by Homer L. Firestone and David Miller
It is time for evangelical mission boards to engage in self-examination.
It is time for evangelical mission boards to engage in self-examination. Foreign pressures and cultural differences question the integrity and sincerity of our evangelistic thrust. Around the world, Christians ask: "Why do mission boards exist?" Aware of the growing competition from mission boards, other international power institutions also question the existence and role of mission boards.
To some, the answer is quite simple: mission boards exist to send missionaries and without them there would be no missionaries. However, the stories of heroes like Hudson Taylor, Adoniram Judson, and William Carey— to say nothing of many lesser-known missionaries— expose the weakness of this simple answer. The fact is, mission boards have been formed because of missionaries. Missionaries would continue to exist without mission boards, but no mission board can exist without missionaries. No, the simple answer will not do. It is time for evangelical mission boards to engage in self-examination.
In the early days of the modern missionary effort, international communication and travel systems were poorly developed. The vast distances gave missionaries much leeway in their day-to-day activities. They often made cultural adaptations and ministry changes without their home board’s knowledge.
Now, however, home administrators are able to watch their missionaries’ work much more closely. They tend to exercise more direct control of their ministries. But the closing of the communications and travel gaps between home and field is a two-edged sword. Their expanded control obligates home boards to evaluate their own perceptions of the work and to assess their own performances. Generally, they have been slow to do this.
Missionaries, on the other hand, are subjected to critical self-examination when they return home. "Home leave is a time not given to most professions," writes Jack Perry, "a time when a hand is clapped on the forehead and one is forced to gaze at the passing of life. Under this forced gaze, truths come out that the settled man, the non-diplomat, the dweller-in-one-place, might avoid through a life-time."
People in decision-making positions on home boards must realize that life on a foreign field alters a missionary’s world view. Two of the missionary’s tasks constitute a life-transforming experience: learning a second language and establishing a household in a foreign country. The result of such cultural immersion is that veteran missionaries establish their personal identities within their host cultures.
However, unless they have served as missionaries themselves, mission board officers have not been through this transformation and identification. They may travel to observe their missionaries, but their observations are skewed by their home culture. Therefore, if the two parties do not grasp this basic difference in orientation, they will misinterpret each other’s motives and goals. Further, mission board policy will flounder and fail if not informed by the perceptions and world views of cross-cultural professionals.
Recently I heard a mission board executive describe his philosophy of administration. He said he wanted to be "a strong leader, who knows where he is going, and can take people there with him." He himself had never been a missionary. He spoke one language and had never lived overseas. When asked if he thought it might be a good idea to include missionaries in his organization’s decision-making, he answered: "When I worked as a janitor in a public school, I did not feel it necessary to tell the principal how to do his job." His analogy not only denigrated his missionaries, but also revealed a woefully short-sighted understanding of the complex task of cross-cultural ministry. For a missionary organization to survive and prosper into the next century, it must take seriously the contributions of each of its members in setting goals and formulating policies.
For a mission organization to succeed in our increasingly interdependent world, it must structure its administration to allow for shared authority between home staff and field missionaries. An unbalanced, asymmetrical administrative structure, in which sacrificial dedication is expected of field missionaries, but all control and power are home-based, must be replaced by management patterns in which commitment and authority are shared equally by all. Such symmetry can happen only when there is a minimum of bureaucracy and rigid structure. The organization must have a great deal of elasticity.
Ted Engstrom, former president of World Vision and a leading consultant in missions management theory, exhorts organizations to follow the concept of "partnership in mission." "This matter of partnership is more an attitude than deliberate actions," explains Engstrom. "Partnership implies a sense of equality with those we serve or lead in the missionary task. It says, ‘We do accept the fact that God can use those persons as well as he can use me.’"
Citing North America’s diminishing influence in the worldwide mission enterprise, Engstrom believes missionary organizations must adopt new missionary strategies and roles, or disappear. He feels that they must cast off the colonial model of administration, which saw the North American as a "manager" exercising decision-making control over the "natives."
What Engstrom’s administrative philosophy represents, in effect, is a global trend affecting all types of organizations, from General Motors to Mitsubishi. The trend is creating "world boards" to replace "national boards." On the surface, it appears that such "super boards" create even more complex bureaucratic structures, but this is not the case. The new generation of multinationals are concurrently adopting nonhierarchical management strategies, which emphasize diffused responsibility and two-way evaluation, to allow for organizational elasticity.
The Japanese have long conducted their business affairs according to an innovative strategy known as Theory Z Management. In contrast to the traditional North American corporation with its hierarchical layers of president, vice-presidents, supervisors, and so on, Theory Z corporations rely on management teams to run their operations. Employees at all skill levels serve on teams. They hold various jobs— product design, production, marketing, and so on— so that when they make decisions (always by consensus), they have access to information from a broad base of practical experience and professional expertise.
Theory Z management style has been a principal factor in Japan’s rise as a leading industrial power. It has allowed Japanese businesses to design consumer-specific that compete well in local markets the world over. Also, Theory Z companies have been able, because of their flexible administration, to respond quickly to changing economic conditions that have in some cases forced rigidly structured companies into bankruptcy.
To implement such creative administrative strategies, mission organizations must recruit creative people. In their book, Crisis in Latin America: An Evangelical Perspective, Emilio Nunez and William Taylor analyze the social, political, and economic trends in light of their impact upon church growth. In their concluding chapter, Taylor offers these suggestions to mission agencies working in Latin America:
I am … concerned about the leadership of the foreign agencies working in Latin America. What can be done to stimulate more culturally sensitive foreign mission agencies? How many of these organizations have Latin representation on their boards? Precious few, if my sources are correct…. too many times decisions affecting Latin-american churches are made without an iota of Latin input. Is this the right way to do God’s business? And the same is true for those missions that work in Africa, Asia, the South Pacific and Europe.
One very positive result of broadening the board’s decision-making process is the potential for designing outreach projects and strategies better suited to local cultural and social contexts. The guiding principle to follow is self-determination. Indigenous church movements must be allowed to implement their own ideas and adapt them to their own customs, using resources readily available to them.
A seminary classmate who is doing community development projects in a large African country is a firm believer in self-determination. His parents served with a large Protestant denomination. My friend left their mission board to establish an independent community development ministry.
While still associated with the board, he got frustrated because a lot of U.S. money— designated for educational and health programs— wound up in the hands of the family friends of the local bishop who administered the funds. In one province, for example, two-thirds of all the trained professionals— teachers, ministers, doctors, and nurses— were paid by the North American church. These professionals, in turn, were appointed upon the bishop’s recommendations.
The interaction between local tribal culture and episcopal church polity had created a hopeless, despotic situation. "Our church organization is simply not culturally transferable," this missionary once told me. "It works all right in Western Europe and North America, but not in Africa."
Sensitivity to local culture, and self-determination, will allow for the development of organizational structures appropriate to any one of the multitude of cultures. Mission organizations that insist upon conformity to practices and customs because "that’s the way we do it at home" are not likely to create the kind of open, innovative atmosphere that fosters strong indigenous church movements.
The New Testament allows tremendous leeway in patterning church structures to fit different cultures. Bible scholar William Neill states: "… the overall picture of the government of the church as a whole in its earliest stage is one of diversity, which we might even call pragmatic." Alex Deasley, a Nazarene theologian, agrees: "Acts gives no hint of a polity to be adopted by all subsequent generations; or a ministerial order; or a sacramental format. What Acts does show us is a church alive, throbbing with a sense of mission, open to and dependent on the dynamic activity of the Holy Spirit and refusing to encase itself in forms that would inhibit that activity."
Some boards fail to see the contributions to ecclesiology that are coming from the indigenous churches. Missionary anthropologists are discovering redemptive analogies in many cultures. They believe that our missionary task should include the discovery and development of these embryonic forms within the churches. These are footholds for the gospel that give a winning edge to the message. Ecclesiology that ignores these indigenous patterns risks hindering the progress of world evangelization.
To survive and minister in this complex missions environment, some boards must come to grips with their faults and failures and set a new course. The South American Missionary Society (SAMS, Ambridge, Pa.) recently did exactly that. A sending organization affiliated with an affluent Protestant denomination (The Episcopal Church in the U.S.A.), this mission was suffering from an acute confidence problem. The board was nearly $250,000 in Support levels were falling. Missionaries were leaving the field. Overseas projects were being halted or cancelled.
A new homeland administrator was appointed to rectify the situation. He wisely recognized that the problem was not so much financial as human. Mission management had lost sight of the organization’s priorities. As he later stated, "Human energy has taken the society far ahead of the Lord."
The administration felt that the situation had reached such a critical stage that viable solutions could only be worked out in consultation with the entire missionary community. In August, 1988, they called an extraordinary meeting of repentance and healing. They not only brought their missionaries home from the field, but also invited all former missionaries and paid their way. They had more former than active missionaries there. Many former missionaries were angry and disenchanted, and felt that their complaints had never been taken seriously. Not only was it extremely important for SAMS to have their help in learning from past mistakes and seeking God’s guidance for the future, it also brought closure for them to a very difficult period in their lives.
During the first days of the week-long conference, missionaries were encouraged to tell about all of their frustrations and anger. They gave painful accounts of misunderstanding and mismanagement. They shed tears. A respected pastor counseled them through forgiveness and reconciliation. Later, a business consultant, who had donated his time to study the organization’s structure and reported his findings. This helped the people to find solutions to their crisis.
The conference produced a number of sweeping changes. First, they decided to sell their 28-acre headquarters to help liquidate their debt. To ensure more careful management of funds in the future, administrators agreed to a much more thorough annual independent audit of all accounts. Previously, SAMS had gone through an audit each year, but decided to begin a much more thorough audit process.
However, the greatest change came in the home board’s perception of and commitment to their missionaries. They realized that their greatest resource was their missionaries. Missionaries now rate a significantly higher position on the society’s list of priorities. For example, a 24-hour hotline was installed at headquarters. The number is for the exclusive use of missionaries and at least one administrator is available to talk with them.
The board itself was redesigned. At least two members must be veteran missionaries. The organization a new handbook, after 18 months of study and revision by missionaries, which established new qualifications for candidates and new guidelines for managing their support.
By all appearances, confidence among the society’s constituency is being restored. The mission no longer faces a rising deficit, but has $200,000 in the bank and belongs to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. In July, 1988, SAMS was down to 13 missionaries, with no missionaries in training. Now there are 16 missionaries and 10 new candidates are in preparation for overseas assignment.
Self-examination, although painful, can be tremendously beneficial. Repentance is a great way to make new beginnings. Healing and reconciliation are central themes of the gospel. Everyone in the missions enterprise— board members, administrators, missionaries, and church leaders— ought to include these elements in their working agendas.
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