Preparing for Long-term Ministry

by Dan Schmidt

What does it take to be effective in kingdom work
over the long haul?

 What does it take to hunker down into kingdom service and be effective over the long haul? That was the question in front of me as I wrote a “friend” who was considering career missions upon graduation from college.

Dear Jasper,
Greetings in the great name of our Lord! I trust you are doing well as this semester draws to a close—and that you do not, as my college roommate liked to say, kick too soon. He was a runner, but you get the idea: a college semester is a marathon more than a dash, and even though it’s tempting to sprint early for the tape, it’s generally a good idea to pace yourself so that you finish strong.

Your dad and I were talking recently, and he shared with me that you’re thinking seriously about a career in missions after you graduate. Apparently, that visit to Urbana and your short-term experiences in Nicaragua put something into your heart you can’t shake. I expect that prayers from people who care about you—to say nothing of the way your folks dedicated you as a child—have played a part in this as well. I’ll add my voice to others and say, go for it—you’d be a terrific missionary!

Now, given that you’re contemplating a life that’s near and dear to me, I’d also like to toss out a few ideas about what it takes to last. You know that I’ve been around the ministry block myself for a good many years (you’re right: I’m old; I still use a phone with a cord…), and that I spend much of my days now in the company of those who have committed themselves to the long haul in ministry. For example, last month I attended the funeral of a missionary who had been serving for fifty years. Interesting fact: I carpooled to that funeral with a couple that between them has logged over one hundred years of kingdom service.

I think a lot about going the distance, and in my view, it takes many decisions and commitments. For instance, like you, I’m a big believer in the value of formal training as preparation for ministry, and so I’m delighted that you decided to enroll in and stay at Bible college.

Along with formal training, a prospective “minister of grace” (to use the Apostle Peter’s wonderful phrase) needs to give serious attention to character development. Again, you know this: you’ve had it drilled into you for years in your home and with your church, and I imagine that the group you worship with now has a similar emphasis.

So what does that leave as far as preparing for a lifetime of ministry? I’ll offer four ideas that fall under the general heading of “practical training.” Nothing fancy here—no alliteration, I promise—but solid suggestions based on a life of experience and observation.

First, get a job outside the bubble. At Bible college there is a tone to life that’s different from what your buddies at state schools experience, or what those in trades or the military discuss, or what your older friends in the marketplace complain about. Likely, the people around you refer to “the real world” as something still “out there,” recognizing that while you’re in Bible college, life is not quite normal.

I’d tend to agree with this. On the one hand, I’m not sure life ever gets more “real” than the particular moment in which you’re dwelling; on the other, you and I both know that the college bubble can be pretty different from what others encounter.

This won’t change if you enter missions right after school. You’ll get sucked into another bubble, reading more books, attending various orientations, learning a language (probably with other missionaries), contacting supporters—it’s a long list. And when you hit the field? You’ll be working “out there,” but you’ll also have reports to complete and seminars to attend. You might live on a mission compound, and you’ll probably interact with a team.

What you might not do—what you might never do—is get experience in the sort of world most people inhabit. That is, you’ll be ministering to those with whom you have little in common. I’m not talking here about what missiologists and practitioners discuss concerning contextualizing ministry and exegeting the culture; I’m thinking more about rubbing shoulders with people who haven’t had the privilege of Bible college, weren’t raised in a godly home, and didn’t attend a fine youth group or go to a Christian camp.

This too: most people work—hard and long—for a living. They serve an unreasonable boss, punch a clock, and stand or sit in an environment up to twelve hours a day that stifles creativity. They live in fear of losing their job, and know the aggravation of hunting for one. If they’re familiar with “church,” it’s often because a friend or colleague got burned by one. On the other side, they also get bonuses and the satisfaction of making something with their hands; they win trips or garner praise. They can stop when the whistle blows. This is the common experience of people where you’ll minister, of those you’ll ask to support your ministry—so spend some time in their world.

Let me toss out three good reasons for investing a year or two like this after college. First, you’ll develop sensitivity to what most people go through. One of the things you’ll face overseas are puzzled looks from people who wonder what you do for a living. You’ll want a credible answer to that query, and it will help if you can show that you’ve done time in the marketplace so that you know at least a few of those ropes.

Second, you’ll make some money, which is no small thing these days. You’re coming out of college with debt, right? That’s not unusual, but why not work hard and early to pay it off? Sometimes missionaries are so eager to get out there that they forget to deal with issues such as debt. Or they assume someone will (or should!) take care of their debt. Such gifts may come, but should you expect them? You’re young, strong, smart, and poor, so get a job!

Third, as you engage in gainful employment, you might be surprised by how many opportunities you’ll have to show Jesus to people. There’s no time like the present to be a missionary, and it’s not unusual to meet people in the workplace who stand well outside the sound of the gospel as it’s often proclaimed. Who might you reach while on the job that no one else could?

Second, commit to reconciliation. Said another way, figure out what it takes to live at peace—with yourself and with others. To be at peace with yourself starts with getting to know yourself (one of those instruments like the DISC profile personality test, or the Meyers-Briggs type indicator can be very helpful with this) and coming to terms with who you are. A couple of hours with a wise, trusted, trained counselor might be a good investment, helping you process your past, explore your present, and look ahead to the future.

Here’s a question many use as a guide toward internal peace: what do you find to be life-giving? Do you know what activities and environments contribute to tranquility for you, or keep anxiety at bay? If not, invest some energy here, and don’t be shy about looking for people, situations, media, etc., that will be life-giving.

One other idea: if you haven’t already, build Sabbath into your life—not as another rule to follow, but as a gift to enjoy. You’ll find—especially in ministry—that people take a certain pride in how busy they are. Can I urge you not to fall into this trap? Don’t wear “busy” as a badge of honor, but give yourself permission to take time off, to change the pace. As Peter says, quoting David, seek peace and pursue it.

David’s remark on peace is important both internally and externally. We want to be people who are at peace, and who make peace. A word on that latter notion, since it presents another sort of challenge. I’m sad to say this, but you will experience interpersonal conflict even in the ranks of professional ministers. Can I urge you as you stand on the brink of ministry to commit yourself to pushing back against such strife, to do what you can to resolve troubles and encourage people not to nurse grudges? Another friend drew a graphic word picture about this: envision yourself walking into a group of others where tensions are present, carrying two buckets. One has gasoline, the other water. Ask yourself, “Which bucket will you throw when sparks are flying?”

Too often (even on the mission field!) people rub each other the wrong way, or get to arguing, or figure out ways to stay bitter—and before you know it, there’s a huge rift. Part of this is due to the enemy’s machinations; for instance, Paul noticed that Satan stirs up trouble among believers (see 2 Cor. 2:11). But it’s also the case that Christians tend not to be very good at confronting one another. We don’t get taught this in sermons or at school; in fact, we see lots of examples to the contrary. Thankfully, there are some good books available, and some good practitioners. Find them and pay attention. Figure out what it means to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) and to deal with conflict in ways that are both strong and loving (Ps. 62:11).

Here’s a tip at the outset: be a student of people. Let those personality tests alert you to the differences among people; recognize that folks learn, process, and express themselves in a variety of ways. Resist the tendency to privilege one particular style or preference (a hint: your own styles and preferences are typically, to you, the most sensible). Try to put yourself in others’ shoes. As you interact with others—especially when you feel frustration rising—remember the words of one ancient saint: “Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

Third, think about money. You’re a college student, so I expect this already happens, but let me sharpen the focus here. First, figure out your position on fundraising. Some in full-time ministry take the George Müller stance, where they tell no one but God about their need (actually, students of Müller will say that he did find ways to make needs known—but the notion persists that he is the patron saint of all who prefer to operate “by faith alone”).

This is certainly a commendable position, but a word of caution: if you take this road, you cannot complain later on that you don’t have enough. Another approach holds that the closed mouth doesn’t get fed. In other words, it’s fine and dandy to inform others about needs (and opportunities!). Again, a caution: don’t go overboard with this (think understated and strategic), and view others whose support you’re seeking as “ministry partners” who have a role to play with you in kingdom service. If you want to see this sort of thing in practice, try reading Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret. It’s a fine book that illustrates the balance between soliciting assistance and striking out in faith.

Second, raise enough that you can save some of it for later. I’ve noticed that missionaries and mission agencies are sometimes so eager about getting into ministry that finances take a back seat. Early on, in the flush of new, good work, sacrifice is embraced enthusiastically, and people will gladly live below a recommended support level. Then, in the daily press of serving, a short-term arrangement settles into habit. Before long, the missionary is facing the end of active service with virtually nothing in the bank. That has a way of creating fear and anxiety, as well as an unanticipated burden for the agency and the missionary’s extended family.

Don’t get me wrong: the Lord provides. What you will see as far as that provision in the years ahead will take your breath away. But we must also remember that the Lord commends us to work and wisdom when it comes to money—so unless the Lord clearly calls you to a life focused only on the needs of today, make long-term, big ticket items (like a house or retirement) part of your financial considerations.

Fourth, take the long view. Again, two sub-points here, the first of which is probably crazy. I’ll put it down regardless: if you’re serious about foreign missions, make a generational investment. What I mean is that if the Lord gives you and your fiancée kids whom you then raise on a mission field, consider leaving them there. I’m not talking about abandonment as much as an intentional investment, because kids raised in a “foreign” setting will have a better command of the language and culture than you ever will. Not only that, but the reality is that kids raised overseas often don’t feel at home in their parents’ homeland—and you’d be doing them a favor by training and releasing them to be “global nomads.” We can discuss this further another time—but you get my drift, right?

My second point is more tame, though still unsettling: know that your day in the sun will eventually end. If you do become a career missionary, chances are good that your ministry responsibilities will expand after you’ve served for a couple of terms; you will be asked to become a field director or a regional supervisor or some such. With time, your influence will grow—so can I encourage you now to hold those titles lightly?

By all means, step into all that the Lord has for you, and bless people with the gifts you bring. But don’t imagine this entitles you to anything special. And keep an eye out for young ones—like you once were!—who are coming up. Practice opening doors for others early on. Finally, before you have to, choose to step aside with grace and make space for the next crew. In ways like these, you will bless many.

Jasper, full-time, long-term ministry is full of both peril and promise. But if you are called to this, you won’t be able to do otherwise, and as you plunge in, you will find satisfaction that will nourish you like nothing else. I trust you’ll hear the Lord clearly as you continue to pursue this path, and I hope suggestions like these will contribute to your effectiveness for decades.
Blessings, Dan

….

Dan Schmidt has planted and pastored churches in the U.S. and Latin America. He currently serves as vice president for USA Ministries with BCM International. Dan blogs at toucanic.net.

EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 2, pp. 198-203. Copyright  © 2011 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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