by Dan Schmidt
We met friends at an Indian restaurant. As we munched warm flatbread with these missionaries, they told us how their mission agency was reckoning with looming challenges on several fronts.
We met friends at an Indian restaurant. As we munched warm flatbread with these missionaries, they told us how their mission agency was reckoning with looming challenges on several fronts. Our friends were cautious in their expectations.
That same month, I attended missions conferences at two colleges and sat on a panel featuring representatives from several mission groups. I heard how mission agencies launched with great fervor and bright hopes are now facing uphill climbs to keep people interested in their projects and attract new recruits. Some groups were feeling the pressures of an aging staff and declining donor base. Money sources were drying up as costs were rising. Governments were increasing restrictions. Sound familiar?
How can we respond? Few want to close shop or downsize. Either smacks of failure and both seem a far cry from the ardent desire to expand the kingdom’s frontiers. So, two replies become common. Some simply go on with business as usual. A few concerns might be voiced, but the sheer momentum that has carried a group for years is deemed sufficient to maintain the pace already set. Besides, where would our faith be if we waver in the face of opposition? And haven’t we weathered other crises before?
A second option is to blast ahead with an agency re-organization or focus of attention on new initiatives. “Let’s go to the next level!” is the cry from this gang. Great effort is spent rallying the troops around a new idea, field, project or people group.
I offer another possibility, prompted by the shift indicator on my minivan: the familiar P R N D L. Recently our daughters have been learning to drive, and that gives me a newfound interest in these simple initials. In them I find wisdom for mission organizations feeling the pressure to move forward: before one drives ahead, two other steps are necessary.
First, reverse. New drivers demonstrate how tricky reversing can be. One accustomed to cars thinks little of backing up, but those just settling into the driver’s seat have to learn this skill. They tend to resist reverse as a hard maneuver that seems to take the driver further from the intended goal. But success on the road requires the ability to reverse. A good instructor will make sure that this gear is understood and used appropriately.
What might a mission agency learn from backing up? I’m not talking about trying to undo progress, and certainly not about a nostalgic appeal to a past that’s been sanitized by selective memory. Rather, I’m advocating a studied treatment of the relevant history. For instance, if the mission agency began, as so many did, near World War I or II, what might be learned from a look at the sociology, psychology, politics and even theology of that era? What would emerge if the original documents of the agency’s founders were read, or if veterans who still recall these pioneers were asked for their stories and memories? Over the years, could the agency have drifted from its charter or sprawled beyond the purpose and parameters with which the enterprise began?
By looking back into a mission’s past, present leaders can revisit the dreams that captured those who got it off the ground. They can reexamine the vision that sparked interest and commitment from missionaries and their prayer and financial partners alike. Such a review causes one to evaluate an organization’s current direction and emphases, asking questions such as: Would those who began with this agency or came into it early on still embrace what we’re doing? Has what this group set out to do been accomplished? Or have we simply added more to our plate?
Backing up also allows a mission’s leadership to probe patterns. They can examine today’s obstacles and ask whether such challenges have been seen before. They can glean insight from how their predecessors solved, avoided or were buried by problems. They might rediscover once-prominent partners who slipped through the cracks as the mission picked up steam.
Any new driver will tell you that looking back takes effort. You must move slowly and be vigilant for small items that are not easily seen. You must stay focused on the task until it’s completed. This is why people, like organizations, resist reversing or do it with little care. I remember once crushing a tricycle in our driveway because I was so eager to be on my way. I back up now with much greater vigilance. Moving ahead calls us first to look behind. Only then are we ready for progress.
That is, once we deal with neutral. In a car’s transmission, N separates R and D as a buffer before the gears will switch from reverse to forward. It also allows an engine to rest while the car coasts along.
How often does an individual or agency pause for rest and reflection? And yet, those who build such “idle” times into life soon learn their value to personal and corporate health.
After years in one pastoral ministry, the church I served gave me a four-month sabbatical. Prolonged, intense labor had left me worn and frayed. For the first few weeks I did little more than sleep late, read, take long walks with my wife, putter in the yard and drink coffee. Some could have criticized my behavior as indolent; indeed, some days even I felt lazy. But I had come close to the point of collapse and needed rest. Along the road of ministry, I had neglected the value of a pause.
Mission agencies can arrive at a similar place. Their workers are often deeply committed to service and pour out their hearts in preaching the gospel, treating disease, translating Scripture, discipling pastors and teachers, and urging sustainable business and agriculture enterprises. Should a crisis arise, a typical response forged by the habit of hard work is to do more. The notion of rest flies in the face of deeply ingrained diligence and industry. A break from the action can seem counterintuitive at best, if not downright wrong.
But this misses the “N” of rest and quiet that is part of the Lord’s plan. We must value, for instance, the Sabbath with which he blesses his people, or the encouragement from Haggai to those who needed to stop their home improvement projects to “give careful thought to their ways.” As we do this, we discover that the break is restorative and constructive. It helps distracted people remember the Lord and readies us for what he is giving us to do.
The pause of N grants time and space for assessment. Has sin slipped in unaware, polluting decisions or interactions? Is our crisis to some degree self-inflicted? Just as a local church’s service encourages confession for worshipers, mission agencies should include seasons of focused inspection to root out sin in the camp. N creates those seasons. With proper guidance, examination and repentance become likely and possible. Clean hearts are more attentive to the Lord. While still in N, an agency can better determine where it is and where the Lord might be directing it to go.
The pause encourages reflection, an essential preparation for those embarking on a new course. What has looking back taught us? What has an assessment revealed? Are there attitudes to change, behaviors to adjust, conversations that need to occur? One mission agency, faced with a crisis that called for action, decided to pause. The leadership assembled representatives from its missionary staff for a two-day consultation, not to tell the missionaries what they had to do, but rather to listen to what they had to say. The meeting pulled people off the field; other work slowed and stopped. On the surface, this looked almost wasteful given the imminent problems. But it created a break in the action during which, and after which, reflection on key issues could occur. It encouraged communication, opened prayer time, sparked repentance and brought up genuine concerns. The pause was constructive, necessary and beneficial.
People start, join and stay with missions because they sense a call from God and feel an urgency in their bones. Their hearts are stirred by noble themes and their backs willingly bend to the great work they see stretched out before them. But crises arise. These can cripple a group or be used as opportunities for probing aims, purpose, strategies and techniques. What will it take to move ahead? At least two specific steps: a thoughtful consideration of the past followed by a pause long enough for rest, reflection and repentance. A response to challenges that includes these steps will prepare the organizations we serve to drive down the road with confidence.
Dan Schmidt has pastored churches in Latin America and the US. He has also served with two mission agencies and is the author of Unexpected Wisdom and Taken by Communion. He can be reached at .
EMQ, Vol. 41, No. 1, pp. 98-101. Copyright © 2005 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.