Mentoring New Missionaries: A Neglected Ministry

by John DeValve

The majority of newcomers on the mission field want direction and accountability. Veteran missionaries are the ones to provide it.

Matt is the kind of guy everyone loves. He is outgoing, self-confident and friendly. He attracts people and always has an encouraging word. He exudes confidence and warmth. Yet he is mature and clear about his goals and his desires. He likes to please but is not hesitant about challenging short-sighted or warped thinking. He has done short-term trips in several places. He is well-trained in working with youth and comes with a lot of experience. In short, he is the kind of person one would welcome in most mission settings.

Matt hits the field prepared to make some changes in the world and tackle the job he has been given. Almost immediately, the culture shock hits: the heat, the dust, the noise, the bugs, the language, the people, the poverty, the culture, the work. Suddenly, he does not know how to do anything any more. He gets hit from all sides with multiple and massive amounts of information to process. He is tired and cannot get a good night’s sleep. His self-confidence takes a beating. He is anxious about all the new things and afraid to step out of the house and get around town to meet new people. To top it off, the organization he works for is a mystery, and he feels lost and alone. He has no real friends. After only a few weeks, he is at the point where he wants to give up and return home.

What can be done to help ensure that Matt is not a casualty, another statistic in the high attrition rate among missionaries? While no solution is perfect for everyone, I believe most newcomers would benefit from a full year of mentoring by a senior worker, someone who has walked in his or her shoes. While some free spirits and independents may not need a lot of direction or care, the majority of newcomers want some accountability and direction as they step out into the scary unknown. Many senior missionaries, unfortunately, may not feel equipped or able to mentor their younger colleagues. So how do we deal with this conundrum?

While Webster’s dictionary has little to say about the word “mentor,” it does give us some helpful synonyms like “teacher,” “guide,” “coach” or “wise, loyal advisor.” Unfortunately, our Western style of teaching and learning often emphasizes the imparting of facts without the related experience. “Coach” carries with it more of the idea of showing someone how to do something, giving advice, spurring on to higher pursuits or helping someone understand how to navigate the real world. In many professions, mentoring has become the ultimate way to pass on knowledge, secrets and skills to another generation. Doctors mentor medical students so they can do their job more effectively. Student teachers learn their trade by teaching in the classrooms of master teachers who coach them in the best ways to teach their subjects and their students. They go through evaluation, feedback and rethinking as they put into practice the theory and training they have learned in the classroom. In the past, many young people learned a trade as an apprentice to a master craftsperson.

Christians have also started to use the word “mentoring,” especially with respect to new pastors and missionaries. Jesus’ own style of teaching is a role model for mentors. So is Barnabas’, who mentored and encouraged Saul (Paul) in his faith and ministry. We use the term “mentor” for parents teaching their children or even in the context of discipleship.

There are four essential components to a missionary mentor.

1. A missionary mentor should know the country and the area where the newcomer will live. He or she should have studied another language (preferably the same language the new missionary will study) and mastered it to a relatively high degree of proficiency. He or she should have some knowledge of the work, the mission and the church with which the mission is working. He or she does not have to be an expert in all these matters but should have a broad-based knowledge of the field and the mission.

2. A missionary mentor needs to commit time to the new missionary. To a busy missionary, spending time on the rudiments of a language or shopping in the market with someone many seem like a waste of time and effort. But it pays off when the new missionary gets through the stages of adjustment with a healthy attitude and positive self-esteem and is able to handle the difficult aspects of life in the new setting.

3. A missionary mentor needs to listen. He or she will listen when the new missionary cries about his or her first visit to the market. The mentor will remember what it was like when he or she went through the same thing. The mentor will not criticize what the person says or how he or she says it, except to help him or her put it in perspective. The mentor will try to help the newcomer learn and improve through the experience.

4. A missionary mentor should live in close proximity to the newcomer. In most circumstances, anything more than one hour away is too far. One hour away may even be too far in some situations. The mentor needs to be there to help the newcomer handle the inevitable crises that arise and to be able to help clean up the spills and accidents. He or she also needs to be around to point the new missionary in the right direction, help explain the new culture and ways of the country and coach the newcomer around the complexities of the new language.

Ideally, couples will be paired as mentors with other couples and singles with singles, but even if that is not possible, in almost all cases, men should be mentors for men and women for women. This is especially true in societies which are open and people often judge by appearances rather than reality.

First, he or she will give the new missionary information, but not too much at once. He or she should impart the necessary information little by little. The newcomer is already overwhelmed. Some information is necessary to help process what is happening and move the newcomer beyond his or her limited world. Too much at once is so overwhelming as to send him or her over the edge in despair or fear.

There are three kinds of information that a newcomer needs.

1. Orientation to procedural and routine matters. Orientation to the mission and its written and non-written rules is important. There are ways of doing things in every organization, and these take time to learn. Certain forms need be filled out to get reimbursement for mileage. You need to talk to a particular person to get your house repaired. How do you get your permanent visa? What is the administrative structure of the mission?
Orientation also involves introduction to the routine matters in the town, region or country where the newcomer will live. Such things as where to buy stamps, where to get a tire repaired, how to deal with a motor accident, a little elementary geography and health matters should all be covered in this part of the orientation.

2. History of the country, region, town and/or church. It is important to briefly address the history of the area. The people group among whom the newcomer will work may have once ruled over a powerful empire. The country may have existed for centuries and be very proud of its history. A particular battle may be commemorated year after year. The history of the church in each location should be addressed. And the religion of the people and their expression of it need to be discussed.

3. The practical necessities of life. Anyone who has lived in a foreign country knows how difficult it can be to cook, clean house, do laundry and manage a myriad of other household chores when all the props of your home culture have been removed. It is like relearning these duties all over again. You have to be willing to throw out old ideas and accept new ones. It takes time and effort to retrain and refocus the mind. Is the tap water safe to drink? How do you do laundry without a washing machine? How do you make meals from scratch? Does your house ever look clean with all the incessant dust in the air? What about hiring a nanny for your kids? Do you need a guard or a security system? What do you do when the water or electricity goes off?

Mentoring is much more than imparting information and facts, however. Facts are hard, cold abstractions, difficult to wrap our minds around without some kind of experience. Along these lines, there are three key elements of a missionary mentor’s role.

1. Combine information with practice. There needs to be opportunities to review the information and put it into practice. The missionary mentor needs to show the newcomer what to do and how to do it. This will involve taking the new missionary on “field trips.” These may include any of the following: shopping trips; cooking together and giving tips on cooking; walking around town; introducing the newcomer to neighbors, church leaders, local government officials and others; going to the post office; riding public transportation together; taking the newcomer on ministry trips; and accompanying him or her the first time he or she drives. These will often be informal times but may need to be arranged.

It also helps to assign some reading or video and a project to help newcomers better understand themselves and their new environment. This gives them a diversion. I have made topics of assignments such as the prevailing religion, the people group and the country, mission theory and theology and cross-cultural living. Under each topic are various resources and ideas for pursuing that topic in depth. I like the newcomer to choose at least one resource from each topic with which he or she will interact. When he or she has finished, I ask the individual to choose one topic that interests him or her the most and pursue it. The person will do some kind of project on that topic. It may be a research paper, a play, a home video, an oral report, a map, a poster, an interview or something else that fits his or her learning style and interests.

2. Include accountability checks. Another important aspect of the mentoring process is accountability checks. These are more formal times of mentoring at a predetermined time. The amount of time spent with the new missionary may vary, but I like to make it weekly, at least at the beginning, to go over affective issues (how the newcomer is feeling), spiritual warfare, any language or cultural issue where the newcomer might be having difficulty, language and culture progress reports and spiritual progress. These times need not take more than an hour unless there are important issues that need to be addressed. They should conclude with prayer. I like to set these up on Fridays in the early morning and then leave the newcomer free to use the rest of the day to catch up on language work, do some correspondence, get some work done around the house, take time for family or household chores or simply take a break from learning. Presumably, he or she has just spent four intense, consecutive days learning language and culture, and it may be time for a break. In addition, I like to have a longer check-up once a month. As the missionary adjusts and becomes more familiar with the routines and the language, the meetings can become less frequent.

3. Provide advice and direction. In many professions, the mentor requires or encourages the learner to explore different types of work. A medical student must study different specialties such as gynecology, emergency care or pediatrics. A student teacher will explore different methods and styles of teaching. Similarly, a new missionary should be encouraged to explore different strategies and venues for ministry. The mentor would be a coach, helping the newcomer find the right fit for his or her gifts, interests, abilities and calling. In many countries, there are many general needs but not as many specialties in mission work. A new missionary may have been recruited to do a particular type of work, but there may be many different options within that work or different ways to pursue it. In addition, there may be other tasks the new missionary could do and would like to do. The trick is to find the right combination for each newcomer without overloading him or her. In any case, all new missionaries should be directed by and validated in the search for the right fit by a mentor who allows him or her to explore various options for ministry.

In spite of the time commitment and effort it takes, missionaries should be part of the process of mentoring their younger colleagues. Some may be more gifted at it than others, and they may be designated as primary mentors. Some may need training or mentoring to show them how to do it. But everyone has something they can contribute.

The benefits of this type of ministry should be obvious.

1. It helps address the long-term attrition problem mentioned earlier in this article.

2. As more missionaries come to the place where they feel secure and stable in their ministries, the workload gets easier for everyone.

3. It is an essential part of member care because it avoids having newcomers who are floundering around with the language and trying to discover who they are and how they fit into the new culture on their own.

4. Many younger people want to be mentored and directed and not left to themselves.

5. Older missionaries have so much that only they can give to help newcomers, and there needs to be a mechanism for transferring that wealth of knowledge and experience.

6. All missionaries should be in the process of mentoring. That is what our job is about.

7. It can help build healthy relationships within the mission community and with the broader national community if done well.

Matt does eventually make it. With time and patience, he begins to find his place. He takes a break for a short while to get his feet on the ground. Although he eventually thrives in his job, it takes time and effort. In the final analysis, Matt is able to make a significant contribution to the ministry.


John DeValve has worked with SIM in Niger for twenty-three years, the last fifteen among the Songhai.

Copyright © 2008 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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