by Gene Daniels
Our generation is seeing fewer and fewer missionaries spend their entire missionary career in one place.
Our generation is seeing fewer and fewer missionaries spend their entire missionary career in one place. There are two major reasons for this: (1) current trends toward globalization and international travel and (2) the profound rearrangement of lifestyles and employment patterns in societies from which many missionaries come.These changes have most likely caused a new generation of missionaries to interpret relevant biblical passages in a new light. As a result, our missionary vocation has been irreversibly changed.
For some, the jury is still out on the long-term effects of this mini-revolution in world missions. However, the changing concepts of missionary tenure may indeed have the potential to enhance the work of God in various ways.
One positive consequence is that newer mission fields are often blessed by the experience of seasoned veterans who have moved from other locations.
Although experienced missionaries who change fields of ministry face many challenges, one is especially important: issues related to the exercise of personal leadership.
In order for this cumulative experience to benefit a new work, the veteran (but still newly-arrived) missionary must exercise a certain amount of leadership. This, however, raises a number of difficult questions:
• How does a leader in one place properly begin serving in another location or ministry?
• Does the idea of “leadership” even transfer from one location to another?
• How can a veteran missionary in a new setting or team exercise authentic spiritual authority without acting in a way that could be interpreted as condescending?
TRANSITION AND HOPE
With the changing face of world missions, these questions are not hypothetical. Indeed, they represent a very real challenge that my wife and I have been personally wrestling with. After serving for six years in one location, we moved six hundred miles (and over two mountain ranges) to a different city and country.
For six years we had been part of a team that saw a true frontier mission field stabilize into a place where the gospel was accessible. There was still much to be done in the place we had learned to call home, but the day of the pioneer missionary was drawing to a close.
Our new home was in a newer field where structures and buildings were either much less developed or non-existent. In fact, this was one of the things that attracted us to the area. The newly-imported Christian traditions which we missionaries incidentally brought with us were quickly being etched in stone as the only way to do church—it was time to move on. In some ways, we were returning to our first days on the field when the future was being formed day by day.
In spite of these and other differences, our new homeland would be culturally similar to the one we had left. It was in the same larger cultural context and most individuals even spoke the same trade language. Because of this, we had every hope that this new field would be a place where our previous experiences in ministry and leadership would find good parallels. At the same time, the last thing we wanted to do was to come in thinking we knew everything we needed to know. We knew there would be many surprises and were relishing the idea of learning much from this new culture and people.
REALITY ON THE NEW MISSION FIELD
Rather than being able to tiptoe in as “newcomers,” we soon found that some sort of reputation had preceded us and that there were many expectations as to what roles we would play. Because of the relatedness of the two fields, some of our new colleagues expected us to exercise a similar leadership we had used on our previous mission field in our new location.
This both flattered and shocked us and we were unsure as to how we would respond. The measure of leadership we had developed on our first location resulted from years of interaction and friendship building. We were forced to ask how one just starts out as a leader. How could we provide leadership in a new context, to a new group of colleagues we had never met?
he more we sought to answer this question, the more we found it to be a seedbed of personal growth and maturity. Although I am writing this article, I do not want to appear as someone who has already “arrived.” To say “we have learned” would imply that the learning is now past tense. It is more accurate to say, “We are in the process of learning some important lessons.” What follows are a few characteristics we have found necessary in successfully taking previous leadership experience and using it in a new setting.
Scripture admonishes us to be humble (1 Pet. 5:5; Matt. 23:11-12; Prov. 15:33). Because this concept is so basic to leadership, we may be tempted to gloss over this point. The truth is that when we move to a new location, our insecurities come to the forefront. No matter how settled and secure we may have felt in the past, the new situation will often drive our inner need to “prove” our value to our new colleagues. This can lead to ridiculous manifestations of pride.
I vividly remember one such colleague who had just moved to a new field after spending quite some time on another field. He was arguing with a local church leader about the proper way to phrase what he wanted to say. The absurdity is that the dialogue took place in—and about—a language the missionary was still learning. All the while, the local leader was arguing in his native tongue!
In new settings we often feel vulnerable. Because of this, we tend to build defenses by accentuating our strengths and hiding our fears. While this may be natural from a human point-of-view, it is not the way of true leadership. Godly leaders are not afraid to show their vulnerability. Rather, they expose them as Paul did in Galatians 2:1-2: “Fourteen years later I went again to Jerusalem…I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain.”
Our flesh rebels against the thought of being exposed for who we really are; yet, when others see this kind of vulnerability, they are also encouraged to become more authentic. By showing ourselves as sometimes uncertain and fearful people, we begin to exercise true leadership. We are modeling authenticity to those around us. In my own situation, I have found this to be the case.
Because our previous location was urban, I was able to minister quite
effectively after learning only the trade language. I did not, therefore, learn much of our target people’s national language. It was just not necessary.
Our new home is much more rural and the national language is much more important, and because of this, all the missionaries in our new area are learning it. Shortly after we arrived, I realized my new colleagues didn’t know about the linguistic issues we were facing. I felt humiliated as I stumbled along in a language that many assumed I already knew well. However, it was liberating when I finally quit trying to hide my deficiencies in one language and began focusing on using my strengths in the other.
Although the support of organizations and structures can be very helpful at times, it can also give missionaries an excuse for not being authentic. We can hide behind titles or positions. But when we are in a new location, we are often stripped of these props and forced to simply be who we are. Although this is a fearful moment, we must not see it as such. If we are truly leaders, others will follow—with or without any structure or organization forcing them to do so.
Not long ago a fellow Christian worker shared with me about a conflict that had arisen with a particular missionary family. After working with the woman in an office for more than a year, my fellow worker was shocked when her coworker’s husband said that her first-name familiarity with them was disrespectful. He went on to demand that she start calling them “pastor” and “sister pastor.” This young Christian was from a simple, indigenous church background. It had never occurred to her to call him pastor, because he had never given her any type of pastoral care. She didn’t know, nor would have understood, the religious politics that he felt had given him the right to this title. She had innocently measured him by his actions.
Many of our most basic inner drives (as well as our most public mistakes) are due to the need for respect. As leaders in our past locations, most likely we have become accustomed to receiving respect. In a new location or ministry we will, consciously or subconsciously, desire the same thing. Our inner person will strive, manipulate, even fight, for someone to give us the respect we think we deserve.
We must, however, look to Jesus’ words as recorded in Luke 6.38: “Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
I remember a colleague who joined our first missions team after having been two or three years in a related field. He had many good ideas, but also seemed to have a chip on his shoulder. He tried to awe us with his knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, but seldom made positive comments about the team. He never did submit his ministry to the guidance of the team’s leadership. His actions communicated: (1) a deep need to have his significance affirmed and (2) what seemed like a profound lack of respect for his new colleagues. Although this family stayed in the area, they did not last long on our team.
BEING ATTENTIVE TO PERSONAL WEAKNESS
Even the most experienced leaders carry the baggage of personal weaknesses. Some are poor organizers, others flinch when facing conflict or stress. Maturity is not the absence of weakness; rather, it is the ability to recognize and deal with weakness. In my own life, I have a tendency to talk excessively when nervous. Other individuals might realize that they do not handle public criticism well. If we are to have any chance of exercising leadership among new colleagues, we must stay alert to when these weaknesses arise—and be ruthless in dealing with ourselves when they do.
Those who have known us for years may have lovingly overlooked some of our weaknesses. It is unlikely that new colleagues will be so forgiving while they are beginning to measure the quality of our leadership.
However, we must remember that in spite of our personal failings and flaws in the past, when we enter a new field, we are offered a clean slate. We don’t have to continue to carry around baggage from earlier and more immature years.
In Galatians 2 we see Peter, the pillar of the early Church, causing trouble in a new ministry setting. Although Paul focuses on only one aspect of Peter’s behavior in this letter, it may be helpful to look at the issue from a slightly different angle.
A careful reading suggests the possibility that the conflict between Peter and Paul was an example of the challenges facing an established leader who moves into a new area. Could it be that Peter had been using models of ministry that had been useful in his previous location, Jerusalem, but that were now harmful to the mixed ethnic congregation in Antioch? His experiences as a leader in a predominantly Jewish city were still valid. However, they were unhelpful, and perhaps divisive, in a new location where the rules had changed.
The danger in having experience is that we rely on it without first applying a critical eye to the things we know to be true. Leaders who move to a new location or ministry must carefully sift through their experience to find those things which are truly applicable to the new assignment. Some lessons we have learned in previous ministry settings may indeed be universal in nature. However, the newly-transplanted leader must have the wisdom to shelve the things that, although having served them well in the past, are no longer germane to their new situation.
At other times, it is simply quantity versus quality.
People will more readily listen to someone who has one or two valuable things to say, rather than to someone who expresses an opinion on every issue. Many leaders, including myself, have an abundance of ideas and opinions. We may even want to share them on every subject that arises. This inevitably leads to problems and conflict, especially in a different ministry setting where we are surrounded by new colleagues who will be better served by a more judicial use of our opinions.
We live in a time when missionaries are becoming more mobile and few spend a lifetime in one place. This increased mobility can produce great benefits as God sometimes shuffles his servants around to bring their unique contributions to different locales. However, experienced missionaries must have a proper understanding of how to express leadership in a new setting—and how to interact with new colleagues who are not obligated to follow their lead or yield to their spiritual authority.
It is possible for our leadership experience to move with us through a lifelong pilgrimage in missions ministry.
True leadership—the kind based on maturity, experience and character—should move with us. If it doesn’t, we must question if it was ever real in the first place. However, the very act of trying to enrich a new field with experiences gained in a previous location will extract new and higher demands on the leadership of the one attempting it. It will require the kind of wisdom and tact that is evidence of a personal commitment to ongoing growth in leadership. This is something that all of us should be aiming for.
Gene Daniels (pseudonym) and his family have been serving among an unreached Muslim people group in Central Asia since 1997.
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