Overcoming Option Fatigue in Future Missionaries

by John Downer

We live in an age of unprecedented opportunity, where more options and choices are available to us than ever before.

We live in an age of unprecedented opportunity, where more options and choices are available to us than ever before. While this is a positive development on many levels, it also presents unique challenges for the person considering overseas missions. Those of us involved in mobilizing future missionaries need to carefully think through how to respond to overwhelmed inquirers and intentionally move them through the process of getting to the field.

From the determination of a call to the actual departure for the field, the process can be very daunting due to the overabundance of options available to the potential missionary. Through advancements in travel technology, we can go anywhere in the world. Once there, we can identify thousands of distinct people groups. New ethno-linguistic groups are being identified all the time. New missionary strategies, including the emphasis on developing a ministry platform using just about any skill-set or educational background, mean just about any profession or ability can be adapted for a missionary purpose. And there are over eight hundred Protestant mission agencies in North America to fit every denomination, size, strategy, or geographic preference (Weber and Welliver 2007).

Our options are endless. But so too is our stress. With so many agencies, countries, people groups, and strategies, where is the missionary candidate to begin? He or she often does not know where to begin, so he or she wanders aimlessly or fails to move at all. This kind of paralysis is a common occurrence and is seen not only in the pursuit of missionary endeavors, but also in many everyday activities. For concrete examples, talk to juniors and seniors in college who cannot decide what career path to pursue, an elderly person trying to purchase a cell phone plan for the first time, or a newly-arrived immigrant (or a returned missionary) who stares at the cereal aisle in the grocery store. This paralysis comes when one sees the available options and cannot choose one for fear of making the wrong choice. Sociologists (and marketing executives) have terms to describe this phenomenon. One of the most common, overchoice, was coined in 1970 by Alvin Toffler in his book Future Shock.  I prefer the term option fatigue to describe the current epidemic of difficulty in making choices.

Dealing with Option Fatigue
How do mission mobilizers respond to this problem? For anyone providing guidance to potential missionaries, it is important to recognize the often-overwhelming number of opportunities available and the challenges that these options present. We then need to develop a capacity for identifying where each person is—emotionally, spiritually and practically—on his or her journey to the field. Finally, we need effective strategies that deliberately move people through the decision-making process, while helping to clarify vision.  

Assessing the missionary candidate’s preparedness in practical terms and suggesting corresponding next steps is relatively simple and can be very encouraging. Start with conversations with the person on this level. The emotional and spiritual evaluation tends to be more subjective and is best done over the course of a series of interactions using different media. Begin with the candidate’s mission vision: What does he or she understand about his or her call to missions, and how specific is that call at this point? There are three main components to the vision: destination; agency and team; and specific ministry. These three components may appear to be painfully obvious; however, over the last four and a half years, I have seen tremendous results from working through them during an initial conversation with a candidate. In the last hour of the 2003 Urbana student mission convention, I spoke with a rather depressed man who expected to find a perfect opportunity and was preparing to leave more confused than when he arrived. Working through these three issues over a half hour turned his outlook 180 degrees; he went home feeling he had some clarity on his next step. I have had many similar experiences guiding confused and overwhelmed people through these basic ideas. In the end, nearly all have ended up feeling encouraged and hopeful.

Each of these components should be determined before the candidate ever leaves home, so they naturally make for end goals in the process. Determining the person’s thoughts on each topic will move him or her along in the often intimidating process of getting to the field. But first, determine which of these the candidate has already decided upon and which are not yet settled. To do this, ask three corresponding questions:  

  • Where are you going? This is a simple question of geography. Where in the world do you want to serve or, alternatively, on which people group do you wish to focus?
  • Who are you going with? This second question has a dual meaning. It is about the sending agency for the missionary, but it also addresses the team on the field. Both are significant.
  • What will you do when you get there? This last question speaks to the day-to-day ministry in which the candidate will engage. Many candidates have only a vague notion of missions and missionary life. It is wise for them to clarify their expectations and make a plan for what they will do.

The candidate’s answers to these questions can help you assess what I call his or her “missions maturity”—how well developed his or her understanding of his or her vision is. If the person feels called to missions, but hasn’t thought through any of the above, then you know you have a lot of work to do in discovering the details of this call. If the person knows one answer, but is unclear on the others, then the next steps will help move him or her along toward maturity in those areas.

In addressing these questions, emphasize their relative importance to each other. Typically, missionary candidates think in terms of geography, and most of the people I talk to have thought about this topic much more than the other two. However, it is usually the least significant of the three. In my own experience in missions, my day-to-day ministry and teammates have had a far greater impact on my fruitfulness and contentedness than my country of service has. I have found this to be true with others as well, so I urge candidates to devote a lot of attention to discovering their ministry calling and identifying their expectations and desires when it comes to agency and team. Certainly, God calls people to specific countries and to serve specific people groups, and you do not ever want to invalidate that. So, when you talk with such a person, celebrate that call, but also challenge him or her not to ignore the other two components. If you love the people of Sumatra, but cannot stand your teammates, feel unsupported by your agency, or hate the English teaching you are doing thirty hours a week, you are not likely to stay in the area for very long. So, it is important to look at those other things.

Exploring Ministry Expectations
Today’s college students and twenty-somethings tend to emphasize community and value close personal relationships, and many assume that teams on the field will emphasize those as well. This isn’t always true.  Many field teams are just like-minded people who meet once a week for prayer. This will most likely be a huge disappointment to a 23-year-old, single, first-time missionary. The candidate’s expectations of team should be explored.

Most missionary candidates have very little exposure to mission agencies. Many will join the first one they get to know and do very little comparison shopping. For this reason, spend a lot of time finding out what they know about agencies and asking them what their criteria is for choosing one. In my experience, I have found that if they do not have any (as is often the case), emailing them two separate Microsoft Word documents is helpful. One is a list of twenty-one questions (see page 225) a colleague and I came up with to ask agencies. These were questions we wish we had known to ask before we got involved in missions. They go beyond the literature, ads, and alphabet soup of agency names and get to the heart of some of the main differences.

The second document is a list of the answers to those questions for our agency, since they will probably want to know those once they have read the first document.

When it comes to determining what to do on the field, ask the candidate about his or her prior ministry experience, probing to find out what he or she enjoyed doing in the past. College majors and minors can be a good starting point as well. Explore preferences between evangelism and discipleship and working with people who are already Christians versus those who are nominal in their faith or who are actively involved in another belief system. The country he or she wants to go to might also guide the conversation in this area. While I believe this is a significant area to explore, I am cautious not to lead candidates to believe that they can just do whatever they want on the field. Flexibility and adaptability remain ideal missionary traits. The emphasis is on knowing their gifts and skills and looking for a ministry that largely fits these.

For those for whom choosing a place or people group is a problem, this can be addressed in a number of ways. Advise candidates to find out if their church already has a strategic focus on a particular people group or country. If it does, they could join in with what’s already going on. If not, they could look into prior experiences to see if God has already put in the foundations for a call. I wound up in Austria in large part because I had lived in Germany as a military kid and already spoke some German. If nothing like that is apparent, it is perfectly okay to look at the question from a “worldly” perspective, exploring preferences in climate, city size, religious background of the nationals, safety, availability of conveniences, medical care, and schooling options for children. Allowing these considerations to guide the choice of location is not wrong or unspiritual. We aren’t doing ourselves or our future teammates any favors by choosing a difficult location just because it seems more spiritual. Advise the future missionaries not to make living overseas any harder than it already will be!

Working through these three questions typically helps the new candidate a great deal. It helps him or her to know where he or she is and what he or she still needs to figure out. And it helps us, on the agency side, to assess how far along the person is in clarifying his or her vision for future service. We can give him or her tools for discerning answers to the yet undetermined questions, which leaves him or her with something concrete to work on until we are next in touch. Our goal is to get the person moving comfortably and intentionally through the process, having overcome the initial fear and ignorance that characterized his or her first steps toward field service. A timely first encounter with an empathetic mobilizer who listens to the candidate well, asks appropriate and insightful questions, and offers practical steps for moving forward will give the future missionary the confidence to continue in his or her journey toward strategic engagement in the missionary enterprise.

Weber, Linda J. and Dotsey Welliver, eds. 2007. Mission Handbook: U.S. and Canadian Protestant Ministries Overseas, 2007-2009. Wheaton, Ill.: Evangelism and Missions Information Service.

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Mission Statement and Core Values
1. What is the mission statement of the organization? 
2. What are the core values? How are they demonstrated? 

3. What is their focus? In what part of the world do they work? With what people groups do they work? 
4. Is the agency a home or field-run agency? Is it centralized or decentralized?
5. Do they have a lot of policies or rules?
6. How big is the agency?
7. How old is the agency?
8. What is their denominational affiliation?

Partnership with the Local Church
9. What role does the local church have in my overseas ministry?

Partnership with Other Agencies
10. How does the agency work with other agencies?

11. Do you always send people out in teams?
12. What form of church government is practiced on the field?  
13. Does the agency encourage new ministry methods and innovative ideas for ministry? 
14. Who decides what ministry I will be involved in? 

Member Care
15. How are team members cared for on the field?
16. How are missionaries held accountable?
17. What is the attrition rate in the past ten years?
18. What is the growth rate in the past ten years?
19. How are children cared for and educated?   

20. What percent of support goes to home office?
21. Does all student loan and consumer debt need to be eliminated before leaving for the field? 


John Downer spent five years as a missionary mobilizer with PIONEERS and three years on the field in Austria ministering to refugees.  He, his wife Naomi, and son Brennan live in Richmond, Virginia.

Copyright  © 2009 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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