Life Skills & Assessing New Candidates

by Naomi Singer

A lack of life skills can hinder ministry. Singer shares case studies and scriptural examples of why “spiritual qualities” are not enough for Christian workers to be successful.

Not long ago, a colleague from another organization asked me to comment on a table listing qualities of a mature, young adult Christian. I suggested they add a column with factors other than the spiritual. They replied that these were assumed to be present. Perhaps we should be able to make this assumption, but can we?

In cross-cultural living situations, new workers face many challenges; they should not also have to begin learning basic life skills. Spiritual maturity includes and builds on the life skills of independent, maturing adults. Such skills are an essential foundation for cross-cultural Christian ministry.

The table below provides examples of life skills which may enhance a believer’s ministry and help him or her to be more productive and effective in his or her work. Terms in this table are only rough descriptors and cannot be understood without studying the recommended biblical texts. Many other examples of life skills and/or biblical texts could have been used.

This table assumes missionary candidates are regenerate believers. However, we should certainly not assume this during our recruiting. Jonathan Edwards pointed out the difficulties and dangers of attempting this, emphasizing, however, that we can in fact identify those who at least profess to be believers, and treat them accordingly (Murray 1987, 313-349).

Young Adults and Life Skills
The range of childhood preparation for independent, responsible adult life in this generation is very wide. On the one hand, there are parents who take care to teach their children to share in family responsibilities and continue to increase these responsibilities in accordance with age and ability. By their teens, such children will have learned many skills (e.g., how to look after younger siblings, do housework, lead community youth groups). Such young people naturally move into positions of responsibility and leadership among their peers, and in their community and church.

On the other hand, there are parents who expect little more of their children than to attend to their studies and socialize with their friends. Parents may also provide extensive coaching with schoolwork. This style of upbringing is more likely to occur in cultures or families where education is highly valued and/or where each extended family has few children. We should also not forget that many candidates come from broken homes and therefore may have acquired only a sketchy idea of how a healthy family functions.

The result is that a young person might easily come to faith, be active in his or her church, and feel called to mission work, and yet not have had a chance to live independently and acquire the life skills characteristic of a maturing and independent young adult.

Combining “Spiritual” Ministry and Life Skills
But why am I concerned about whether or not a young adult has a wide range of life skills? Aren’t missionaries primarily engaged in “spiritual” ministry? Shouldn’t we be recruiting potential workers on the basis of their passion for seeing souls won for Christ, their track record in their home church, and their theological or Bible school training? Without neglecting the latter issues, we need to carefully consider the former.

A stable, yet growing relationship with the Lord, regular habits of personal Bible study, and prayer and active participation in and contribution to the life of a local church are essential qualifications. Yet I have seen the misery and confusion that results from a person being transported into a situation where he or she is without familiar support networks, the conveniences of home, and the necessary life skills to cope with his or her new situation.

It will help to consider some case studies that will help us to see how a believer’s life skills may provide a foundation upon which to build Christian character to enhance ministry.

Case Study #1. Helene1 arrived with a short-term mission team and was invited to stay and consider career ministry. She attended a foreigner-friendly church that provided translation for visitors who did not speak the local language. As the months went by, she seemed more and more unkempt and unhappy. Upon investigation, it became apparent that the long-term workers who had arranged her living situation seemed to think that single people didn’t need a comfortable place to live; they had chosen  a living situation for her of much lower standard than their own.

Helene had been living primarily on bread and junk food since she didn’t know how to cook using local ingredients and there were few pre-prepared foods available. For months, her life consisted of language lessons, junk food, and misery—partly due to a lack of appropriate homemaking skills. Her team leaders had encouraged her to make friends, but she didn’t know how to go about this since other young adults could not afford to eat out—her normal way of socializing. Not surprisingly, she went home shortly after arriving on the field.

What went wrong? Helene came without adequate independent living skills. She should have been sent home after her short-term assignment and prepared for long-term service. Her negative experience was unnecessary, untimely, and discouraging. Perhaps she did have a genuine call to long-term service; however, this could have been tested at home during a preparatory period of independent living, secular work, biblical studies, and local ministry.    

Case Study #2. For a few years a young couple helped a pastor-in-training plant a church in his provincial town. They were enthusiastic, effective workers and gave themselves sacrificially to helping the young pastor get his church started. At the same time, the couple was praying for a child. They finally conceived, but the months after the birth were full of chaos, confusion, and discouragement.

The wife lacked both childcare and homemaking skills. Their ministry location meant that parents or relatives were unavailable to help. Local friends provided encouragement, meals, and childcare advice, but the situation persisted. All ministry activities came to a halt since the husband felt he should stay home and care for his family.

What went wrong? Although the birth of a first child can be stressful, young couples need to be prepared. Some sending organizations encourage couples to have their first child before leaving for the field; others send couples home or make sure they have support.

This woman’s lack of childcare and homemaking skills made her totally dependent upon her husband. The young couple coped with cross-cultural life until the first major life stressor came and then things fell apart. Their supervisors began to question the couple’s suitability for cross-cultural work as well as their commitment to ministry. Prior knowledge of their limited life skills and the culturally-specific expectations that they held concerning what should be expected of a young mother and/or father could have averted some of these problems.

Case Study #3. Jorgen served on the administrative team of an international mission’s regional office. His work included occasional visits to field workers. Unfortunately, his attitude on the field could best be described as “I am here to be served” and “I deserve to be treated as a respected, high-ranking official in this organization.” This made his visits very difficult for both national and field workers. He was unwilling to even make himself a cup of coffee and expected to speak at all the meetings he attended whether it was appropriate or not.

While such an attitude was not unfamiliar to the nationals who regularly received short-term visitors, Jorgen did little to enhance the reputation of the sending organization. Both field workers and nationals breathed a sigh of relief each time he went home.

What went wrong? Both administrative staff and field workers need to be carefully screened for life skills and spiritual maturity. A lack of social skills, humility, and willingness to serve hindered both Jorgen’s ministry and the reputation of the organization. Considerable information is available to help recruiting agencies evaluate “emotional intelligence” (e.g., Golman 1996); that is, the ability to understand and manage others. Jorgen’s character issues, however, were likely evident to previous colleagues and should have been noted in references. At the very least they should have been dealt with in his current administrative setting. Why weren’t they?

Laying a Foundation for Effective Ministry
Clearly, lack of life skills can hinder ministry. Although new workers shouldn’t be expected to have all possible life skills, they should have enough basic skills to at least care for themselves and their families, plus have something left over to give.

If this isn’t the case, then the workers are likely to be a severe drain on the resources of the believers among whom they work. The skill set necessary for each particular ministry setting is highly predictable. Certainly, long-term workers or nationals from the receiving region could make a list as a starting point to aid recruiting and sending officers.

It is easy to see how a lack of life skills can hinder ministry. But we should also consider how the presence of such skills can enhance ministry (see table on page 345 and 346). Young missionaries who can readily meet their own basic life needs will have energy to relate to others.

Life Skills Plus Growth in
Christian Character
Results in Enhanced Ministry

1. Demonstrates responsible, independent living

1 Timothy 3:1-13, 5:4-8; Proverbs 31:10-31 (hospitable, manages children and household well, cares for and honors parents, shares with the needy)

Ezekiel 18, 22 (takes responsibility for one’s own decisions and sins)

Takes responsibility for personal spiritual growth

1 Chronicles 16; Deuteronomy 4:29; Psalm 105:1-4 (seeks God); Proverbs 9:10 (fears God); 2 Corinthians 5:10 (is accountable to God); Matthew 16:24-28; Psalm 63:1-8 (follows hard after Christ); Ephesians 4:14-16; 2 Peter 3:18 (growing in Christ-likeness)

Hebrews 10:32-39; 1 Peter 4; Mark 16:15-18; Colossians 3:23-25 (growing in obedience to God’s will and in desire to please him)

Leads to enhanced ministry

When combined with a steadily-growing relationship with God, life skills (LS) increasingly free us from focusing on ourselves and enable us to give ourselves generously to others (Prov. 11:25; Mark 10:45; Eph. 6:5-9).

LS + Holy Spirit-endowed gifts results in creative use of personal resources in ministry (Exod. 31:1-11). In combination they result in the creation of something beautiful and excellent.

Leads to more “fragrance of the aroma of Christ” (2 Cor. 2:14- 17) and to a balanced life attractive to both believers and unbelievers alike (Titus 2:9-10).

2. Work skills

Proverbs 14:23, 18:9; 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 (works and earns respect of the community)

Proverbs 12:15, 15:22 (seeks counsel)

Jeremiah 22:13; Matthew 20:1-16 (treats workers fairly and generously)

Ephesians 4:28 (works and has something to share)

Biblical perspective on work

A maturing believer understands that:

• work has been part of God’s plan from creation (Gen. 2:5-15), and still is after the fall (Gen. 3:19; Exod. 20:9-10; 1 Thess. 4:11-12; 1 Tim. 5:17)

• work includes stewardship of the earth (Gen. 1:28)

• we should do good to all people (Titus 3:8; Prov. 3:27-28; Acts 10:38)

• hard work and excellence are both commanded and commended (Rom. 16:12; Col. 3:23-24)

LS + work experience creates rapport with the mainstream working world.

Work skills can be directly applied in ministry (e.g., in leadership, research, teaching, computing).

When work is understood to be part of God’s plan, no artificial distinction will be made between work and Christian work. Life skills and spiritual gifts will be used together in outreach and the building up of the Body of Christ (Eph. 4:11-13; Matt. 25:31-46; 1 Pet. 4:10-11).

Personal habits of excellence, initiative, and responsibility will naturally be carried over into ministry.

3. Handles money and resources well

Proverbs 6:6-11, 10:4-5; 1 Timothy 5:3-8 (wise use of time, possessions, savings)

Romans 13:6-7 (pays taxes)

James 5:4-5 (avoids debt)

Resources used according to biblical priorities

1 Timothy 5:4-8; Proverbs 30:24-25 (providing for family, future, giving as freely as we have received); 1 Corinthians 2:12; Matthew 10:8

Deuteronomy 15:7-11; Psalm 37:21-22; Proverbs 14:31; Romans 12:8 (caring for the poor and for fellow believers in need)

Deuteronomy 15:1-11; Matthew 18:21-35; 1 Timothy 5:18

Appropriate use of material and other resources is a highly sensitive issue cross-culturally. Adherence to biblical standards significantly reduces problems in this area.

Living without incurring debt frees one for immediate ministry. Living without creating indebtedness frees others for life and ministry.

Using resources according to biblical principles results in more justice in society.

4. Skilled socially

John 4:38; 2 Corinthians 10:14-18 (values others’ contributions)

Matthew 7:12; Philippians 2:3-11 (respects others, serves others’ interests)

Proverbs 14:34; Ezekiel 3:17-19; Deuteronomy 9:25-29 (lives a life of social/cultural responsibility)

Matthew 24:4-35; John 15:18-25, 16:33; 1 Chronicles 12:32 (knowledge of the world and our times)

Proverbs 15:23; 1 Corinthians 4:12-13; Colossians 3:16; 1 Peter 3:15-17 (responds wisely to others)

Matthew 5:43-48; Romans 2:17-24 (practices what he or she preaches); Esther 1:13 (highlights how God uses knowledge of the times)

James 1:21; 1 Timothy 4:8; 2 Timothy 2:20-21 (getting rid of moral discrepancies)

Prior experience in making friends cross-culturally is a strong predictor of effectiveness on the field.

An understanding of the world (its history, cultures, worldviews, and religions) enhances strategic planning for ministry.

A clean instrument can be used to do good work (2 Tim. 2:21; Titus 1:7ff).

5. Personal disciplines

1 Timothy 4:8 (healthy life habits)

Proverbs 6:9-11 (eating, sleeping, and work habits, use of time)

Spiritual disciplines

The development of sustainable and healthy habits/disciplines in our lives assists us in the hard work involved in spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible study, giving, etc.

Personal and spiritual disciplines directly enhance understanding, discipling, equipping, and shepherding of others (Ezek. 34; John 21:15-17).

Spiritual disciplines are invaluable, especially where there is no access to spiritual food provided by others.

6. Health and medical skills Compassion, gift of mercy Works of mercy, care for the weak and needy
7. Linguistic skills Desire to share the gospel Greatly enhances communication of the gospel
8. Other skills… Other spiritual gifts… Greater enhancement of ministry

For example, if they are strong in the area of personal disciplines, then they will influence others by example. An ability to turn an apartment into a home will help them in the area of hospitality and developing relationships. Work skills developed in the secular world will make them a much valued addition to the team.

When we add in the huge cost of sending new cross-cultural workers abroad and the high dropout rate to our consideration of recruiting issues, we simply cannot afford to neglect the life preparation of candidates.   

1. Case studies are composites of more than one incident/person. Details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

Golman, Daniel. 1996. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ. New York: Bantam Books.


Practical Recommendations for Recruiters
✔  Ask at least one person (Christian or non-Christian) who has lived with the candidate to fill out a life skills evaluation.
✔  Recruit people who are initiators, learners, and have demonstrated ability to solve problems.
✔  Engage field workers in advising sending organizations regarding which life skills are essential for their region or type of work.
✔  Use a life skills checklist to help potential candidates self-evaluate before they apply formally.
✔  Supply a simplified life skills checklist (in addition to spiritual maturity indicators) to church mission committees.
✔  Consider requiring that candidates have lived independently and worked in a secular career for several years before applying. 


Naomi Singer (pseudonym) has worked as a field missionary for over twenty years and is currently engaged in research related to mission issues in post-communist settings in Central Europe.

EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 3, pp. 342-347. Copyright  © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

Related Articles

Welcoming the Stranger

Presenter: Matthew Soerens, US Director of Church Mobilization, World Relief Description: Refugee and immigration issues have dominated headlines globally recently. While many American Christians view these…

Upcoming Events