by Paul Borthwick
Church-mission agency-missionary relationships must face up to some realities.
When I became responsible for our church’s missions program, I was stimulated by Paul Beal’s fine book, A People For His Name (Baker, 1986), about the "chain of authority" in the missions sending process. Although Beal’s affirmations, such as "the local church’s centrality as the sending body in world missions" (p. xiii) and "the mission agency serves the church" (chapter 13) sound wonderful, after some experience, I have come to realize that they seldom exist.
Instead, I found other realities between local churches, missionaries, and their mission agencies.
1. Some agencies seem to see the local church only as a source of potential missionaries or money. A clear sense of partnership is usually missing (and this may be communicated to missionaries implicitly).
2. Number 1 is true because many local churches have totally abdicated responsibility to the mission agencies for recruiting, training, and sending missionaries.
3. Several agencies (and, therefore, their missionaries) imply that the local church is more of an obstacle than a partner in fulfilling the Great Commission (which presents an interesting dilemma if the goal is to plant churches!) and so encourage members to raise support almost entirely from individuals.
4. Number 3 is true partly because many local churches seem apathetic or only minimally concerned about world evangelization. (The leaders of the Association of Church Missions Committees and the Great Commission Workshop-Columbia Bible College and Seminary-estimate that between 80 to 95 percent of churches in the United States have no organized missions programs.)
5. Missionaries from interdenominational agencies often get support from many churches and individuals, making it very difficult to label any one church as the sending authority.
These realities showed me the sending process can cause tensions between the local church and the supported missionary; they provoked me to start encouraging both to work for practical solutions.
NOT JUST LIKE ACTS 13
A People For His Name and other fine biblical studies on sending missionaries (such as Michael Griffiths’ Who Really Sends the Missionary?) draw heavily on the the New Testament church and especially the sending of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13).
I’m all for it, but our situation has become a little complicated over almost 2,000 years. Consider several of the problems inherent in our contemporary systems.
1. Who does the sending? Consider the following overstated scenario: John becomes a Christian (or rededicates his life) while he is away at college; he commits his life to pursuing Christian service (perhaps at an Urbana missions conference or at a school retreat or meeting); he begins the process of becoming a missionary with the XYZ Mission; he may be required to get a "pastoral reference" to build a bridge with a local church, but (dare I say it?) some pastors do these with nonchalance; and some agencies allow campus staff (from Campus Crusade, the Navigators, or InterVarsity) to do this instead of a church worker; if John is accepted, the initial training can begin.
At this point, John is well into the sending process, and (either due to the nonchalance of his home church or the implicit circumvention of the local church by the sending agency, or both) the local church has played no significant role. John may start thinking about a "home church" when deputation starts to be discussed, but he may see churches more as "contacts" for potential funding.
In a better-case scenario, John might go away to school for missions training. Even if the home church "sends" him to school, his contacts with it dissipate over the 18 months to four years he studies. Then John’s church may not support him when he is ready to go, and John will find himself looking for the dozen or more churches he needs to fulfill his monthly support quota.
Thus, the church is either partially or totally omitted. Perhaps John has bypassed the church; maybe the local church has failed to show interest or support; perhaps the agency had poor experiences with churches in the past. Regardless of who is to blame, the agency-not the local church-has become the central sending authority.
2. Where does the missionary spend furlough? One of our Grace Chapel missionaries (a family of five) painted this true picture of the pressures and decisions they faced as they came home for six months: extended family and supporting churches on both coasts; a fledgling mission agency that needed and wanted them to do recruiting; their need for more financial support; special health needs of one of their children; a unique need (because of their pioneer work) to spend time doing research on their home country while home.
The furlough can bring the church-missionary-mission agency tension of "Who’s really in charge here?" to a head. Here are some contributing factors.
(a) The expectations of the mission agency. Some strongly suggest (dictate?) to missionaries how and where they must spend their furlough, either explicitly ("We need you to represent the mission at these conferences") or implicitly ("This is all the rental allowance you can have," or "You need to raise support," or "We think you need more education").
(b) The expectations of the missionaries. A missionary may want to stay in one location and try to be refreshed, unrealistic as that goal for furlough may seem. He or she may want to study, visit churches to renew relationships, or repair family relationships. These expectations may or may not agree with the agency’s.
(c) The expectations of supporting churches. The church supporting a missionary $10 a month often feels as entitled to the missionary as the one that supports him or her 75 percent. (One of our missionaries told me he is supported by 26 churches in the six states of New England, and they all expect to see him when he comes home.) In some cases, churches want a furloughing missionary to come for a night, while others want a "missionary in residence" for six months. When you add the different living situations they offer to the missionary (including housing, rent, access to transportation, etc.) to these expectations, it is easy to see how a missionary can be pulled in many directions.
(d) The expectations of extended family. Aging parents, needy siblings, or children at school in the United States can add to this pull. Grandparents want to see foreign-born grandkids, and everybody wants a family reunion.
These expectations make it very difficult for most missionaries to develop many significant "partnering" relationships with sending churches.
3. What about communication? In the tension of trying to build relationships between church and missionary, the communication issue arises because: missionaries feel more a part of a church that communicates to them; churches sense greater involvement with a missionary who sends newsletters, tapes, and even slides; churches are wary of those who communicate only when their financial support is waning, or they need a place to stay while on furlough; missionaries have told me of being afraid to open letters from non-communicative churches because the letter almost always bears the bad news that "we will be dropping your support."
When missionaries do visit our churches, they face other communication obstacles.
(a) How will my mediocre slides compare with first-class videos from InterVarsity’s 2100, or heart-stirring movies from World Vision?
(b) How do I communicate four years of work in the 15 minutes they have allotted me?
(c) This church will measure my significance in missions by my preaching ability, and God has called me as an aircraft mechanic for MAF!
(d) The missionary reporting before me is a Bible translator for Wycliffe. Her least interesting story will outshine anything I can report on church planting in Western Europe.
e) Will anybody at this church even remember me, even the pastor?
Fears, false assumptions, and unnecessary assumptions can all be averted through good communication, but it takes work from both the missionary and the sending church.
In our desire as a local church to improve relationships with our missionaries, we have observed that some of them make partnership easier than others. Here are some of the ways.
1. Communicate in the preparation process. We are far more likely to sense a partnership with "home grown" missionaries we have seen through the application, deputation, and training process. A missionary who contacts us only weeks before departing for a foreign field does not give us much of a chance to build relationships.
2. Get involved. During the preparation process and, if possible, during furlough, the best friendships can be built through ministry. Several of our furloughing missionaries have assisted in Sunday school. A few have even served on the missions committee. Others regularly attend prayer meeting. Involvement gives local church members a sense of teamwork with missionaries and broadens a missionary’s prayer (and sometimes financial) support base.
3. Recognize that every church is different. Someone from the People’s Church in Toronto might ask a worker from Sierra Leone, "So, do you use the principles of ethno-musicology in your work?" At most churches (including ours) the question more likely will be, "I’m sorry, but can you tell me where Sierra Leone is?"
The missionaries who we enjoy (and who enjoy us) are the ones who love us. They share ideas from other churches about missions education, prayer, and so forth, but they do not discredit the little efforts we make. In other words, they are willing to be "missionaries about missions" in our midst.
4. Build key relationships. Our best partnerships with missionaries come from those who have built relationships within the church, which often happens when they are with us when they are preparing, training, or on furlough. Some have done this simply through correspondence, and occasionally, through phone calls.
Individual relationships-with the pastor, missions committee, "adopting" Sunday school classes, and so on-provide the basis for a better sense of churchwide partnership.
5. Communicate. Letters, occasional tapes, and even a phone call to the pastor or missions committee chairperson can do wonders in building a better sense of camaraderie. A "pen pal" in the church can bring your requests to the church at large.
And don’t forget to ask what the church wants. Communication from your field to our church means giving us useful, digestible information. Newsletters average parishioners are likely to read often contain pithy stories, pictures, or cartoons.
Contact before furlough also builds bridges. If you think you will do best by being interviewed (rather than preaching), it helps us in the church to know. If your mission expects you to be on the road 15 of the 20 weeks you are home, tell us before we establish expectations about your visiting us.
6. Talk to your agency. If mission agency systems are in place that implicitly hurt your building relationships with local churches, tell your superiors so they can wrestle with personnel policies, furlough expectations, and deputation procedures.
Missionaries also help local churches by encouraging missions executives to build bridges to them by cultivating relationships with local pastors. If your mission is not involved with the Association of Church Missions Committees or the Association of International Missions Services, encourage your leaders to get involved. These agencies have their fingers on the pulse of the nation’s most missions-minded congregations.
Missionaries might also look over their agency’s board of directors. If there are no local church pastors, organizational decisions might reflect an oversight of or insensitivity to local church partnerships.
LOCAL CHURCH INITIATIVES
We who lead in the local church can also help develop more teamwork and partnership toward our missionaries and their sending agencies.
1. Get involved in training. The local church can do the preliminary screening of its missionary candidates; we need to take more responsibility for our own people’s preparation. This might mean contacting those who attend the Urbana conferences (the Inter-Varsity folks are happy to send us these names). We definitely must take "pastoral references" for church members more seriously. We might need to say to those pursuing missions opportunities, "If you are going to be coming to us for support, we’d like to get to know you before you are on the way to the airport!"
Programs such as a Potential Missionary Fellowship, a bi-weekly get-together (which we copied from other churches) designed to help clarify what it means to be a cross-cultural missionary, have helped our training involvement. This allows us to build relationships, screen people (helping some decide not to become missionaries), and do our part in the sending process.
For us, it has also meant:
(a) paying for some of the preliminary psychological testing mission agencies require;
(b) calling to recommend people to agencies rather than leaving all of the initiative to them;
(c) paying for an educational evaluation for one of our candidates with a learning disability (we wanted to find out if he could learn a foreign language, and we figured that the dollars spent could save the cost of embarrassment at language school);
(d) assisting in counseling in special situations-such as divorced candidates or those from dysfunctional families;
(e) calling personnel directors and recommending location assignments for candidates.
2. Maximize support. Many of the above problems involve our support structure. If our churches support fewer missionaries with larger amounts, it fosters greater partnerships between our missionaries and churches. Every little church used to want to be involved a little bit everywhere; the thinking went something like, "The more pins in the world map we have, the more missions-oriented we must be." Our supporting 200 missionaries just $10 a month creates missionaries without home churches; even if they are members in one location, they still must visit (on furlough) the 20 or 30 churches supporting them.
Maximizing support also means "putting our money where our mouth is" regarding furloughs. If we support a missionary 50 percent, we may correctly expect him or her to spend half of the furlough in our area. But will we help with housing? Will we provide a car? Will we help get the children into local schools? We need to evaluate our willingness and ability to help before we make irresponsible demands.
Many churches respond to these issues by creating consortiums, which unite the financial support (as well as screening, training, housing, vehicles, and so on) of churches in the same geographic area so missionaries can have one main sending church and four or more others that provide support and to which they report. This also creates a geographically centered support base to which the furloughing missionary can return.
3. Communicate. Several of our missionaries consider Grace Chapel their principal home church partnership simply because our people write, send packages, and even call them on the phone. To send occasional "cards of encouragement," we take time from our evening service or missions committee meeting to write postcard-size messages to specific missionaries. We then collect and send them all together to show our cross-cultural workers we are behind them.
When our missionaries visit our church on furlough, we try to give them a full evening with the missions committee. This personal interaction helps our committee (which champions the global cause throughout the year) represent our missionaries to the congregation. We can build more bridges by setting appointments for missionaries with our pastor, staff members, or key lay leaders. All this helps our missionaries feel more a part of the sending church.
Communication also means letting our missionaries know about us. We should let them know about the culture of our church, the progress of missions, challenges we face, and so on, so they can be sensitive and effective when they visit.
4. Overseas visits. Overseas visits by pastors, lay leaders, and even short-term work teams have deeply enhanced our partnerships with missionaries. We encourage our overseas business travelers to look up our missionaries, and we offer to reimburse them for taking our people out to a meal.
Our first goal with an overseas visit is relationship building, not evaluation. When a pastor writes, "I and an elder are coming for a visit and to evaluate your work," he is exercising what he sees as legitimate church authority, but the receiving missionary will feel more intimidated than supported.
Our overseas visits are primarily a tool to encourage our missionary partners and to educate our visitors (and our church). At times, we offer feedback to the sending agencies about what we observe, but we leave the evaluation to field or personnel directors. (If we do not have confidence in their evaluation and accountability systems, perhaps we ought to question our commitment to that mission.)
5. Work with the agency. I have talked with local church missions committee members angry or frustrated about how an agency acted without ever consulting them, the sending church. When I asked, "What did the agency’s leaders say when you brought that concern to them?, they have usually responded, Well, we never did; we assumed they did not want to hear from us.’" Bad assumption. When we feel circumvented, ignored, or used, we need to share our concerns-not vindictively but in the spirit of partnership that says, "Please, let’s communicate."
I once visited Bernie May, U.S. director of Wycliffe Bible Translators. He remarked, "You are the first local church pastor that ever initiated a meeting with me." Our meeting built a bridge that has enabled me to talk to Wycliffe when I felt one of our missionaries was being left in their administrative labyrinth.
While there are probably some uncooperative mission leaders, my general experience is that they are happy to hear feedback and develop deeper ties to our local churches. Often our silence (interpreted by them as a lack of interest) keeps this relationship from improving.
The day may come when we return to the New Testament model where the local church becomes the actual central authority for sending missionaries, but until then, our local church leaders and missionaries (and mission agency executives) can work together for partnership and develop both support and accountability, serving each other in the task of fulfilling the Great Commission.
Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 48-55. Copyright © 1991 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.