by Jim Reapsome
Researching mission agencies is a lot like doing a term paper. I’ve suggested the crucial matters you’ll want to look at and some specific questions to ask.
The physician was puzzled, not by unusual symptoms he couldn’t diagnose, but by mission boards. They pursued him like a beagle chasing a rabbit. After all, he was a prime prospect worth enlisting: dedicated to Jesus Christ, experienced, and enrolled in a graduate school of missions to prepare for the field. Plus, the people on the field urgently needed him.
Panting from the chase, he sought shelter in my office. How could he find the right mission agency? There were so many of them and they all wanted him now. Where should he start? He didn’t want to respond to the most critical appeal. He wanted to be sure about the board itself.
An old friend once told me, when I faced a similar dilemma, "The team you’re playing on is far more important than the stadium you’re playing in." Sound advice. I’ve passed it on to many others.
But how do you find the right team? More than 900 agencies compete for missionaries. It’s hard to get the facts you need.
Die-hard Chicago Cubs baseball fans ignore the facts (the won-lost numbers) and keep on rooting for their beloved Cubbies year after year. You can’t afford to be an emotional fan of a mission board, or of a particular city, unreached tribe, or country. You must carefully, patiently ask questions – ”all the while, of course, praying and seeking the counsel of older, wiser Christians.
Researching mission agencies is a lot like doing a term paper. To help you, I’ve suggested the crucial matters you’ll want to look at. Plus, some specific questions to ask.
My physician friend had a highly marketable skill, as they say, but even so he had some stiff hurdles to leap before he could land in a jungle clinic. That’s because after you’ve found an agency you like, those folks will want to check you out thoroughly, too.
What will they look for? You’ll find a checklist below. Don’t let it terrorize you. It’s a friendly helper to get you on your way. First, then, what to look for in a mission board, followed by what the board will look for in you.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A MISSION BOARD
1. Doctrinal compatability. Before joining a team you should know what it believes. Examine the published doctrinal statement carefully. Be sure it fits your own convictions. Life on the mission field is tough enough without bashing your head against co-workers with whose doctrines you don’t agree.
In your initial conversations with agency representatives, try to find out if the agency is broad or narrow in its doctrinal convictions. That is, do they strive for strong internal consistency around some key points, such as baptism, eschatology, church government, relations with other churches and missions? Or do they allow for different opinions?
The agency may say it is "interdenominational," for instance, but over the years it may have developed some distinctives of its own. Find out what churches and major theological groups are represented among missionaries. Find out what the unwritten doctrines of the mission are, its traditions that have been elevated to orthodoxy. You can best do this by talking not only with recruiters but also with veterans of the agency.
2. Compatible goals and objectives. You want a team that you not only agree with doctrinally, but also one with whom you can throw in your lot 100 percent because you share common goals and objectives. Find out what the mission’s purposes are. Why does it exist? What is it trying to accomplish? How well has it been succeeding according to its own goals?
Try to get your hands on the agency’s annual plan and its five-year plan. Is it going where you want to go with your life? Would you risk everything to reach these goals? As you understand your temperament, gifts, and goals, do they fit the mission?
Has the mission ever reassessed its purposes and goals? No organization can do well by standing pat on traditional goals. Is there a regular process for internal reevaluation and long-range planning? What new goals and strategies have appeared recently to show that the mission is adapting to changes around the world and in U.S. culture? Depending on the answers you get, you should be able to satisfy yourself that your heart skips a beat with excitement when you think about joining this team.
3. Policies and principles. These documents must be thoroughly checked and discussed with mission representatives. Question everything you don’t understand or don’t agree with. Many missionary casualties arise because assumptions about mission policies were made prior to going overseas.
These policies cover the basics of finances, field administration, mission government, personnel, rules of behavior, children’s education, cars, retirement, insurance, and so on. Go over them with a fine-tooth comb. Ask reasons. Talk about applications. Are there exceptions? Try to assess the spirit behind the laws. Some missions are authoritarian, others are free wheeling. Find out in advance and see where you fit best. By all means, never assume that for the sake of going overseas you will assent to some policy you don’t agree with, and then fight it throughout your missionary career.
4. Opportunities and scope for ministry. Look for a mission that invites and encourages you with the kind of opportunities you are looking for. Does their planning reflect creativity and active searching for new ways to effective ministry? Or do you suspect you might feel cramped, or locked in to traditional ways of doing things? Mission leaders should impress you with fresh ideas and with an enlarged vision for "new worlds to conquer," so to speak.
5. Its track record where you want to serve. Check the fields where you might be headed. Are the people there upbeat, or do you find a steady drop-out rate, people giving up in defeat? Do this field and the mission’s ministries there show the undeniable marks of God’s Spirit at work there? What about relations there, mission to mission, missionary to missionary, mission to church? Are they rife with problems and conflicts, or is there harmony, unity, interdependence, and trust? Beware of the field booby-trapped with dissension and locked into sterility and repetition of past mistakes.
6. Its lifestyle. Probably the most difficult matter to probe is the lifestyle, or ethos, that develops around a mission. It is shaped over the decades by veterans and their traditions. Lifestyle grows around unwritten codes, not written ones. Put out your spiritual radar. How does the mission treat people? Do they put people ahead of programs? What happens to dropouts, for example? How does the mission care for its people when they come home on furlough, or when they come home for the sake of elderly parents, or for their children’s education?
Is there a warm family spirit? Check out how missionary wives and children feel. How does the mission treat women, single people, those who may not fit the customary mold? Are there women in places of responsibility?
Choose a mission the same way you would a wife or husband. Go beyond the romantic attachment and poke around the family tree. See what kind of personality your mission has. How does it respond to crisis? How does it show itself to the public? Ask a missionary if he or she had it to do over again, would they join the same mission.
7. Its written history. Start with current articles and reports in mission publications. Get your hands on as many missionary prayer letters as you can. If the agency is old enough, it should have a published history. Pore over its pages. You should come away with excitement and pleasure about the prospect of working with such a team.
8. The quality of their people. Most of us are attracted to organizations because someone has ministered to us and because their people show top quality all around. That’s the most impressive recommendation you can findâ€”happy, satisfied, fulfilled people who know what they’re about. They are confident about God’s call and excited to be part of his world mission. They are culturally aware, sensitive, and experts in their profession. You would find it a great privilege to work alongside them.
Find a mission like that. Listen to their people, not just from the pulpit, but in small groups. Grab them in informal settings and plague them with questions. If you sense you’re being stiff-armed, make a note of that. If your questions, no matter how naive, are answered sincerely and profoundly, that’s a welcome sign. Look for a mission board that has the best people you can findâ€”not perfect, to be sure, but those who serve as a model of the kind of missionary you would like to become.
WHAT THE MISSION BOARD WILL LOOK FOR IN YOU
1. Spiritual maturity. How do you walk with Jesus Christ? Do you sense God’s good hand on your life? Is there identifiable growth in godliness? The New Testament describes spiritual maturity in many ways. Check them out. How do you measure up in the basics of love, morality, fruitfulness, patience, hope, humility, and service for others? Is it your chief desire "to lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him" (Col. 1:10)?
2. Record of deeds done. Agencies will want proof that you are using your spiritual gifts. Whatever you propose to do in spiritual ministry across cultural lines you should be doing now:
Helping people come to faith in Christ; helping underdeveloped Christians grow; teaching Bible classes; pitching in with work projects, caring for victims of broken homes, alcohol and drug abuse; counseling the exploited, depressed, and oppressed; looking for hurting neighbors; cheering up elderly shut-ins.
Whatever professional skill you intend to use in another culture, the mission will want to be sure that you are already into the heart and soul of missions: bringing Jesus Christ into the world’s nasty corners and abrasive relationships.
3. Academic qualifications. These vary from mission to mission, depending on professional degrees and the intended ministry. The big issue here is to be prepared to invest some serious time in Bible, theology, missions, anthropology, and linguistics, for example, in addition to whatever qualifications you may have earned for your degree. Language acquisition aptitude can also be tested in advance.
4. Doctrinal compatibility. Just as you need to be satisfied that you are comfortable with the mission’s theological stance, so the mission wants to be sure you fit. You’ll have to put on paper your convictions about many doctrines. Somebody will look for even tiny flaws. When they show up, be prepared for discussion. Yes, you will find leeway, because missions want to know how carefully you have thought through these things and how deep your differences are, if any.
5. Personal integrity. Your resume may not show it, but the mission will want to know if you pay your bills, for example. We should not leave a shoddy record behind us throughout our preparatory years. Our habits will follow us. Applicants for missionary service must show that honesty, truthfulness, and integrity have marked their lives to this point.
6. A clear statement of your missionary vision and goals. Why do you want to be a missionary? How can you be certain that this is what God wants you to do? What do you want to accomplish for God? What are the biblical roots of your convictions about these matters? You’ll be asked questions like these many times throughout the mission’s screening process. They are crucial. For the most part, your progress will depend on the clarity and conviction of your answers.
Think the questions over again and again. Ask God for bedrock assurance that he does indeed want you to be a missionary, and that you would be failing him if you refused. If married, both of you should have the same convictions.
The point here is not just to find out if you’re worth sending. The point is that when the going gets rough on your first assignment, and you are tempted to quit, you will need to touch base with your convictions again and again.
7. A good report from your peers, teachers, coworkers, and supervisors. We call these references. Every application asks for them. The mission wants to find out about your personality, your character, your strengths and weaknesses, your gifts, and if your friends and associates think you will make a good missionary.
If you can’t hack it here, you’re not likely to hack it in a strange and hostile environment. The mission needs to know if you were a good mechanic, nurse, or whatever, before you decided to investigate missions as a career.
8. A strong commitment to your church. The church is where Christians worship, serve, and witness. It’s where God’s people are "joined and knit together" (Eph. 4:16). The church is the proving ground for further service in God’s kingdom. Out of a vital church life come prayer and financial support for missionary service.
The mission board will want to know how the prospective missionary feels about all of this. If the applicant has come to Christ and to missionary vision apart from the church, the mission may well ask the recruit to spend several years putting down strong roots in one church.
The missionary is the arm of the church in battle, so to speak. He is not sent off and forgotten, like an amputated limb. He is the church. He needs the church and the church needs him.
9. A willingness to be under authority. The Lone Ranger was a great act in the wild west, but he’s not your ideal missionary. Missionaries are people under orders, not only from God, but from field directors and home office executives.
Unfortunately, some missionaries see the home office as a necessary nuisance, so mission board interviewers try to spot that kind of person ahead of time. They are looking for team players who believe in accountability to their supervisors.
10. Teachableness. Mission boards want people with spirit and backbone. They want self-starters. They also want people with a teachable spirit, not know-it-alls. In looking for teachable people, the mission hopes to find a spirit of willingness to learn, to listen more than talk, and to observe patiently all the subtle nuances of missionary and local culture.
11. A sacrificial spirit. Sacrifice is the heart of missions. No one chooses to be a missionary to make huge gains in his bank account or reputation. Jesus captured the missionary spirit when he said, "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24).
How does a mission board spot this spirit in a person? Probably by sensing the opposite spirit during interviews and by talking with the candidate’s associates. The antithesis of self-denial crops up in undue concern about salary, benefits, pensions, opportunities for advancements, living conditions, health facilities, educational opportunities for children, and how much of Western comforts can be enjoyed on the mission field. All of these are natural concerns. The point that needs to be discovered in looking at the candidate is what priority he or she may give them.
12. Considerable knowledge of missions in general and of the field in particular. Agencies will ask about books you have read about missions history, biography, and current issues. They will also expect some evidence of knowledge of the history and culture of the country or people the missionary is thinking about serving.
13. A personal life above reproach. The pursuit of excellence in ethics and morality must stamp the missionary candidate’s life. Mission boards will expect this of applicants’ individual and family relations. They try to be sure that the candidate’s career will not be unduly hindered by his or her past. It is not worth sending even the sincerest volunteer, if he or she lacks a heart for holiness.
14. A servant’s spirit. Regardless of position, the overriding spirit of missionary service is that of a servant. During the screening process, interviewers will try to detect this spirit, to see if the person really evidences humility, a sense of partnership in mission, and a willingness to serve under local churches on the mission field.
American education and technology must put on the servant’s robe and "wash the feet" of believers around the world. Mission boards look for people who grasp mat vision of service and own it.
15. A willingness to grow home base partners. Financial support policies vary greatly from board to board, but all agencies insist that their missionaries build a strong prayer support team. If you apply to a board that depends on individual donors, you will be asked to spend considerable time finding enough donors to pay your salary, expenses, and benefits. This means speaking in churches and homes about your work and your needs. But even if that is not the requirement of your intended agency, you will be asked to find many faithful "prayer warriors."
16. Good health. Medical and psychological evaluations are significant parts of screening. The rationale for medical exams is obvious.
Occasionally, applicants resist psychological evaluations. Remember, each new missionary takes his "emotional baggage" with him to the fieldâ€”those events that have shaped his life so far. Mission boards want to check this baggage, for your good and for the success of their work.
AN ENCOURAGING WORD
Don’t be scared off by this imposing list of things the mission board will look for. Don’t expect to bat a thousand in every respect. Youâ€™ll be strong in some, weak in others. Thank God for the former, ask his help with the latter.
Yes, the standards may be frighteningly high, but they must be. World evangelization demands the best missionaries. Strive to be the best. Seek wise counsel in coming up to these standards. Don’t join a mission that will overlook your known weaknesses just to get you into harness. Don’t join a board that takes everybody, or that doesn’t screen applicants carefully.
Find friends who will pray with you until you can say, "Yes, I’m ready. I’m under obligation. I’m eager."
Remember, the mission board is just as eager to get you into service as you are to get there. Count on their people to help you at each stage. They will.
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