The Joy of Being Understood

I have been teaching a two-week course on Missionary Member Care. That is a broad topic and can focus on logistics, or life cycle, or

English: * This image is a png copy of Image:M...
English: * This image is a png copy of Image:Missionary_ship_Duff.jpg with reduced size and recoloured (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

fund-raising, or whatever. However, in part since I am an administrator of a Counseling Center, I have focused on the psycho-emotio-spiritual aspects or struggles in missions.

One assignment I gave was to ask the students to interview a missionary. The questions are the one’s Dr. Dan Russell used when I took his class in Missions years ago.


                                                   Student:                                                                                                 Missionary:

                                                   Place:                                                                                                     Date/Time:

Description of the Missionary:

How were you called to missions?

How do you have devotions? Include habits about both bible reading and prayer!

What problems do you face as a spouse on the mission field? (Optional)

How do you relate to your family back home?

What medical problems have you had in the country?

Do you exercise or have hobbies?

What are some security issues you have faced?

Tell me about your best local friend.

Why did you decide to go to the city or people you are serving now?

How did you raise support?

How do you keep in contact with your home or sending church?

How do you communicate prayer requests and other needs to supporters?

What mentoring have you received and given as a missionary?

Why did you choose your organization?

What is the size and ethnic background of your team?

How have you experienced spiritual warfare?

Can you share about a time when you wanted to give up?

What type of work have you done? and What is your current ministry?

How do the churches at home look at missionary work outside of the country?

These are good questions, and they are all good to ask missionary friends when you get a chance. But to get real answers there needs to be a foundation of TRUST between you and them. Missionaries are often ready to give the “Praise God for His Victory!” answers. But missions is full of at least as many struggles and hurts as there are joys and victories. Sometimes the joys and meaning flow from the struggles and hurts as much as anything.

Most of those interviewed were from NSC (new sending countries) and are serving in what is sometimes called the 10/40 window. Many serve with little financial support. Some/most are bivocational. If the rope is a symbol of missionary member care and support, for many of them, their rope is more like a shoe string. It is inspiring to read in their interviews NOT the victories, NOT the mountain top experiences, but the quiet commitment and perseverance. I feel a certain connection with them and thank God that they felt the confidence to share their experiences with my students. In reading their stories and trying to understand what they are going through, I feel understood as well. It sounds strange, but true. In some small (and not so small) ways, there is resonance between my experiences and theirs. As I have said before (as I was told by another) one of the greatest gifts you can give a person is to give them your full attention for a few minutes and TRY your best to truly understand what they are going through.

I almost wonder if I would like to teach a class in which the only tasks would be:

                      1.  Interview 10 or 20 (or so) NSC missionaries here in Southeast Asia

                      2.  Analyze the responses for common problems and concerns (ethnographic or GTA perhaps)

                      3.  Develop a prayer and support network for the missionaries.

Maybe that is not a good class project. Maybe it is a better Counseling Center project, or church project.

If you decide to ask a missionary the questions listed above: ensure that there is a trust between the two of you, encourage honest answers (not “churchy” answers), try your best to understand what they are really going through, and LISTEN.

Newest Article on Medical Missions

Changing Priorities in Christian Missions: Case Study of Medical Missions.

This is the third article based on research related to my dissertation.

<div style=”margin-bottom:5px”> <strong> <a href=”; title=”Changing Priorities in Christian Missions” target=”_blank”>Changing Priorities in Christian Missions</a> </strong> from <strong><a href=”; target=”_blank”>Bob Munson</a></strong> </div>

Missions Research and Practice, the Great Divide…

WARNING!! A technical story to follow… feel free to skip the blue section if you wish.

The cover page to Søren Kierkegaard's universi...
The cover page to Søren Kierkegaard's university thesis. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many years ago, I was a mechanical engineering student. My expertise was in material  science, particularly as it pertained to material response to stress. I did my master’s thesis in the creep rupture response of pultruded glass-reinforced polymer-matrix composites and how they are affected by notch sensitivity and thermal aging (chemical and physical aging). Being a bit less technical, I took some specialized fiber glass, drilled different size holes in it and hung weights on them in different heating environments to see when they fail. I wrote my thesis. I was shocked to discover how little information was out their on the research I was doing (that is nice in a sense since I was supposed to be researching in fertile soil). However, the little research I found disagreed somewhat with my results. The other research came up with a linear (straight line) approximation of the results. Mine was more curved… exponential. And when I looked at the data the other researchers used, it was clear to me that their data was more exponential than linear as well. So I came up with an empirical formula to describe creep rupture.

Why am I telling you this?  That thesis is probably on a shelf in two or three places in the world and most likely read by no more than 4 or 5 people total in the last 13 years. The results actually would be quite useful if they could be verified. Follow-on testing might contradict my results (creep rupture tests are notoriously difficult and the data is extremely limited). But if my results could have been verified, the information would be useful in the polymeric composites industry and in safety/failure analysis.

But almost certainly, the thesis is gathering dust (perhaps rightly so) and not being added to the knowledge base of the engineering world. 

<Okay, it is safe to begin reading again.?>

I am mentioning this because I am reading a dissertation on short-term mission pre-field training. It is quite interesting (to me at least). However, I have seen so many dissertations earn their researcher a doctorate but then simply became dusty books on shelves.

Many theses and dissertations rightly deserve to become forgotten… used by a few researchers for obscure bibliographic references or to act as a guide for structure and formatting. However, some have something relevant to say and should be integrated into present thought and practice.

Of course, (and mentioning nothing new to anyone here) one problem is lack of value of theses or dissertations as a vehicle for change. The language and style is unappealing and its form of dissemination tends to lead to their obscurity. What to do?

A.  One can change the format to make it more popular or at least understandable by those without a highly technical background. However, to do this while maintaining the rigor and hurdles of the process is a question. Can the final output of doctoral level research be a popular book while maintaining the proper oversight and high research standards? A lot of popular books are written. Much are little more than propaganda of the writer’s opinions and agenda. Can a dissertation be understandable and easily adaptable to the real world while maintaining the high level of academic standards. (Doctoral programs and masteral programs have probably been “dumbed-down” more than enough already.)

B. One can maintain the dissertation as it is but improve accessibility. This is done a lot with accessibility of papers through electronic databases accessible via the Internet. However, the structure of the dissertation can still lead to its obscurity even if it is physically/electronically accessible. Even if put into a more accessible form (like book, video, digital presentation) it is possible the good can be lost amidst the mediocre. Additionally, a lot of good papers come from obscure corners of the world where electronic forms are not produced and disseminated.

C.  One can require that students produce both a thesis/dissertation and a more popular adaptation. This sounds good, but setting up a new requirements can stretch out the training process even longer than it already is.

I am not seeking to solve a problem here. Ideally, the graduate  (with support of the learning institution and mentors) will develop accessible, clear, and relevant versions of the research that can be utilized to affect change.

However, I think genuine improvements are possible. I have taught a class in church growth (master’s level) where I gave a doctoral dissertation on the church growth movement as a reading assignment. It was clear and informative. So, I think even the old musty dissertation can be made readable if it is allowed to be done creatively.

In Christian missions this is especially important where mission strategy and policies are often developed “intuitively” or empirically by committee with questionable basis (theologically or otherwise). Good missions research can be a big help if allowed to percolate into the broader discussions of strategy and best practices. Of course, that requires that missions dissertations be good as well. I have read more than one dissertation in Christian work where the conclusions seem to be simply the belief system of the writer because they seem to disagree with (or are at least unrelated to) the research findings.

Presentation for Wholistic Ministry

I see that the transfer of my diagram to .odt to .pdf to slideshare got a bit “smudgey.” I will try to fix this in the future. However, for now, I think the paper still have value. It is based on a summarization of the literary review portion of my dissertation.

<div style=”width:477px” id=”__ss_11361853″> <strong style=”display:block;margin:12px 0 4px”><a href=”; title=”Visual Model for Christian Relief and Development” target=”_blank”>Visual Model for Christian Relief and Development</a></strong> <div style=”padding:5px 0 12px”> View more <a href=”; target=”_blank”>documents</a> from <a href=”; target=”_blank”>Bob Munson</a> </div> </div>

Ethnographic Research #2

A method that is common and respected in the Philippines is Rapid Rural Assessment (or appraisal). It is used primarily for community development. It does not actually have to be “rural,” that is just its traditional setting. Additionally, it can be modified to where the researcher is not merely an outside. Rather the “researcher” is a partnership of outsiders and insiders. In this case it can be called a PRA, where the “P” stands for “participatory.” The presentation is definitely focused on the Philippines where the barangay structure is especially conducive to the methodology. However, any place where there is a strong sense of community, RRAs or PRAs can be done.  RRA can be done where there is a weak sense of community, but it is more challenging. Another method is ABCD (Asset-Based Community Development) but I will leave that for another time, or for someone else.

<div style=”width:425px” id=”__ss_10665868″> <strong style=”display:block;margin:12px 0 4px”><a href=”; title=”Rapid Rural Assessment in the Philippines” target=”_blank”>Rapid Rural Assessment in the Philippines</a></strong> <div style=”padding:5px 0 12px”> View more <a href=”; target=”_blank”>presentations</a> from <a href=”; target=”_blank”>Bob Munson</a> </div> </div>

Ethnographic Research #1

In Missions Research, one can divide research into three broad categories: Literary Research, Quantitative Research, and Qualitative Research. Yes, these could be argued about and they do overlap, but let’s go with it for now. Qualitative Research involves development of new sources and data (unlike literary research) and deals with statements and concepts rather than numbers (unlike quantitative research).

There are different types of qualitative research. Arguably, the “Big 5” are Biography, Phenomenology, Case Study, Ethnography, and Grounded Theory. In my mind, the most valuable research in Missions are Ethnography and Grounded Theory (although popular, I see Case Study as being more useful for teaching than for actual research.

Ethnographic Research involves the description and analysis (qualitatively) of a culture, sub-culture, or micro-culture.

<div style=”width:425px” id=”__ss_10665845″> <strong style=”display:block;margin:12px 0 4px”><a href=”; title=”Ethnographic research: How To” target=”_blank”>Ethnographic research: How To</a></strong> <div style=”padding:5px 0 12px”> View more <a href=”; target=”_blank”>presentations</a> from <a href=”; target=”_blank”>Bob Munson</a> </div> </div>

The above describes in simple terms how to do ethnographic research, particularly within the Philippine context (although not limited to the Philippines).

Missions, Numbers, and Pointy-Haired Bosses

Pointy-haired Boss   Image via Wikipedia

Numbers matter, on some level at least, but I believe we all know that numbers are highly limited in their ability measure what matters. I remember a Dilbert Cartoon (November 21, 1994) where Dogbert suggested that corporate health can best be measured by employee turnover rate. The “pointy-haired boss” (PHB) noted that their turnover rate was very low since they keep their employees poorly trained so no one else would want to hire them. PHB ends the comic with the victory cheer “NO METRIC HAS BEATEN ME YET!!” He was pointing out that as soon as you set a statistical standard for performance, one can find ways to “beat the system”. A couple of years ago, some milk product manufacturers in China were found putting melamine (bad stuff) into milk products because it would make a test give higher protein readings. Clearly evaluating by numbers alone is inadequate.

It is not surprising that today, in an age of technology, statistics, and analysis, numbers have grown in import. The Church Growth Movements often focus on numbers: biological growth, transfer growth, conversion growth, “back-door” losses, baptisms, and memberships. But by these standards, the Peoples Temple, led by Jim Jones, would be considered a very successful church, even after Jones declared himself God. From a numbers standpoint, the problems with the People’s Temple would not have really shown up until the church members did a mass suicide (huge back-door losses). The “spiritual disciplines” sometimes become metrics for holiness: how many verses memorized, how much of the Bible is read daily, how many times does one prayer or fast, or go to church, or join worship rallies, journal, or a host of other measurable behaviors.

Missions is often hugely statistical.

Missionaries are often judged by the:

          -Number of people “reached” with the Gospel.

          -Number of events held.

          -Number of people they have led to Christ.

          -Number of churches they have planted.

          -Number of people they are discipling.

          -Efficiency of work (“bang for the buck”)

Mission sites are often judged by:

          -Number of unreached people groups.

         -Percentage of “Evangelicals” in the region

          -Baptism rates

          -Church planting patterns and stats

          -Statistical viability for church-planting movement (CPM)

But is missions (Missio Dei) truly something that can be measured?

I believe that in missions organizations and missionaries, like the Pointy-Haired Boss in Dilbert, can use numbers in ways to enlighten or disquise. Let me give you an example:

I used to be involved with a lot of medical missions. I don’t have a problem with medical missions (my dissertation is on doing medical mission events in the Philipines), but some are done poorly… and that is never acceptable.

Let me give you some numbers of a typical evangelistic medical mission (partnered with a local church) here in the Philippines.

          -People treated: 500

    • (Medical treatment) 350

    • (Dental treatment) 100

    • (Minor surgical treatment) 50

    • Prayed to Receive Christ 300 (high rates of external response common in PI)

    • Desire Home Bible Study 80

    • Cost? About $1200 (pretty efficient!!)

These are pretty good numbers!! One could use these numbers to demonstrate that one is a pretty good missionary.

But suppose one wanted to show this mission was a failure, not a success?

  • People helped, physically, long-term?        Maybe 70-80 (and these only modestly)
  • How many people now involved in church?                  Maybe 15
  • How many trained for healthy and wise living?             0
  • How many are empowered (versus made dependent) by the event.        0

From this, one could argue that it is a big waste of time.

Which view is correct? Recall the quote: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” (probably first coined by Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke). The truth may not be so easy to measure. For example:

  • Did the medical mission express the love of God to the community in a way that people could understand and respond to?

  • Did the local church build bridges/healthy relationships with the broader community?

  • Did it inspire local and outside volunteers to greater faithfulness and service of God?

  • Did it engender dependency within the community or ill-will?

  • (Most importantly) Was the mission doing God’s work or one’s own work?

These are frustrating questions because they reject quantification… but these are the ones most important for us to answer.