by Damaris Zehner
The modern mission compound is alive and well. Its walls aren’t of stone or mud brick, but they are just as real. The distance between missionary and local is just as great, and the unintended insult is even greater.
Not long ago, many missionaries lived in mission compounds. Where I lived in West Africa twenty years ago, there was a compound, a “city on a hill.” It had the town’s only air conditioner and one of its two telephones. The compound sat above and apart from the town, both physically and spiritually.
Fewer missionaries today live in compounds. We’ve recognized that we cannot build relationships after we’ve built walls. We’ve also realized how insulted local people were by missionaries who implied that their way of life was better.
But the modern mission compound is alive and well. Its walls aren’t of stone or mud brick, but they are just as real. The distance between missionary and local is just as great, and the unintended insult is even greater.
The modern mission compound is the team. Most sending agencies insist that their workers form teams. When the team arrives or forms on the field, its members expect their needs to be met by each other. When they’re homesick or stressed; when they need to borrow money or find someone to housesit or babysit; when they plan, pray and hold one another accountable, they rely on their team members.
What’s wrong with that? That’s what a team is supposed to be like. Books on teams emphasize that workers need the support and accountability of like-minded people. Without these, experts say, workers would leave the field burnt out and hurt. Of course, the same experts also tell us that the greatest cause of attrition is friction with fellow missionaries. These two facts coexist, but somehow we overlook the irony: you need a team to survive on the field, and you’ll leave the field because of your team.
How is a team like a compound? First, it is a tiny foreign culture in the midst of the mission field. Even when team members come from various countries, they are still most united by being different from “them”—the people on the outside.
Second, most of the mission worker’s life is “within” the team, and his or her contact with local people is more like a foray into unfamiliar— if not hostile—territory. Even when team meetings are minimal or team members work in different places, the team is still the hub of accountability. Unfortunately, few teams have minimal meetings, and few workers work entirely apart from their fellows.
Third, the team, like the compound, sends the message: “Within our walls we have friendship, conversation, accountability, mutual help and understanding. We don’t need you.” If we don’t need local people, our relationship with them can never be on equal terms. Yes, we need their food, their language skills and their permission to stay in their country, but we don’t need them as unique individuals. Thus, all our outreach may seem patronizing.
What unspoken, even unacknowledged, presumption underlies the modern idea of team? I agree that everyone needs friendship, accountability and help. But why do we assume that we can’t get them from local people? Our insistence that these essentials come from home seems dangerously like racism. We’ve recognized the racism inherent in the compound. Now it’s time to carefully examine the same racism that hides behind the concept of team.
I said earlier that the team implies an even greater insult to local people than the compound. What does it mean when we say to another person, “Because you’re different from me, I can’t expect friendship, accountability or help from you. In fact, I couldn’t even survive in your country if I hadn’t imported my own friends”? That is the biggest wall imaginable.
THE TEAM AS AN IMPEDIMENT TO WORK
When my husband and I first arrived on the mission field, circumstances enabled us to bypass our agency’s requirement for a team. We arrived knowing nothing, with three small children and a fourth on the way. Everything we needed had to come from local people. We knew one person who spoke English. Our language teachers knew only the native language. If we had to buy anything, go anywhere, repair, mail, cook or understand, we went to our local friends.
It was wonderful. We learned the language quickly, developed many relationships and were able to live simply and openly. This was important because the people had heard many Muslim and communist lies about missionaries. But since our neighbors were involved in most aspects of our lives, they saw that we were normal people.
We were not joined by team members for several years. Then our agency sent several others to be part of our team. The new workers, told they were joining a team, naturally looked to us for help. We were required to check on them and write reports monthly on their physical, mental and spiritual health. Our time with our local friends dropped drastically. When I had an hour between homeschooling, housework and teaching English, I needed to pay pastoral visits to team members. I felt they expected it—in some cases they told me directly that they resented the lack of “member care” we provided. Others felt that the team was consuming too much of their time already. We found it was impossible to satisfy the expectations of everyone with whom we worked.
A few months before arriving, these missionaries had stood before their churches and professed their calling to the people group. They were thrilled by the distant and exotic, they had prayed for difficulties through which they could serve God. Not one of them claimed that his or her calling was to a team of Westerners. What happened to them? They expected so much from our team that they had little energy left to leave the relational “compound.”
A few weeks ago we were completing the yearly team member evaluation required by our agency. “What are your expectations of team participation?” I asked one team member. She is a strong and devoted missionary, and she had rated herself justifiably high in her relations with local people, her work and her spiritual life. But she gave herself the lowest possible score in team participation. She was doing the work God had called her to and living a healthy life on the field. What more did she need from the team or need to do for the team? “I don’t know,” she said, and shrugged. She felt she just wasn’t measuring up on “team.” Modern missions has added this extraneous category of achievement—“team”—and consequently the best and most effective cross-cultural workers feel like failures.
THE TEAM AS AN IMPEDIMENT TO FRIENDSHIP
Not only does the team interfere with relationships with locals, it can also build walls between its members who are meant to be friends. I’m all for friends. But is a team the best means to provide accountability and sympathy—to provide friends?
Team is not a biblical relationship. Friendship is a biblical relationship—see David and Jonathan (1 Sam. 18:1-4) among many other examples. Marriage and family are also God-ordained—“God sets the lonely in families” (Ps. 68:6). Church fellowship is too—see Acts and the epistles. Employee and employer, host and guest, even owner and animal are acknowledged, described and either overtly or by implication approved. But team is not.
Jesus sent the disciples out two by two. If teams were limited to two single people sent on a short-term mission, I’d have no dispute. But in Luke 10, Jesus sent pairs ahead of himself: they were to pave the way for him, not establish their own work there. He also told them to stay in local houses and rely on those hosts. His command clearly varies from our practice of establishing teams with other foreigners.
Paul often traveled with a few co-workers. These people were Paul’s friends who traveled with him as long as it suited their goals. When Paul and Barnabas split over John Mark, the church—their “sending agency”—did not insist that Paul return immediately until he could be matched with someone else approved by management. Paul often traveled with friends he made where he had worked. In most cases, he was apparently able to choose with whom to work.
Sometimes the church sent a group for a particular mission, as in Acts 15:22. But these people carried a specific letter and were leaders who could answer questions about the decision contained in the letter. They were not sent to live together long-term in Antioch as a team.
THE TEAM BASED ON WEAKNESS, NOT STRENGTH
What is the team relationship based on, if not a biblical relationship? It’s grounded on the supposition that if missionaries don’t have a tight group surrounding them, they’ll go off the rails. One book about teams asserts that in order to be effective on the field, workers need “regular doses of member care” from specialists. “Dose” is a term used for medical treatment. This model is therapy for the less-than-well, not normal life for the healthy. The ministry of the Holy Spirit, the fellowship of friends and the support of the Body of Christ are apparently not enough to guarantee our health on the field.
There are healthy, effective relationships between co-workers on the field. Let me describe one.
Worker A serves at an orphanage with several other Western colleagues. Picture him standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his co-workers, not face-to-face. Even if he doesn’t like them, they cooperate. At the end of the day and on weekends, he retreats to the biblical relationships of family, friends, church, etc. He has natural accountability with his co-workers. They start the day by praying together, they gather occasionally for staff meetings, and a few times a year they go on group outings together. But Worker A’s focus is outward— on his work. This is a healthy, normal pattern of mature work and it is the pattern we most often follow in our home countries.
Worker B, on the other hand, belongs to a team that puts team relationships first. They have weekly meetings to deal with team issues. They’ve taken tests of personality, work style and spiritual gifts. They spend several hours every week talking about their feelings, rather than about work or any external subject. There are inevitable personality mismatches, as there were among Worker A’s co-workers. But because this team focuses inward, they have more opportunities for hurt, misunderstandings and nursing grudges. And they do less good work among the target people.
Worker A’s prayer and staff meetings and social get-togethers soon incorporate like-minded local colleagues. Why not? They have the same goals as the Westerners. Worker B’s meetings, however, remain limited to team, since they believe friendship, accountability and help must come from people similar to them.
Worker A goes home at the end of the day to his family or friends, hobbies and private devotions. Worker B, after (in many cases) spending much of the day with his team members, goes out again in the evening to the team meeting.
THE TEAM AS IMPEDIMENT TO BIBLICAL RELATIONSHIPS
Team, not a biblical relationship, ends up interfering with the health of biblical relationships. I can say from observation that the team concept works to supplant other relationships. A friend from a different organization, who has three small children, was troubled by her group’s mandatory weekly meetings. She didn’t want to leave her children with a babysitter so often. If she brought her children to the meeting, other members complained. If she stayed home, other team members perceived her as a part-timer. The message was that team is more important than motherhood. This situation, combined with others, has caused her family so much stress that they are currently off the field.
I’ve worked in both situations of natural collegiality and externally imposed teams. I’ve noticed that when I invite people over “just because,” they reciprocate with their own invitation. But when I host people because my husband and I are team leaders, no one reciprocates. After all, I’m just calling a meeting. I have guests and serve food and drinks every week or two, but rarely am I invited to their houses. If team exists for friendship, I have less than I would otherwise. I have more reciprocal relationships with the expatriates in town who are not on my team, not to mention with local friends.
Ironically, even accountability is harder in a team. Because of our position as leaders, my husband’s and my visits create worry—“Have we done something wrong?” members think. They hesitate to share worries and failings because they fear we’ll include their comments in a report. I see the contrast clearly. Our relationship with other workers in town is more open and relaxed than our team relationships.
But don’t you need a structure to deal with emergencies? Many years ago my husband and I were in West Africa with the Peace Corps. Volunteers in the field had no formal structure—just a loose collegial relationship that also included many Africans. One volunteer had a nervous breakdown, precipitated by ongoing family problems and bloody violence in the town where we lived. When the need arose, we all chipped in. Three of us stayed with her day and night while my husband got a message to the capital to arrange her flights. I flew with her to the city and left her only when she was in the hands of a nurse on her way to the United States. Others packed her belongings. Then we returned to our jobs and our lives.
Real mental problems, like real physical ones, deserve expert help. This woman needed psychiatric care, and she got it almost immediately. A team was not necessary. People of goodwill were.
Friendship, accountability and help are essential on the field, but the team formalizes them and ultimately damages them. Anyone who cannot form healthy, mutually beneficial relationships shouldn’t be a missionary.
THE TEAM AS IMPEDIMENT TO GOD’S CALLING
Team can also hamper our calling in practical ways. One organization’s team manual describes the responsibilities of team leader:
- He is to write the team’s strategy paper and review it annually; submit monthly reports on all aspects of work and needs in the field; inform the central office of all travel and other activities of team members; liaise with central office concerning possible recruits to the team; ensure regular team meetings for fellowship, prayer, Bible study, training, and discussion of church planting work; ensure that pastoral care and oversight is provided for each member; liaise with central office concerning pastoral concerns; support each team member through prayer, practical support, and advice; support the work of the organization through prayer; assist team members with stress management; meet with each member regularly and complete a yearly assessment form, as well as other forms as required; make sure that there are emergency contingency plans and that each member knows them; host, orient, support, and debrief visitors and short-term workers; assist the wider work of the organization; ensure training and leadership opportunities for members; monitor dating relationships of members; and participate in staff conferences, leadership meetings, and council meetings.
Anyone who actually fulfills all these expectations has little time and energy left to care for his family, if he has one, or to reach the people to whom God has called him. But consider not just the time required; look also at where this time and work are directed. None of the responsibilities outlined relates to the local people. These responsibilities not only interfere with the team leader’s calling, they require that he or she interfere with his or her team members’ calling.
There is no mention of God’s work, only of the wider work of the organization.
Team members also have less time to spend building local relationships. They have team meetings, reports and evaluations, plus the stilted interaction called “pastoral care.” This same document lists fourteen responsibilities for team members; only two of them—carry out visa duties and learn language—even imply that they live in a foreign country.
Teams, like other bureaucracies, tend to decrease the efficiency they were formed to promote.
One missionary family, currently in the United States, is debating returning to the field. They love the country where they serve and know the work is important, but are burnt out by the administrative tasks attached to the team and organization. Elsewhere, a couple’s team leader has been refusing them permission for more than a year to move to a town to which they feel called. Friendship, accountability and help are available there, but not through their team and their organization. So, they must remain in the capital city with their team.
The Peter Principle comes into play, too: people are promoted beyond their competency and interests. My husband and I were “promoted” to team leaders when others joined us because we were older, more experienced and well adjusted to the culture. We spoke the language and had a good network of local relationships. At that point, we were told we would be team leaders. No choice was offered us. Ministry we excelled at was replaced with work in which we had shown no competence and that we would have avoided if given the choice. Most importantly, we felt this work was unnecessary and harmful from the start.
We mentioned our dissatisfaction to a leader in our organization. He replied with the glowing example of another missionary who had “sacrificially” given up his own calling for all-absorbing team leadership duties. I do not denigrate anyone who takes on a servant role—we are here only because people support us back home. I hope they are serving us in obedience to God’s call. But this exemplary team leader was called to serve a particular people group, not a team. By the way, he permanently left the field.
Are missionaries ever called to a team? If we believe our calling is of God, then the time we spend outside our calling and our biblical relationships is simply disobedience. If God calls us to jump in a river and save a drowning person, he does not expect us to mess around on the bank filling out insurance forms. Likewise, when God sends us to people in spiritual danger, he does not expect us to mess around with unnecessary and harmful administrative nonsense. Mission agencies that accept people who are called to the Sudanese, the Thais or the homeless, and then make it impossible for these missionaries to work with these groups, are leading fellow Christians into disobedience. If teams made workers more effective at their calling, I’d support them. But they don’t. These agencies are putting God’s calling second to bureaucratic requirements and fashions.
Missions, like any other professional field, is subject to fads. Working in teams is so fashionable now that at a recent missions conference, it was referenced in all discussions. We talked about evangelism in teams, church planting in teams and opening new fields with teams. It was almost a mantra. No one asked for a definition of team or offered an alternative way to approach the work. Lack of critical thought is never a good thing.
Why not abandon team as a goal in itself? Everyone needs advice, encouragement, guidance and friendship. If there were no teams, effective workers would seek what they needed from national friends, employers, other expatriates, pastoral members of their agency, and friends and pastors at home. Email and air travel enable us to find support in many different places. Loose groups tailored to each missionary could be formed and disbanded as needed.
It’s time to reconsider the fashion of teams, their foundations and effects, and then redevote ourselves to the real work of missions—reaching the lost, not superintending the saved.
—–Published in EMQ Vol 41 No 3 Jul 2005 pp. 362-369
Damaris Zehner worked as a missionary for seven years in Central Asia. Though an American, she was born in Bangladesh and lived more than a third of her life in Asia, Africa and Europe. An English teacher, she is married and the mother of four girls. She and her family now live in rural Indiana. She welcomes comments on this article. Please write email@example.com
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