The Critical Role of Relationships in Missions

by Joe W. Bruce

Relationships are the number one factor in building trust and finding favor among a people group.

Visiting with a prominent evangelical Latin American leader, I asked, “Brother, do you still have missionaries from our agency working here in your country?” Knowing we had maintained a missionary presence in that “maturing field” for years, I was unprepared and surprised by his response. “Yes, we still have some missionaries here, and they are just like God,” he said. “We know they exist, but we never see them!”

Seeing my shocked look, he explained that from his perspective, developing and maintaining strong, personal relationships with national leaders was no longer a priority with our agency’s field personnel, as it once had been. He spoke with appreciation of the missionaries he had known and worked with through the years. “But now, we don’t know what they are doing since we seldom hear from or see them—unless they need something from us. I’ve never even met some of the new ones.”
That dialogue, along with my many years as a mission practitioner, regional administrator, and denominational staff person, made me realize just how critical personal relationships are in developing and maintaining a successful missionary ministry.

Many missioners and sending agencies invest much time and resources studying people/affinity groups, church-planting movements, worldviews, and statistics. This is in addition to countless hours devoted to dialogues and discussions about the “emerging church,” syncretism, contextualization, and the many other missiological “hot topics” in missionary circles, blogs, and emails. But how much missionary time, effort, resources, and energy are expended dealing with our own internal organizational administration, team care, and management issues?

Obviously, each of the above is an important matter that needs attention. However, as my conversation with the Latin American leader demonstrates, sometimes missionaries get so caught up in the research, methods, mechanics, and internal logistics of their work and with each other that they neglect what may be the most important investment of their time: developing and maintaining relationships with national leaders.

This is especially true when missionaries go to a “maturing field;” but it is also true when they go to work with an unreached people group in a country where there are already existing churches among the majority group in that country.

Importance of Relationship
Relationships are a key element of the human experience. The early chapters of Genesis remind us that God created humanity because he wanted a relationship with us. Human beings have an innate desire for a relationship with God and each other. We must relate to others or we will live an emotionally and spiritually-deformed life. Without meaningful relationships we might exist, but we do not prosper.  

An article in The Atlantic magazine discusses a 72-year comprehensive longitudinal study of 268 Harvard University men who entered college in the late 1930s. This is probably the longest and most thorough study of human mental and physical well-being in history. Called the “Grant Study,” it has tracked the life stages of these men from their days as college sophomores to the present.

Throughout the project, the men have regularly completed physical exams, psychological tests, questionnaires, and personal interviews. They have been studied from almost every possible perspective for the purpose of trying to discover the secret to “the good life” (Shenk 2009, 36-53).

For forty-two years, psychiatrist George Vaillant has directed the study, and has published several books based upon its data. According to Joshua Wolf Shenk,

In an interview in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant Study subjects, Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” Vaillant’s response: “That the only thing that really matters in life is your relationships to other people.” (Shenk 2009, 46)

Relationships are not only important in the emotional and psychological aspects of life, but also in work and ministry. Best-selling author John C. Maxwell says,

Ask the successful CEOs of major corporations what characteristic is most needed in leadership positions, and they’ll tell you it’s the ability to work with people….The bottom line is this: People can usually trace their successes and failures to the relationships in their lives. (Maxwell 2004, xiv-xvi)

Missionary legacies are built more on relationships than on how many hours one spends studying missiological principles and methods. Seminary president Jeff Iorg states, “Leaders are usually remembered for who they were, not for what they did” (Iorg 2007, 21). He drives the message home with these words: “When you are finished, you want people to remember the person you are more than the tasks you accomplished” (2007, 137).

Priority of Relationship
Relationships don’t just happen; you must work to develop them. Relationship-building takes commitment, time, and effort. It also requires physical presence, especially in the early days. A veteran missionary was recently asked by a young colleague, “Why won’t the denominational president pay attention to my counsel and suggestions?”

“How much contact have you had with him?” asked the veteran.

“Well, I’ve met him once or twice and I’ve sent him several emails,” replied his young friend.

“Have you ever sat down and had coffee with him? Or spent time praying with him? Once you get to know him personally, he will pay more attention to your emails and suggestions.”

Once people get to know one another as “real people,” the more readily they are to share with each other, learn from each other, and influence each other. Walls of suspicion fall, synergy is created, and ministry effectiveness is enhanced. When leaders (even those coming from different cultures, backgrounds, and worldviews) develop a personal bond, they are able to transcend those differences, especially within the context of Christian fellowship, and focus on a common goal or task because they have a shared interest in the success of their mutual ministry task.  

Jesus recognized this principle. That is why his missionary method consisted of choosing twelve disciples and spending quality time with them as they traveled, talked, prayed, and ministered together. Paul did the same thing. A cursory reading of the Book of Acts and his letters quickly reveals that his method of influencing was by getting to know and spending time with local people. Not only did Jesus and Paul leave their mark on the work, but they both influenced and were influenced by the leaders with whom they spent time.

In the process, the Kingdom of God grew much faster and stronger than it would have if the “missionaries” had done everything by themselves without investing time with the local leaders broadening their vision and providing training, encouragement, and friendship.

Does this mean we will always agree on every point of theology, missiology, or practice with the national leadership? No. But to use those differences as an excuse for not doing everything in our power to develop a personal relationship is wrong. Even if they don’t “do things our way,” or seem closed to our ideas for ministry, we still need to establish and maintain a relationship with them. After all, the local congregations have recognized them as their leaders. It is therefore to our advantage to get to know them, learn from them, and cooperate with them as much as possible.

Benefits of Relationship
Tom Kunz, president/CEO of Century 21 Real Estate LLC, has written about the “power of relationships.” Although he speaks from the standpoint of a businessperson who wants to “turn a profit,” he notes, “Relationships matter for a lot of good reasons.” Then he lists three: relationships (1) provide connections, (2) build goodwill, and (3) offer long-term rewards (Kunz 2009).

Let’s apply these points to the missionary context. First, consider the matter of connections. In most situations, the local denominational leaders can either greatly enhance your ministry or make your life miserable. You are the outsider. They were there first and they don’t know you or your intentions. They know their people and their churches, and they already have a work plan. One of their concerns is: are you going to help or “hinder” the work?  

Whether or not you work closely with them, you will find a better reception for your presence and ministry if you establish a cordial relationship than if you ignore or antagonize them. As you get to know the national leaders, spend time with them, and develop a personal relationship with them, you might also find they can help you discover ways to establish and integrate yourself and ministry much more quickly than you could otherwise.

In the process of relationship-building, you will gain insights into the life, culture, and work that are invaluable to you as a person and minister. In other words, national leaders can help you better “connect” to their culture, and through the existing churches, to a broader base of potential ministry partners as you develop your work plan.  

Relationships build goodwill. Maxwell states, “To be an influencer, you have to love people before you try to lead them. The moment that people know that you care for and about them, the way they feel about you changes” (Maxwell 1997, 107). If people know you love and care for them, not only will the way they feel about you change, but they will also become more willing to listen to your ideas and follow your leadership. This is true whether you are dealing with missionaries or national colleagues.

You become a person of influence only as you develop a personal relationship with someone. The deeper the relationship, the more influence you have with that person. We much more quickly respond to a family member or friend than we do to a stranger. Just as this is true in personal relationships, so it is in work. The better you are at building and developing relationships with national leaders, the more your missionary effectiveness increases.

If you have a personal relationship with someone, he or she will give you more grace in times of disagreement than if he or she doesn’t know you. Even if the person doesn’t really like you, he or she will still be more tolerant if he or she knows you personally. Goodwill is earned, and the way to earn it is by developing a personal relationship.

Relationships produce long-term rewards. Recently, my wife and I received emails from two different national pastors who are now leaders within their denomination. They wrote to thank us for the way our lives and ministry had influenced them to become who they are today. We first met these men when they were leaders in the national youth organizations of their denomination and we were “new” missionaries.

Through our friendship, God has blessed both them and us. The relationship we began years ago with these guys and others like them continues to bear fruit for the kingdom. Although the miles and years now separate us, because of our personal relationship with these brothers, they still value our encouragement and counsel. How different would their lives and ours have been if we had not spent time talking with, working alongside, counseling, and encouraging each other when we were field colleagues!

Besides creating friendships that endure a lifetime, relationship-building with national leaders has a lasting effect upon the work. One only has to read the history of the work in some of the “maturing fields” to see the positive or negative effect missionary/national relationships have upon the growth, or lack of it, among the group being studied.

When missionary and national physical, human, and material resources are combined in a joint effort for God’s kingdom, they accomplish much more together than either can do alone. By the same token, when missionary/national relationships are damaged, deformed, or non-existent, the work suffers long-term damage.

Broken or non-existent relationships lead to suspicion, competition, and misunderstanding on the part of missionaries and national leaders, all who claim to “want the best for the work.” How often has God’s work suffered in a given area because local and expatriate leaders failed to take the time to build the kind of friendship and koinonia among themselves that would have benefited and accelerated the growth of the Church?  

As we prepared to leave the field for stateside assignment at the end of our first term, one of the pastors asked us to come to his church for a good-bye celebration. We spent a wonderful evening of fellowship and celebration with this young leader with whom we had spent time, prayed, wept, and ministered in starting new churches and sowing a mission vision among our denomination.

At the conclusion of the service, the congregation gathered to pray for us. After a number of people prayed, I felt my hand lightly gripped by the pastor’s wife. I’ll never forget the words of her prayer. They went something like this: “Father, thank you for bringing our brothers, the Bruces, to work with us. Please keep them safe as they go back to their country. And Father, after they have been there for awhile, please don’t let them forget to come back.”

Missionaries should be like God in all respects but one. We should never be invisible to the local church leaders in the country he calls us to serve. The way to keep that from happening is by doing all we can to develop personal relationships with as many of the pastors and leaders as possible. When they know you love them and want them to be part of your life as you are of theirs, people do want you to remember to come back to work with them for the growth of God’s kingdom.

Iorg, Jeff. 2007. The Character of Leadership. Nashville, Tenn.: B&H Publishing Group.

Kunz, Tom. 2009. “We’re Here for YOU.” At Home with CENTURY 21. November/December.

Maxwell, John C. 1997. Becoming a Person of Influence. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, Inc.

_____. 2004. Winning with People. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, Inc..

Shenk, Joshua Wolf. 2009. “What Makes Us Happy.” The Atlantic. June.


Joe W. Bruce is a forty-year veteran of missionary service, currently working as strategy coordinator on the International Mission Board (SBC) Caribbean itinerant team. Originally appointed as a church planter to Honduras with the IMB, he later became area director for Middle America and Canada, overseeing the work of approximately 350 missionaries in eight countries.

EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 3, pp. 312-317. 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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