to very personal character or temperament issues, specific personal history, and unique circumstances. Why does a pastor burst into a rage during staff meetings? Why does a counselor gossip about patients he/she talked with in confidence? Why does a missionary act out sexually with those being discipled? To deny that these activities are sinful is simply denying the truth. On the other hand, to simply say that each needs to confess and repent, without addressing their unique personhood and situation is pastoral malpractice.

Third: Problems often occur when there is a “bad fit” in ministry. This is not really an issue of sin. Not everyone is molded for a specific ministry… and not every ministry is molded for a person.  We can talk about SHAPE in this (from Saddleback):

S – Spiritual Gifts – What has God supernaturally gifted me to do?
H – Heart – What do I have passion for and love to do?
A – Abilities – What natural talents and skills do I have?
P – Personality – Where does my personality best suit me to serve?
E – Experiences – What spiritual experiences have I had? What painful experiences
have I had? What educational experiences have I had? What ministry experiences
have I had?
Personally, I would also like to add another “S,” Sphere of Influence, making SHAPES. Often a minister has the wrong SHAPE (or SHAPES) for the ministry they serve in. This stressor will commonly create problems down the road.
I had a friend who was pastoring a church… and fighting developed and he left, went to another church and the same situation repeated two more times. Eventually he came to the conclusion that he did not fit the role of a pastor. What a nice realization! He could have confessed, repented, and gone on a spiritual retreat, and repeated the same problems in more churches… 4, 5, 6, 7…, but instead (drawing from the title of this blog) he decided that pastoring wasn’t good for him… and he does much better in lay ministry.
Unfortunately, Christians have close to 2000 years of history in developing a theology of “ministerial calling.” Very little of it has any discernible relationship to the Word of God. Often there is the belief that stepping out of professional ministry is rejecting God, or changing ministry is giving up. One could argue that the opposite is true. If God made us to be dynamic, growing, living beings involved in a walk with Christ (whether in green pastures, by still waters, or through the valley of the shadow of death), a failure to learn, change, and grow is much more a rejection of God. To not learn and repeat the same mistakes over and over again is truly giving up.  I think it is really a good time for Christians to seriously reevaluate the idea of ministerial calling.
But even if one stays in professional ministry, one does have to change at times. It is my personal belief that the Apostle John, when he got too old to go out and around and planting churches, became John the Elder (a person mentioned in early church history), at the church of Ephesus. Frankly, that only makes sense, and almost certainly other apostles would have done similarly if they weren’t directed into martyrdom.
My first several years in the Philippines, my wife and I worked in a ministry of medical mission events. It was a pretty good ministry and we got to be fairly competent at organizing them. The team we were part of, Dakilang Pag-Ibig DIADEM Ministries, did around 70 medical mission events in 5 years treating around 30,000 people. Not bad for a small group of volunteers with spotty funding. We did about one mission point a month. We eventually decided to step away from it for several reasons:
  • Our passions were different. We were more passionate for pastoral care (especially my wife) and training ministers (especially myself).
  • Our training got us good at doing medical missions, but it also got us more competent for other ministries that were not really possible for us to do when we started.
  • The stress got to us. Some might find this silly, as medical missions can be fairly relaxing for a few weeks… but then there is the stress of organizing the medicine, transportation, volunteers… and then the craziness of the actual event. During the 3-4 days before a medical event, my heart would jump with dread every time my phone would ring, and I feared that a doctor or dentist  or nurse was backing out, or a vehicle was suddenly not available. Some thrive on adrenaline and the craziness that much of international missions entails, but for my wife and I, we do better with ministry that still holds variety, but with more steadiness and reliability of work load.

Some ministries take one away from one’s family a lot. This is typically not good for the family… but the removal of support and accountability may not be good for minister either. Some jobs have set hours, while others challenge personal boundaries, especially in terms of personal time and space. Some jobs really need the right people or problems will occur. Some jobs, on the other hand, may need to change so they do not become “meat grinders” where ministers are run through, destroyed, and replaced.

A person who works with youth may become good with working with youth, but as he or she gets older, needs to transition from the apparent safety of doing what he or she is good at, and move towards multiplying self by training others.

A person may be placed in a position of counseling a lot of individuals of the opposite sex. Many struggle with this… but instead of establishing environmental or procedural safeguards, or perhaps limiting who the person counsels, he or she attempts to resist temptation, without doing anything to limit temptation. This is a recipe for disaster.
Essentially, when a minister fails, one can give the same answers that everyone gives, and help the failure not be dealt with, or recognize him or her as an individual who needs to be dealt with lovingly and uniquely. The minister needs to be helped to know what is good for himself/herself and others.
I have been involved with a lot of responses to ministers who have failed, sinned, or burned out. Some were handled well, some poorly. But some mistakes include:
  • Simply kicking the person out. That passes the problem somewhere else, and often leaves the minister in a worse position than before to grow, mature, and minister.
  • Simply do counseling. Counseling helps… but by itself is completely inadequate.
  • Simply calling for confession and repentance. Most often, the person did wrong or in some way failed, because they needed help and did not ask, or needed help, asked for help and did not get it. If no help is given, the problem is almost certain to recur.

The term “simply” is important, because a failed response is “simple.” Human beings are not simple. Human beings are holistic. As such, it needs a multiple level response. The response would vary depending on the circumstances… but common elements may include:

  • One-on-one counseling, perhaps along with family counseling, and counseling of direct and indirect victims.
  • Spiritual/ministerial mentor. Telling a minister to read the Bible more, pray more, or perhaps go on a spiritual retreat, is lazy. The minister needs to grow spiritually, and to do so in balance with ministry. This requires help from a mature mentor.
  • Accountability partners. Preferably several that care for the minister, and are willing to ask the tough questions while also being supportive.
  • Limited ministerial involvement (where power is limited, and time is limited to avoid temptations for abuse, or of burn-out)
  • Involvement in a nurturing church family. If a minister sinned in a public way in a church, it is likely that that church won’t be capable of being nurturing. (It might be nice if that fact was not true, but we have to deal with reality here.) Even going to another church may not make this work. Only some churches, sadly, are nurturing. Far to many are sources of stress and chaos.
  • Education/training/retooling. Often the minister needs to change. As such, he or she needs to be empowered to do so.
A multi-faceted response is important. Simple impersonal answers?  Not if you know what is good for you… or others.