Thoughts on Christian Missions and Missions Theology
My “Missionary Member Care” Class at Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary questioned missionaries here in Asia about some of their challenges in missions. I have 11 students, and they each asked 3 missionaries 12 questions and recorded their answers. All of my students are from South Asia, East Asia, or Southeast Asia. From the 396 answers, I asked the students to break up into three groups and each group come up with 15 especially relevant statements from the answers.
We listed them (as seen in the picture below) and then started sub-categorizing them. I took the challenges and advice, and created a common response. the other categorizing, I will leave for my students in another week or so.
“Serving in missions is challenging. It is difficult to live in a culture unlike my own, and adjusting my living to be in many ways like those around me. It is hard to serve God in places where the people and government are not sympathetic to what I am trying to do. This becomes even more difficult when churches and people at home are inconsistent with their support. It not only makes it hard to travel and minister, but often makes it uncertain that I can care for my family, and educate our children. Team-members can be a great help, but often we find ourselves in conflict with each other. I want people to whom I am ministering to come to God, but often I am so busy and distracted that I find it challenging to spend time with God myself.
My advice to others considering going into missions is to take good time to take care of yourselves. Invest in a healthy diet, exercise, and getting enough sleep. Don’t get so engrossed with the busy-ness of ministry that you fail to spend time with God. You need to regularly take time to pray, study God’s word, and meditate. Also invest in your relationships with others, especially your team-members. Make an effort to fellowship and worship together. You need to learn to work with others– work out conflicts, and seek to live at peace with others, even including local governments. You need to take time to understand the culture, and embrace any opportunity to learn more about the people and about how best to minister to them.
Still, sometimes things seem to get out of control, and problems build up. You need to bring these burdens to God. You also need to have some close friends to whom you can share your problems with. Writing down your burdens, taking some alone time, and even a good scream or cry now and then can help as well.”
Strange title. Anyway, and I may have put this story in a blogpost before, many years ago, I was on an inspection team of the USS Truett. The USS Truett was a Knox-class Frigate in the United States Navy. While on board, only for a couple of days, I was talking to a petty officer aboard. He was surprisingly forthright with me. <I can’t verify the story… but I don’t need to. It’s a story.>
He was talking about an incident that happened the previous December. On Christmas day, everyone on the crew of the Truett was called in from liberty by the captain, to clean the ship. Of course, being in homeport, it would have been expected to have a minimum watchcrew aboard while the rest were on leave or liberty to be with family and friends.
But that was not what bothered this crewmember. What bothered him was that a few days later the captain apologized. Now, you might think that sounds backwards. One might expect the petty officer (and others aboard) to be unhappy about coming in on Christmas day and somewhat comforted by a later apology. But no… and there is a fairly simple reason if you think about it.
In the Navy, it is understood that the ship’s mission takes priority over personal life. One year, I was away from homeport approximately 300 days, and only could go home at night 2/3s of the remaining days. So being asked to work on Christmas was disappointing but part of Navy life. However, when the captain apologized a few days later, the truth was revealed. There was no operational necessity in bringing the crew to work on Christmas day… the captain was just in a bad mood.
Let’s bring this over to missionary member care. The question is often argued about how much a missionary should suffer in the mission field, or how easy it should be for them. Some missionaries are very well cared for while others are dumped in the field in a nearly destitute condition. What level of care should a missionary have?
I look at the USS Truett story and it helps me gain perspective. Missionaries are constrained by operational/ministerial requirements that will commonly bring some level of suffering or deprivation. It is part of the job, and just like the crewmembers on the Truett, it should be understood that some sacrifices are normal to do the job right.
On the other hand, however, sacrifices and suffering should not be dumped unnecessarily on missionaries any more than on Navy sailors. Suffering may be necessarily in the ministry but should not be artificially created by those whose job is to lead and care for missionaries.
Let’s take another example from the Navy. While I was in the Navy, I kept hearing from commanding officers “Safety First” or “Safety is our First Priority.” What nonsense! If that was true we would never go out to sea and never sail into harm’s way. However, my last CO said things better. He said something to the effect that “Our Priority is to Carry Out our Mission Safely.” I could understand that. We have to do what we have to do… we just need to find out how to do it safely.
Carrying that over to member care, instead of finding duality between mission and care, we bring them together. Mission Agencies need to find ways to care for missionaries so that they are empowered to do their mission. Good member care helps missionaries be more effective in carrying out their mission. Lack of good member care tends to make a missionary less effective. Too much member care (care that blocks the negative challenges of normal ministry) is likely to make the missionary less effective as well. We don’t need recurrence of stories of “compound missionaries” living in great comfort disconnected from the mission field just outside of the compound walls.
The balance will always be a challenge, but for me the healthy balance is glimpsed at least in these two stories from my military past.
We just got a box of goods from our home church. It had a couple of books, some vitamins, Old Bay Seasoning, clarinet reeds, a table cloth, some letters from children and friends at our home church, and a couple of bottles of Screaming Hornets Hot Sauce. The box reminded me of a few things that international missionaries need from their home church.
1. Things they need to minister that are not available in their new locations. Chewable vitamins are very useful in the work that we do. But chewable vitamins are generally unavailable in the Philippines (or prohibitively expensive). Two books (one on missiology and one on family counseling) we got are available in the US but not here.
2. Things that are not available but add to quality of life. The table cloth we got is of a type that is unavailable here. Clarinet (and saxophone) reeds are available where we live, but only beginner types. We used to appreciate dark chocolate because it was unavailable… but times have changed and they are now easy to get here.
3. Things that are not available and connect one to home. The Philippines has a lot of great food, but some things from back home cannot be come by. Coming from Virginia there are some good things we miss. We miss good ham… but that’s not particularly realistic to ship. But the Old Bay Seasoning and the Screaming Hornets Hot Sauce are small, but important ways of connecting with home.
4. Verbal expressions. The letters remind us in a tangible way that we are connected with home. It is always good to know that we are remembered.
You know, the Philippines is our home now. But that does not mean that we have lost our old home. We have two homes. Missionaries need financial support, they need material support for ministry. But they also need things that connect them to friends and family and land that is their other home.
Being involved with a counseling center here in the Philippines, one of our ministries is providing member care— psychological, emotional, and spiritual support— for missionaries, particularly for Filipino missionaries that serve in other countries. The loneliness and depression that sense of disconnection is common. This is partly due to the common experience of being disconnected from home. Just because missionaries go to other countries, it should not be assumed that a part of them does not remain at home.
It is very difficult for those that feel cut off… rejected… at home. A box from home is not much… but it says a lot.