by B. Van Ochs
Now be honest. Have you ever thought that missionaries who lasted only one term on the field were wimps? Or even worse, what about those who didn’t even last a term?
Now be honest. Have you ever thought that missionaries who lasted only one term on the field were wimps? Or even worse, what about those who didn’t even last a term? You know what I mean, don’t you? You’ve seen a couple spend years in Bible college, spend months raising support, sell their possessions, and then be sent off at great expense and with great hoopla, only to receive a letter explaining that "due to such and such circumstances, we will not be returning overseas."
For five years as a missions candidate and then seven years as a missions pastor, I really thought that folks who lasted one term (or less) were wimps. Like many in the missions enterprise, I had read attrition studies and was aware of some of the unique hardships and challenges that foreign workers face. Nonetheless, at some level I really believed that it was a lack of commitment or spiritual or emotional immaturity that kept people from sticking it out. "Give me those die-hards who packed their belongings in a coffin and set off for regions unknown with a one-way ticket," I lamented with others sitting around the lunch table at ACMC conferences.
And then, something changed. And now it is not as easy to classify the returning missionary as a wimp. The something that changed was that I moved overseas as a missionary and actually experienced some of those unique, formerly theoretical challenges that accompany the missionary life. Some of them can be doozies. Combine several of these doozies, and it makes going home look pretty tantalizing. While lack of commitment or maturity may indeed factor in the picture of a returning missionary, these other issues are very real.
Our agency and home churches had good pre-field orientation programs, and attention was given to many areas of potential conflict and frustration. Despite all of our preparation, there were still some unique areas that really caught me off guard. Perhaps they were covered somewhere in our orientation, or in attrition studies. I just don’t remember them being talked about that much. Therefore, a plea to my former lunch companions, those involved in the pre-field orientation process and missions executives; please, don’t only prepare your candidates for the missiological, theological and cultural aspects of work. Give them large doses of cynically dangerous reality that at the least alert them to the issues. At best, force them to come up with some preliminary conclusions. What follows is a partial list of some of the "doozies" which make life challenging on the field.
1. Having local pastors tell you, "Go home but leave your money." It’s a real bell ringer when pastors tell missionaries to "go home and leave their money." Or say, "It is your biblical responsibility to support us," or, even better, "We tolerate you because of the money you bring." These are not hypothetical examples. In addition to being told to go home, rarely a week passes when we aren’t presented with "opportunities to contribute," shown blueprints for a building, asked to purchase a car, or just asked for money.
Please note that I am not against funding national workers or against special project funding. I just never imagined that I would be playing the role of a banker who is perceived as the source of funds, or who is trying to determine what is an appropriate wage for the worker. In our city, the salary most pastors are receiving (from Western sources) is fifteen times the salary of a local university professor.
Many missionaries know that if they are telling a pastor that they want to help, the onus is on them to be able to provide practical, culturally relevant substance to their offer. If they don’t, then all that the national worker may hear in terms of practical help is "funding." But even when prepared with practical help, the undercurrent of money is often present.
Really makes you glad that you spent so much time on that hermeneutics paper. Forget Bible college, just take a few classes in financial management!
2. Choosing where to draw theological lines (or, do I feel good about helping this church reproduce?) Many missionaries are committed to working with and through the local church. This can pose an interesting question: with which representation of the Body do you work? It is often a dilemma requiring the missionary to decide just how far he will stretch his theological comfort zone. For example, imagine believers who contend that you are only truly saved if you’ve had a "second blessing" experience accompanied by speaking in tongues. Or believers who believe that you can lose your salvation at any time and must continue to work to demonstrate that you are "truly saved." What about those who say that you are not genuinely saved unless your conversion experience was accompanied by tears? Or that if you have had an experience of speaking in tongues then you are probably not really saved?
A variation of the question of theological boundaries is the question of cultural relevance. How excited are you to help reproduce a culturally outdated church which is singing songs from the 1880s? What about one that claims Christian character is demonstrated by subscribing to a list of do’s and don’ts?
One of the objections routinely made against evangelistically-minded campus ministries is that they don’t connect new believers with the local churches. When the missionary returns home the new believers are then left on their own. Some reply it is because they don’t feel good about introducing new believers into the current expression of the Body of Christ for theological or cultural reasons. Others decide to start their own church.
While few agree with this practice, it does expose an underlying question that many have, "Do I feel good about working with this church?"
3. The "short-termer-as-expert" phenomenon. Imagine spending months learning a language, studying the culture, building relationships with key people, establishing trust, and doing all of the things that slowly build a platform for ministry. Then you watch as a team of short-termers blow through town and are treated like experts, with people hanging on their every translated word. You begin to wonder why you can’t be like the short-termers.
Not long ago a short-term team visited our city. After they left, a local women’s ministry leader told my wife that she was going to start a sewing circle. My wife asked, "Will this be an outreach? To build up the women of the congregation? Would it be connected with prayer and Bible study?" The leader wasn’t sure. She just knew that a visiting "expert" had told her that this is what they needed, because it is what had worked in America.
This story typifies a phenomenon that we routinely encounter. For fun, we sometimes muse about why this may be the case. Whatever the reason, it is really frustrating to see doors opened to cash-laden outsiders that are closed to the field worker. Forget career missions. Why not go home and just take short-term trips?
4. The gap between the picture on the front of the recruiting brochure and reality. In agencies’ zeal to get people to the field, they may represent things more as they wish they were than as they actually are. Or, as things one day might be, but currently are not. For example, we know a woman who was told that her prospective language (which is ranked by a prestigious language institute as a nine out of ten in terms of difficulty) was "manageable," and that she would "be speaking fluently within two years." Another well-publicized opportunity promised to provide opportunities to teach a particular curriculum in schools that were eagerly awaiting the training. The reality was that few schools knew anything about the training, and fewer were receptive to it.
Hopefully, adequately prepared missionaries can assess their situation and adapt accordingly. It’s just that sometimes folks have been prepared for something, or promised something, that isn’t reality. And when expectations have been raised, it is tough to let go of them.
How would you feel if you thought you were going to be training pastors and you were made the field accountant? It might make you think about going home.
5. Handling the tension between making a long haul investment in ministry and producing something. Much has been written on the tension between taking the time to learn a language and culture versus producing some sort of tangible and quantifiable results. For many missionaries, the weight of how much it costs to keep us fielded is a constant irritation. We feel that we must produce. And even though our agencies and supporting churches reassure us that it is okay to take the time to learn culture and language, there still is that feeling of inadequacy or uselessness.
At some point there should, of course, be a thorough analysis of a missionary’s effectiveness. But when do we make that evaluation? After one term? Midway through a term? Should variables such as difficulty of language or receptivity be considered? Should we applaud those who "worked faithfully for twenty years before seeing their first convert," or should we have brought them home long ago? When is a person spending too little time learning the language, and when is he/she hiding behind it and avoiding ministry involvement? These are hard questions, and just as they are difficult to ask objectively, they are also difficult to live with. Sometimes this tension makes one want to go home and do something more quantifiable.
6. The gap between a contemporary missiology of "facilitation," "networking," or "mobilization," versus the expectation on the field. Mission preparation programs in the West have shifted away from the traditional model of "missionary as evangelist" (except in frontier contexts) to "missionary as facilitator," where the outsider coordinates resources in attempts to create a movement of new churches. This mentality may or may not square with the expectations of believers on the field. The existing church may perceive a "facilitating" missionary as trying to use them to reach his own objectives. The missionary may be perceived as lazy. It is hard to explain the more conceptual aspects of facilitative ministry in cultures where work is equated with up-front involvement.
Many missionaries are trained to say "no" to teaching Sunday school classes or other ministry opportunities, unless they somehow are moving toward a reproducing ministry. Many want to reproduce themselves by working behind the scenes to train others to lead the class. It is generally acknowledged that when the foreigner leading a class or church returns home, programs will evaporate. Nonetheless, missionaries are regularly asked to be youth pastors, to take responsibility for ministries, or to "show us how to do it and we’ll take over" (though the transitions are difficult). Being misunderstood makes going home look tempting.
7. The emotional energy required to live a double life in a restricted access country. As mundane as it sounds, those living in creative access regions can get really tired of living a double life. In some cases, it feels like you are living a lie by telling half or partial truths. The fatigue increases with a paper thin secular testimony, or when you know that certain actions could lead to the arrest and imprisonment of others. While this issue wouldn’t necessarily sideline anyone in ministry, it is a factor that can emotionally tire someone who is in a downward spiral.
In our case, the phone is tapped, mail is opened and our language teachers have told us that they are required to report our activities to the authorities. Makes you feel like going home, where people don’t hassle you.
8. Seeing what it takes to support a national worker, versus your support level. This is the flip side of concern number one. Western missionaries are expensive to support, and as we know, the cost of keeping a missionary unit on the field often could fund a flotilla of national workers who know the language, know the culture, are adjusted to the microbes, etc., etc. When we see that there are many roles that can and should be performed by locals, and while struggling through learning a language, it may be tempting to think about returning home and letting others do the work.
One member of our team runs his own business. He breaks his time into labor units and sees what it costs for him to be here by the day. He then compares this with what it would cost to fund a local worker. It’s pretty discouraging, and really makes one wonder if it wouldn’t just be better to go home and raise money for the folks that are here. In some cases this may well be the case, but how can we be sure?
9. Thinking about our children. Imagine a pendulum which swings between two extremes: caring for the needs of our family and forsaking family for the sake of ministry. In the West the pendulum has in recent years swung in the direction of caring for the needs of the family. So what do you do when you live in a culture which isn’t as kind to children? Where things are shown on television that you don’t want your children to see? Where your kids get beat up on the playground? Where they experience severe culture shock and cope by acting out?
On the one hand we read of missionaries who accomplished great things for God at the expense of their family, and on the other hand we hear, "What does it profit a man if he wins the whole world and loses his family?" In a pinch, some, for the sake of their kids, return home.
This isn’t a commentary on the "cult of the family," as the pendulum swing is sometimes called. It is merely an observation that people feel like terrible parents when their kids don’t turn out to be the wonderfully welladjusted, trilingual, Rhodes scholar MK’s that we’ve heard about. Makes you wonder if it’s worth sacrificing your family.
10. Family concerns on the home front. E-mail and internet phones are great, and so is air travel. But the availability of these items make it easy to keep feet in both worlds. The upside of the world getting smaller is that it is easier to stay in touch with supporters and friends, to have shorter terms with shorter furloughs so that people don’t lose as much language and culture while away and to immediately receive pictures of nieces and nephews. These and a myriad of other benefits are wonderful.
However, communicating with home on a daily basis can keep missionaries from fully engaging in their local context. There are consequences, subtle or otherwise. Jim Reapsome wrote a poignant article about the blessings and curses of e-mail. He was right. It can be a big distraction, not only in terms of time, but also in terms of parading a cavalcade of concerns that make the weary missionary think that going home is a necessary option.
The reality is that people return from the field for a variety of reasons-usually a combination of factors. Life on the field will magnify pre-existing faults, and while circumstances like the ones listed above may or may not be the root reasons for leaving, they may be contributing factors. Please, those of you preparing candidates, expose them to experienced missionaries. Do not hesitate to probe into the joys of their work and into the things that make them think about coming home. You risk making people a little cynical, but on the other hand, you’re serving them a slice of reality.
B. Van Ochs and his wife are with United World Mission in Central Asia.
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