by Jim Reapsome
During the four decades I have observed the productivity question from the home side, a number of trends have emerged.
The late Brendan Gill wrote a best-seller called Here at the New Yorker, which is a treasure for people like me who have given most of their lives to the magazine business. He wrote this in 1975, so keep in mind that things have changed a lot. Be that as it may, here is one of his facts: Productivity was rewarded by a scale of payments that increased with the number of pieces sold during a year. But lack of productivity was neither rebuked nor deplored. On the contrary, it was sneakingly admired, as proof that The New Yorker considered writing an occupation often difficult and sometimes, for the best writers, impossible. Among The New Yorker’s best writers was Joseph Mitchell. He used to take months, even years, over a piece.
"Lack of productivity was neither rebuked nor deplored." When I read that, I recalled one of the more controversial articles we printed here in July, 1990, called "Why some people are unproductive." Although the writer, Phil Parshall, admitted that many missionaries are overworked, he claimed that half of them were "underactive relative to their potential." He admitted his impression was not based on a survey, but on his own observations of missionaries during his 28 years on the field. Then he cited reasons for lack of productivity in missionary service.
During the four decades I have observed the productivity question from the home side, a number of trends have emerged. The major one is that 40 years ago nobody I heard even raised the question. It was assumed that all missionaries were satisfactorily productive, and that none were lying down on the job. It was assumed that they were overworked and underpaid. That’s what the missionary call meant, didn’t it?
No scorecards were kept. If missionaries kept their noses clean, they were okay. Their jobs were secure for their lifetimes. If there were any failures, we didn’t know about them. Certainly no one was brought home for being lazy.
Of course, this does not mean all of them were as productive as they might have been. We just didn’t treat them like General Motors assembly-line workers. Very likely, just the opposite, because there was limited, if any, on-the-scene supervision and evaluation.
But as the decades rolled on, it became apparent that mission administrators and supporters at home began to ask questions about effectiveness. Those first articles we printed on the subject drew some letters I had to handle with asbestos gloves. The gist of them was that missionaries are accountable to God, not to their home office or supporting churches.
Gradually, however, the accountability theme gained acceptance. Mission offices had to respond to supporters’ questions. Newer missionaries welcomed job descriptions, vision statements, goals and objectives, three- and five-year plans. They did not shy away from supervision, but welcomed it. It gave them some security in an otherwise confusing ministry situation where they had to work pretty much on their own.
On the other hand, some missionaries tell me they feel like they’re going down with the Titanic when they get another sheaf of questionnaires to fill out pertaining to what they’ve accomplished over the last year. They feel it’s a bit unfair for someone 3,000 miles or more away to evaluate how well they have done.
However burdensome the mechanics may be, it does not seem unreasonable to expect some kinds of performance standards of our missionaries. If we accept that premise, then we have to work out acceptable ways to test productivity. This seems to be the toughest issue, because our missionary work is as varied as the flowers in my butterfly garden. No one standard of judgment fits all.
Missionaries are not like basketball players who either make or miss a shot. In some places, missionaries dribble and pass for years before they can even take a shot at the basket. In other places, they slam dunk every day. How can we compare them?
Some great people were not necessarily very productive in terms of visible results of their work, but they did not allow themselves to get sidetracked. Jeremiah wore himself out preaching, and suffered greatly for it, but the nation went down the tubes anyway. Paul had great successes in some cities, and not much in others. Jesus said some towns would be receptive, and some would be hostile. He made his men sowers of the seed but explained that productivity would vary greatly. Faithfulness to our calling will be the ultimate ground on which we will be tested by God.
Laziness is not our problem as much as wasted time and misdirected energy. Time-consuming circumstances can suck us down like quicksand, and thereby keep us from reaching our ministry goals. Great care and self-discipline are needed, because having the freedom to do what we want can turn into a fatal trap. While accountability for our productivity can be cumbersome, it is a good thing. We all need it.
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