by Robert Yackley
I find scouting and developing Major League ballplayers surprisingly analogous to recruiting and developing major league missionaries.
Kenny Compton is a good friend of mine. He is also the West Coast scouting supervisor for the Seattle Mariners Major League Baseball organization. I’ll never forget the first time I went to the ballpark with him. It was a junior college game in Southern California, a great place to scout potential talent.
I understood that Kenny wanted to scout one pitcher and one position player. The other 16 players on the field that day were little more than landscape. Being a sports fan and trying my best to come across as somewhat knowledgeable, I asked Kenny about the pitcher. “So, what’s his won-lost record?” Kenny didn’t know. “How about his ERA?” Again, Kenny didn’t know. “What’s his strikeout-to-walks ratio?” No idea. So I turned to the position player. “What’s his batting average?” Kenny didn’t know that either. “Home runs?” Nope. “RBIs?” No clue. Right about then I began to wonder what in the world a professional scout gets paid to do. I also pondered how I might get signed on to earn a little supplemental income; after all, I could do this.
Knowing that just watching ball games for a living, without applying focused observation and research, seemed a little too good to be true, I asked, “What is it you look for?” His response surprised me. Without hesitation Kenny replied, “In a pitcher I look for things like ball movement, the number of planes a ball crosses between release and the plate, body balance, arm rotation, and confidence.
“In a position player,” Kenny continued, “I look for things like soft hands, quick hands, economy of movements, first step speed, and power.” At a more subjective level, Kenny conceded that he was looking for players who simply made the game look easy.
Kenny’s comments struck me, and they have stuck with me ever since. I spent the rest of that afternoon thinking more about what was happening in the missions world than what was happening on the baseball diamond. I find scouting and developing Major League ballplayers surprisingly analogous to recruiting and developing major league missionaries. I left the ballpark that day with two observations.
First, we are quite possibly looking for the wrong things in the potential missionaries we “scout.” There is a good chance we’re looking at batting averages rather than soft hands. We may be more cognizant of won-lost records than body balance.
Good baseball scouts know exactly what characteristics will contribute to Major League potential. And if they know what those skills are for a game that is meant to entertain, how much more should we know the critical success characteristics for an endeavor with eternal ramifications.
Second, unlike every Major League baseball organization, most of us serving in missions ministry have no tangible “ball games” to go to and observe skills and behavior. There are few, if any, missionary farm systems in operation where appropriate skills are being developed in the context of local ministry in such a way as to be seen, measured, and developed. The missions enterprise would be greatly enhanced if it were drawing on personnel who were fully integrated into a leadership farm system. And even stronger if there were regional systems that were committed to developing potential big league missionaries.
We need to better define what it is we’re really looking for in those we hope to send out. Are there certain core skills or competencies that will someday spell success in missions ministry? Probably so. Have we clearly identified them as any good baseball scout would? Maybe not. In fact, it’s quite possible that we’ve even constructed our own in-house systems that actually inhibit, or mask, the development of these critical skills. Let me illustrate: Churches today often have two primary concerns, or values, that shape the prefield process they develop for potential missionaries. They are faithfulness and exposure. Churches understandably want to support missionaries who have demonstrated faithfulness to their church over time. They also want those they support to be wellknown in their church. Churches often want their congregations to be personally connected to the missionaries they support and influenced by the missionaries’ lives and ministry. To that end, prefield training tracks are routinely constructed that route a potential missionary through a variety of church programs that will test the candidate’s faithfulness, and, simultaneously, give a broad segment of the congregation a name and a face to put with its investment.
In the process, it is generally assumed that the candidate’s character and ministry skills will also be honed and refined as he or she moves down the track. Candidates will become better teachers by teaching Sunday school; better evangelists by facilitating Evangelism Explosion; or better servants by doing a stint as a deacon. But the fundamental question is this: Will those activities intentionally develop the skills and character qualities that will contribute toward the formation of a major league missionary?
More than likely there will be no Sunday school class to teach overseas, and quite possibly no intention of ever starting one. In most pioneering efforts, there will be no visitors to visit and perhaps no church to bring seekers to. There will be no programs to lead, committees to serve on, or ministries to administrate. It is very possible that those we send will never even engage in the things we’ve asked them to do here that were installed, in principle, to prepare them for their future ministry.
Churches that want to commission major league missionaries should rigorously seek to discover the specific skills their missionaries must possess to accomplish the specific objectives of their mission. Agencies could greatly enhance this effort by clearly articulating what specific skills are needed for the future tasks they envision for the potential missionary. For example, some of the skills that we look for in our mission, based on our ministry objectives, are an ability to connect and gain trust with new people; disciple people into the faith; create a sense of home from bareness; create and assimilate new believers into a disciple-making community; mentor emerging leaders into focused ministry in light of their personal giftedness; work within a team context to establish a new Christian community; and replicate leadership and initiate supportive developmental networks.
As it relates to spirituality and character, some of the characteristics we believe are vital to fruitful missions ministry are a durable and tested faith; experiential knowledge of the spiritual disciplines; a passion to learn and grow; emotional solidity; a faith-inspired, winsome orientation; a deep affection for Jesus and his church.
This list is not meant to be comprehensive or universally applicable. It simply illustrates that there are in fact identifiable core competencies that will contribute to missionary fruitfulness, and that all of us engaged in missions ministry should determine what those competencies are, based on what the task will be.
But determining those competencies is only the first step. We still need a means of observing those skills in action and developing the individual to be productive at the next level: a farm system. Professional baseball organizations use a farm system to both scout potential players and to develop their skills before they are called up. Most of us in missions ministry, however, must select potential big league missionaries without one.
Conventional wisdom may wade in here and respond, “Wait a minute, that’s why we have seminaries. They function as farm systems.” But do they? Is actual ministry effectiveness observed and evaluated by the seminary? Are students intentionally mentored into appropriate ministry based on their discovered passions and giftedness? Are students coached in their ministry as they apply acquired knowledge? In most cases, probably not. Returning to the metaphor, seminary functions much more like a baseball clinic than it does a baseball farm system.Both are useful, but they’re not the same.
Another response might be, “Well, we have a two-year missionary track at our church that functions as our farm system.” Now we’re getting close, and maybe there is indeed an effective farm system in place. But I would guess that if faithfulness and exposure are the primary values that have shaped the formation of your training grid, then it may be functioning more like a final exam than a farm system. The congregation is probably serving as the audience, and its response to the outbound missionary forms the final grade. The short-circuit in this wiring is that most missionaries will not be evaluated on the field by how well they serve the needs of existing programs, but on how well they can create new ministries and new communities from an absolute absence of structure.
Ministries of formation, creation, and replication require vastly different skills than those of participation and facilitation. Most of the church-based training tracks for missionaries that I have seen are heavily oriented toward the latter. Yet the balance of strategic missions ministry in the future will require an increasing number of missionaries capable of functioning in apostolic and catalytic roles. There will be an increasing demand for missionaries capable of stimulating the formation of new developmental structures. For missionaries capable of raising up leaders from the harvest, not just for the harvest. For missionaries who are able to carve out new disciple-making communities. For missionaries who are able to envision new models of how the church will function. For missionaries who can create something holy out of nothing at all.
The formation of church-based, or even regionally based, apostolic bands is at the heart of the leadership farm system paradigm. Churches could make incredible strides forward in the development of missionaries and apostolic leaders if they would:
1. Identify all of their potential missionaries and church planters (and perhaps even evangelists).
2. Bring them together in a supportive apostolic community.
3. Mentor them and give them resources as they engage in missions ministry.
4. Coach and encourage them continually and assess them at critical points along the way.
5. Integrate them into a regional farm system to provide greater support and encouragement.
Each of these steps must be thoroughly thought through and prepared for. Tough questions must be answered. For example, What are the characteristics of someone entering the farm system? How do we build a supportive community? What are the skills we’ll want to see developed, and how will we accomplish that? What will our mentoring/coaching structure look like? Where do we get philosophically compatible resources outside our local congregation? And, What are the behavioral signs, fruits, and competencies that indicate someone is ready to be called up?
Some churches are fully able to address these issues and construct an effective leadership farm system. Most will want to cooperate closely with a missions organization capable of providing perspective, resources, and perhaps even farm system coaches. Whether you go it alone or participate in a regional system, a fruitful leadership farm system will strive to enhance a potential missionary’s:
1. Character formation. Developing an inner life of faith and maturity resilient enough to overcome the isolation and initial ambiguity often inherent in missions ministry.
2. Ministry formation. Systematically developing the skills and knowledge missionaries will need to be fruitful wherever they may go.
3. Strategic formation. The clarification of the missionary’s overarching philosophy of ministry and his or her strategic role based on his or her individual giftedness and God-given mandate.
Knowing what to look for and having an environment to both scout and develop skills would be a grand slam home run in missions stewardship. If it’s important enough for baseball, how much more important should it be forthe kingdom.
Robert Yackley is vice-president of international ministries for Church Resource Ministries, Anaheim, California. He lived in Budapest, Hungary for six years and now travels extensively abroad while working with CRM’s resident missions teams.
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