by Daniel Bacon
Five ways to discern when a missionary assignment is coming to an end.
Christian leadership is all about changing and building. It’s about turning vision into reality—about translating God’s purposes into changed lives, changed structures, and changed environments. This is never an easy task. Someone once said that the mission fields of the world are littered with the wreckage of good intentions. There is no doubt that it is much easier to start what we believe is a God-given assignment than to finish it. However, as time goes by and circumstances change, we also struggle in knowing just when our so-called “God-given assignments” are finished, or at least when our part is coming to a close. In other words, how do we know when it is time to move on?
For Israel in the setting of Haggai the prophet, the assignment to rebuild the Temple was measurable and time-dated. As soon as construction was completed and the facility was ready for use, their immediate assignment was done. Unfortunately, for most of us, our tasks are not so easily defined. How then do we know when God may be “un-calling” us to something we strongly felt called to in the beginning? When can we walk away from a responsibility knowing that we are not being unfaithful or disobedient?
The following guidelines are shared out of years of personal experience and struggle, as well as from interacting with hundreds of missionaries, pastors, and church leaders. These guidelines cover a mixture of negative as well as positive indicators for knowing when it is right to leave or to have confidence that our God-given assignment is complete. Obviously, special circumstances such as illness, accidents, or situational crises (e.g., civil war, visas cancelled) may bring an abrupt halt to our assignment. However, in terms of things over which we have a measure of control, the following guidelines may help in discerning when our part is drawing to a close.
1. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED
There are some situations where you are called to fulfill a specific role or assignment that is concrete, specific, and time-framed. It has defined boundaries or edges around it that enable you to say, “Here it is. I did what I was asked to do.”
After serving eight years as church planters in Japan, my wife and I were asked to join the OMF headquarters leadership team in Singapore for a 2-year stint. From this strategic location, the ministry of OMF’s 1,300 missionaries are coordinated and facilitated. The rationale behind the request was that we would fill in while two of our directors went on home assignment. Everything looked cut and dried until toward the end of our time at international headquarters when we were asked if we would continue on as part of the leadership team. We felt caught between a deep desire to return to our ministry roots and first love in Japan or to change direction and continue on in Singapore in a more administrative or leadership-type function.
Just as we were agonizing in knowing whether our God-given assignment in Japan was truly finished (or for that matter, our current assignment in Singapore), we were thrown another curve. Because of the sudden resignation of our US national director to work among the thousands of Hmong refugees flooding to the US from Vietnam and Laos, we were asked if we would be willing to make an even more radical move back to the US and to lead our US operation. Amazingly, within three days, the leadership at headquarters, my wife, and I came to the same conclusion: God was tasking us with a new challenge—to mobilize resources for the urgent evangelization of East Asia’s unreached peoples. My wife and I have never looked back with regret.
Notice, however, that a key factor in applying the above guideline is the confirmation from objective sources that the mission is accomplished. Too often we come to think our assignment is finished before others do who know us well or who have overall responsibility for the work. We become frustrated or hurt by unmet expectations or difficulties and want to bail out. By getting the perspective of wise counselors and those who see things more objectively than we do, we can better know whether our mission is truly accomplished or not.
2. CONTRIBUTION MAXIMIZED
If your role is to pioneer, plant, or initiate the work, and then bring it to the point where others can ably take on the leadership, then it may be time for you to move on when the foundation is laid. There is an interesting phenomenon called “The Founders Syndrome” which frequently plagues new ministries or organizations. After initial success, the founder struggles to truly delegate or let go. He or she does not realize that by staying and seeking to control the work, he or she may actually hinder its healthy growth and development. In other words, the work may grow beyond the competency or skill-set of the founder and thus it would be best for the founder to let go and move on. There is a principle here that can apply to any person in ministry: do what you are primarily designed to do!
The Apostle Paul saw himself primarily as one who laid a foundation upon which others would build. That is why he could say, “But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions…” (Rom. 15:23). When his primary ministry function was completed, he felt released to move on to meet other challenges or needs.
As I look back over my various assignments in ministry, one factor which has helped me decide when it was time to move on was a sense that my unique gift-mix or contribution was maximized. In other words, there came a growing awareness based on feedback from others or the ministry results themselves (not always easy to accept) that perhaps my particular gift-mix or skill-set had taken things as far as they could go. Someone else was now needed to take the ministry further or in a new direction. After twenty years of service as US national director for OMF, I felt fresh leadership was needed. In other words, I felt that I had given all that I had to give, and someone else was now needed to move the work forward. At the same time, I had a growing conviction that my unique contribution or function was needed elsewhere. This led my wife and me back to international headquarters in Singapore and into a role of encouraging and equipping leaders.
3. STEWARDSHIP GIFTS
Someone once gave me some good advice when it comes to evaluating whether or not there is an ongoing place for me in a role or task. It is called the 60-40 principle. Inevitably within any assignment, there will be a mixture of the fun stuff and things that just need to be done. As long as the “fun stuff” (i.e., things that utilize my skills, gifts, and experience, and thus bring a sense of fulfillment) represents the majority of my work commitments, then I can likely deal with the other things that come along with it. However, if my job description or role requirements do not sufficiently match and challenge my gift-mix, then I am likely going to end up with burnout or severe frustration.
Stewardship of our primary gifts and calling should play a major role in deciding both when to undertake an assignment as well as when our part may be finished. The Apostle Peter could say with conviction, “We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4). He realized the importance of prioritizing his God-given resources, gifts, and opportunities.
Likewise, Paul made it clear that our God-given assignments will typically fall within our primary gifting and calling. God seems to assign tasks in keeping with the basic function or gift-mix with which he uniquely equips each of us. Thus Paul could emphasize in 1 Corinthians 3:5-8:
What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor.
In the early stages of your life in ministry, it is important to say yes to most things that come your way. This gives us the opportunity to experiment and discover our primary strengths and at the same time, to uncover our areas of non-giftedness or weakness. However, as time goes on, we increasingly should develop a clear sense of focus for our ministry. Thus when any assignment drifts beyond our primary gift-mix or is significantly changed beyond our major strengths, there is a strong possibility that our particular assignment is done.
A close friend and colleague of mine is David Dougherty. David joined OMF International after serving as a pastor for seventeen years. Today, he is a vital part of our OMF leader development team. While David has many gifts and strengths, by self-admission and confirmation by peers, his primary function and calling is in the area of equipping leaders for effective ministry. Where, how, and with whom are secondary issues to David as long as he can major on what he does best. Knowing what our primary function or calling is can help us make wise decisions about what may constitute a divine assignment.
4. STRATEGIC PRIORITIES
In looking carefully at the Gospels, it would seem that Jesus did not minister randomly, nor was he driven solely by the cry of the immediate or urgent. There were key points in his ministry when he left one place for another because of a sense of a higher priority. For instance, even when surrounded by opportunity and local need, he told his disciples, “I must preach the good news of the Kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent” (Luke 4:43). Priorities do play an important role in determining God’s assignments for us.
Paul also had to make decisions as to how he would invest his time or where he would go. He seemed to be guided in his choices, however, by an overarching sense of ministry priority: to open doors for the gospel to the Gentiles. In writing to the church in Rome, he outlined his strategic priority when he stated, “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation” (Rom. 15:20). That conviction guided Paul constantly in making choices. Thus he could say to the Romans as well, “I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done…So from Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ” (Rom. 15:19).
Likewise, in a different set of circumstances, priorities again played an important role in deciding what Paul would do. Paul came to Troas to preach the gospel and found a wide open door of opportunity (2 Cor. 2:12). Surely, this must be a God-given assignment. However, in amazement we read the following emotional statement by Paul: “I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said good-bye to them and went on to Macedonia” (2 Cor. 2:13). How could the apostle walk away from something so obviously of God? Apparently it was a conviction that consolidating a previous work was more important than starting something new. The priority to see the self-destructing church in Corinth, which Paul himself had started, survive and thrive overrode the current opportunity in Troas.
As someone once said, “Need alone does not constitute a call.” Over the years I have frequently had to make choices about taking on a new responsibility or responding to a request for my time and energy. I came to realize that just having a hole in my current schedule was not enough to justify a yes in response to a request. I had to learn to assess or evaluate invitations and opportunities in keeping with not only my own sense of calling and giftedness, but also as to whether or not the request would lead to our mission and vision or truly contribute to priority objectives.
From our human perspective there is a danger in deciding what open door or opportunity may be more important than another. We are limited and sometimes a God-given assignment may come to us without an obvious label indicting “Priority 1.” Nevertheless, we are forced at times to make prayerful choices with limited data. It is not unspiritual to ask if a proposed assignment has potential for greater impact than some other option, or if it will be a more strategic use of our limited time and resources. We have clear examples of a strategic approach to life and ministry in Jesus and Paul, as well as in the unfolding of God’s redemptive plan for humanity throughout the Bible.
5. DESTRUCTIVE OR ABUSIVE MINISTRY CONTEXT
Even a casual reading of 2 Timothy 1-4 will remind us that there is a cost to ministry. Suffering for the sake of the gospel and God’s people is not an elective; it is a basic requirement for anyone in ministry. However, within a ministry environment where there is freedom to come or go, there are circumstances which can point us to the conclusion that our God-given assignment is finished. Let me share an example.
When a person close to me cried out in pain, “This organization is killing me,” I knew something had to change. The specific ministry role of my friend was fulfilling and challenging. There was obvious fruit over a period of years, and I was amazed at the positive feedback from multiple sources saying how much they appreciated and valued my colleague’s servant heart, pastoral care, and strategic input.
However, within my friend’s ministry organization there was growing tension. It revolved around a conflict over resources. A new executive director had been brought into the leadership team, and because of misguided policies and misspending, the organization now faced a shortage of funds, and cutbacks were required. The international division of which my friend was a part was seen as the soft target for roll-backs. Essentially, the executive director determined that it had to be self-supporting within a very short time with an immediate reduction in budget. As a result, my friend’s position was eliminated.
He now had to make a choice. Although an alternative position was offered within the organization, it was no match for my friend’s gifting and ministry vision/passion. To compound matters, the executive director saw my friend as a threat because he frequently had challenged the policies and strategies that had brought the organization into difficulty. My friend knew that if he stayed he would need to work within a hostile environment. Understandably, the stress and pressure on my friend was contributing to high blood pressure, loss of sleep, and deep emotional struggles. Was it time for him to leave even though he would face economic uncertainty without a job and income?
In another context, the Apostle Paul provided us with a principle that I believe can help us in deciding when it is time to leave a difficult situation. He said to Christians in Corinth concerning a marriage between a believer and an unbeliever in which the unbelieving partner wants to leave that “if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace” (1 Cor. 7:15). God does not expect us to stay long-term in a context of ongoing and destructive tension or conflict within a voluntary organization or relationship. As a general rule, after all attempts to reduce tension or reconcile differences have failed, it likely indicates the necessity of departing. God does not desire us to function in a hostile situation.
Sometimes difficulties are self-inflicted by our own behavior or attitudes. Backlash in ministry is common (think of Moses and the Israelites in Egypt), and when any leader is seeking to implement even positive change or to manage relationships, some will be unhappy and let you know it. However, if we are working within a role where there is a serious misalignment of our core values and convictions that are creating continued tension and stress, then this may be a good indication of God moving us on. We all work best when there is reasonable support and trust. When these things are absent, it may well be time to leave.
A CLOSING WORD
It is important that we keep in mind in all of our discussions that we are ultimately called to walk by faith and not by sight. There is something in all of us that wants to know the future or even in some measure be able to control it. But our sovereign Lord has not given us that privilege. Thus we need to be cautious in using categorical statements about God’s will in undertaking assignments or leaving assignments apart from direct revelation. We pray and we seek God’s guidance; we listen to his Word and to the wise counsel of godly people. We may also carefully assess who we are in terms of stewardship and make judgments about the best use of our gifts and skills. In the end, however, we need to act by faith and trust in God’s ability to lead us.
Daniel Bacon and his wife are part of the international leadership team of OMF International. The two facilitate leader training events for OMF personnel and national church leaders throughout East Asia. Daniel has a doctorate in missiology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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