by Charles Mellis
Twenty-three years ago I had the task of drafting a service application form for the fledgling Missionary Aviation Fellowship. I gathered samples from a variety of boards and agencies. One had this question: “If appointed, do you intend to make missionary service your life work?”
Twenty-three years ago I had the task of drafting a service application form for the fledgling Missionary Aviation Fellowship. I gathered samples from a variety of boards and agencies. One had this question: "If appointed, do you intend to make missionary service your life work?" This was followed by (in parentheses): "This is a very important question and must not be left blank:" It was the only item on the form so strongly worded.
Having been reared in a home and church centered on "faith missions," I responded favorably to this and included it in my draft. But as the draft was circulated to our Advisory Council for comment, Clarence Jones of radio station HCJB raised a question: "Do we really have the right to ask this? Isn’t it, rather, a matter of `as long as the Lord leads’?" We agreed and dropped the item. But, like most other evangelical agencies, we continued to think of foreign missionary service as essentially a career, lifetime commitment.
In the next decade, there was a lot said-and written-about missionary "casualties." We were quite proud (justifiably, we thought) of our record. Except for an intended short-termer and two transfers to other fine mission agencies, we didn’t have a single drop-out for 18 years. We could really look down our pious young noses at the mounting statistics emanating from the larger historic denominational boards.
An expanding staff, families with teenagers, the rapidly changing life styles of the ’60’s-all these served to make us more realistic about some statistical probabilities-and to do some serious thinking about the best way to face these probabilities. Do we just expect and accept them? Or do we creatively plan around them?
Is term or contract missionary service (5, 10, 15 years) a viable option to career appointment? Does it even have advantages? Or does it involve an incomplete commitment? I’d like to examine these questions primarily from the management/personnel viewpoint-with special emphasis on how this is affected by the rapid changes in our contemporary society. But first let’s note a few presuppositions.
True, certain Biblical proof-texts can be cited seemingly to support lifetime service commitment. Yet historical, environ mental and practical factors have apparently been far more decisive in making career service the norm. This can be clouded by a tendency to spiritualize the issue-often resulting in an unfortunate, subtle drift from a pure lifetime commitment to Christ, toward commitment to a form of service, to a geographical area, even to an organizational structure.
I’m also presupposing a scriptural case for leadership or eldership that can identify with many insights of modern management studies-yet firmly within the context of a strong adherence to the individual priesthood of each believer. The Christian leader is not only responsible for the "cause," but also for the best exercise of the gifts of God in each member of the body.
Personally, my attention was first drawn to this subject as I noted the growing frequency-and substantial trauma-of couples feeling a need to be with their children as they transitioned to Stateside education. For an increasing number of highly dedicated couples, the Christian boarding school or mission home has become a declining option during the turbulent ’60’s.
Turning to Bailey and Jackson’s A Study of Missionary Motivation, Training, and Withdrawal (Missionary Research Library), I noted that the education of children was given as a reason for withdrawal by only 6.4 percent of the missionaries responding. (The much larger number of cases reported by the boards gave a higher number, but a lower percentage of only 2.6 percent.) Unfortunately, this one-decade study ended just at the wrong time to give significant results in this category. For in 1962, the World War II bumper baby crop of the bumper candidate influx was just beginning to reach "that age." I would be most surprised if a survey of the past eight years would not reveal substantially different results.
My concern centers less on the fact of withdrawal than the trauma it so often produces. The couple may feel very clearly led of the Lord. But they still have to make their decision in the climate we (both boards and constituency) have created. We don’t hear the word "casualty" much any more. Thank God! But these missionaries haven’t forgotten it. They may know they’re still walking in God’s will. But their friends are not necessarily convinced. And the missionary feels this despite all the well-intended words of "understanding."
Worse yet, their teen-age and young adult children feel it! Here, if ever, the missionary needs to call forth some of that haloed hero-image we’ve tended to surround him with, so that he might rest in his decision; rest so thoroughly that his young people will not absorb these tensions. But that’s asking a great deal in the midst of this climate.
Interestingly, the above is one of the two principal reasons why one major denomination has turned entirely to term appointments. Some months ago, I had a most interesting interview with Rev. Donald Smith, Personnel Secretary for the Commission on Ecumenical Mission and Relations of the United Presbyterian Church in the USA. That name not only takes a big long breath; it also tends to create in some of us the reaction, "Their problems are different." But the most striking result of my interview was to note the similarity of their situation to ours. They have faced basically the same problems to be solved and have met the same resistances we could expect if we introduced such a policy change. Their older missionaries found it difficult to accept (often on "theological" grounds)-even though the policy did not apply at inception to those over 40 or having 10 years of service. (For that group, lifetime appointment is normally assumed.) For all others, appointments are available for three- to ten-year terms, renewable for similar periods. Particularly for those serving 10 or more years, generous terminal salary arrangements are supplemented by retraining study grants.
Mr. Smith listed as the most significant advantage, in the two years since initiating this policy, the careful process of review-expected and anticipated-that precedes renewal of appointment or termination. This review takes on a very positive role instead of a negative one. In relation to the problem of children’s education in the States, this is anticipated and jointly planned for at least a year in advance. These plans include potential alternate service for the missionaries while in the States, and the possibility of return to foreign service at a later date. The name of the game is planning-in a positive vein. It doesn’t "just happen" with mere acquiescence.
Yet the major thrust of the COEMAR policy does not center on education. Rather, they want a specific, expected time for objective review of the missionary, his task, and the match between the two. This provides a very effective management aid, particularly for a personnel-oriented administration that is as concerned for its people as it is with results. It’s also appropriate at this point in history when the missionary task is changing so rapidly. More than ever we face the risk of sheer dedication keeping a missionary chained to a task while experiencing mediocre success and fulfillment, when objective review might reassign him to a role where he can excel and grow!
This has its apparent risks. The objective review might point to a better use of his gifts outside the missionary task. But is this bad? Is it even negative? It need not even imply an earlier mistake-it may well be the changing situation (either of task or the individual). But in any case, the important thing is to help him maximize his gifts from God, as of now. In mission personnel management we all shy away from surgery. It’s easier to prescribe pills, or even just bed rest. But we need to ask ourselves if this really is love-motivated leadership, or lack of courage. Is the permissive parent the most loving? (Just a little footnote here. In reviewing Bailey and Jackson’s book, I was disappointed with one aspect of their original questionnaire. The last two questions they asked the returnees were: What are you doing now? Do you now support missions in any way? Oh, how I wish they would have asked: Describe your comparative sense of satisfaction and fulfillment as a servant of Christ in your new positions Thoughtful, honest comments of that kind could be very instructive.)
Thus far we’ve been talking primarily about the potential benefits of term service for our present staffs. There’s another advantage in automatic review periods that is already of some importance, but will be increasingly vital in the ’70’s and beyond. Probably all of us have friends of considerable professional competence who are having to begin new careers in mid-life. Aerospace engineers are feeling the full force of this right now. And this trend is expected to increase dramatically.
Colin Leicester, a Cambridge University economist, reports on some of the findings of The Advisory Center for Education. They estimate that many of today’s graduates will have to be fully retrained three times within their working lives. Their recommendation: students should prepare themselves educationally and emotionally to change careers in mid-stream (emphasis mine).
Mission vocations may not be subject to quite that much change, the generalist less so than the specialist. Yet Harold Fife has already suggested a similar idea (in "Changing Face of Missions," Christianity Today, January, 1968): "Very few [church-planting] missionaries know how to express brotherly concern without intruding on the individuality of a church. . . What a boon to missions it would be if men with eight or ten years of successful pastoral experience in the sending countries would spend at least one term on the mission field in an older-brother capacity." Some career-switching is potentially ahead for us, too. Leicester has sounded a needed warning in terms of emotional preparation. Term or contract service should again prove a useful tool.
I would also like to consider this matter from a recruitment viewpoint. We’ve apparently reached some turning points during the past decade that go well beyond mere technology and task obsolescence. I’m speaking of the outlook of a disenchanted generation; critical, often lacking in self-discipline, and sometimes violent. They’ve rejected our value systems, seemingly done minimal constructive thinking. But insensitive they are not! They are also aware. Most importantly perhaps, for our present discussion, they are urban-oriented and reflect urban outlook.
Evan Adams has done considerable study aimed at making missions meaningful to today’s young adults. In an interview, he stressed that as societies move from tribal to village to urban they become more "contractual." The member of a tribe needs no contract. He simply belongs. In a village, "folk", or small town society, much the same is true; a member has more freedom to leave the society, but few do. Those of us over 40 are products of a church that is generally a "village" or small town phenomena-even if transplanted into suburbia. And in looking particularly at our present mission staffs, a fairly high percentage grew up in rural or small town America.
Yet today’s young adult has a very urban mentality. An urban person lacks a sense of "belonging" to anything. He thinks in terms of a contract to protect his own rights and personality, because he has grown up in a society that tends to treat him as an object. Is this unspiritual in a Christian young adult? Certainly not in the same sense that it would be in me.
For these forces in his life are basically subconscious. He’s not necessarily "demanding" a contract. He just thinks in these terms. Again, the more specialized the task, the more important this becomes. And the better educated youth will be less interested in longer term commitments that may not provide long-range fulfillment.
There’s also a noticeable trend among these young adults to make their vocational choices and decisions later in their training (than was true 10 or 20 years ago). This is so widespread (among Christian and non-Christian students alike) that there seems little point in bemoaning it rather than accepting it as another consequence of the life-molding forces of their growing-up years. Many missions have already made a partial adjustment to this. When successful Peace Corps recruiting in the early ’60’s caused us to consider seriously "short termers" (three months to two years), many were skeptical. Yet those who have experimented with short-term service have found it not only useful in itself, but a door-way to longer range service.
Still there may be many who will not be attracted, initially, either by such a brief "sample" or a career appointment. Yet a five-year term or contract appointment might well lead to an enthusiastic 15 years-or even a lifetime!-of service. Yes, term service, far from getting in the way of lifetime service (where it is desirable), may actually prove to be the key to it for today’s young adults.
One question of the post-Urbana (1967) Survey dealt specifically with length of service. The researchers admitted a question-construction problem here. One response option looked too much like the "right" answer ("As long as the Lord leads in that direction") and this drew over 60 percent of the replies. Even so, a strong 31 percent indicated interest in shorter terms of service. Only 5 percent indicated no interest at all-obviously a very service-oriented group of young adults!
Only 33 percent of the missionaries saw their task as lifetime.
In the light of the above, I would like to offer a few suggestions:
1. We need to be careful about our semantics. Fortunately, "casualty" and "drop-out" are disappearing. HCJB (perhaps others) speak of their "alumni" and treat them as such: a respected, appreciated, very special group of partners.
2. Attitudes, of course, are more important than words. Today’s young adults may be short on solutions. But they can sniff hypocrisy a country mile away. It behooves us to go out of our way to try to understand their feelings.
3. We can carefully examine our presuppositions, looking for creative options that we can propose to our boards that will be consistent with our biblical outlook, sans accretions, and relevant to our world as it is (rather than as it has been).
4. Having examined our hearts, let’s tell it like it is. Not because the young demand it, but simply to be honest before God. If policy changes are needed, as I’m convinced they are, let’s not expect the innovations to be easy. As Machiavelli put it many years ago in The Prince: "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things; because the innovator has for his enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders those who may do well under the new."
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