by Allen L. Pelletier, M.D.
We see our friends in support roles as “the forgotten missionaries.”
We often frame the missionary endeavor in terms of spiritual warfare. In warfare, of course, supplies (and supply lines) are everything. Napoleon was reputed to have said "An army marches on its stomach." An army may be highly motivated, courageous, well trained, splendidly equipped, and yet still lose battles because of the people behind the lines.
Modern battles are not won by tricks, or by good luck. In the main they are won by supply officers who, thoroughly understanding the operational plan, contrive to have the right ammunition, fuel, and food in the right place at the right time.1
Approximately 500,000 American soldiers participated in Desert Storm in 1990-91. It has been said that for every soldier or airman who was at the front line, 10 worked behind the scenes, supplying fuel, ammunition, food, water, and all the other things the combat troops needed. I am not passing judgment on the morality of this, or any other, war; nor am I suggesting that we adopt a ratio of 10 support troops for every combat soldier! I do believe, though, that we can learn from such examples. Churches want to help on the "front lines" of the mission field. This is commendable. There is always a need for more "front line" troops. But along with this goes the obligation to give "front line" missionaries the very best support possible. I am not speaking here of financial support, or even prayer support. My concern is to address the issue of missionaries whose primary role is to support field operations: those involved in administration, maintenance, finance, travel, hospitality, and children’s education. We could expand this definition of "support ministries" to include those who raise support as missionaries but who work in sending country home offices.
If the role of "support troops" in warfare is central to success, then perhaps we need to pay more attention to our support personnel. We believe that current missions thinking and strategy convey the idea to churches (and missionaries as well) that the only "real" missionaries are pioneer evangelists or church planters targeting an unreached people group in the 10-40 Window. This may seem unfair and overly broad, but there is ample anecdotal evidence to support such a hypothesis. In fact, we see our friends in support roles as "the forgotten missionaries." Consider several examples that we have seen in our own mission and field.
Our particular SIM field of Nigeria has been without a regular field treasurer since 1993. We thank God for the changing array of temporary helpers in our field office; but it is very difficult to manage money when accounts and financial statements lag behind four or five months!
One of the most urgent worldwide needs for our mission, SIM, is for treasurers, accountants, and bookkeepers. As I write this article, SIM has urgent needs in seven countries for people with these skills.2
One SIM missionary candidate (headed for South America as a bookkeeper) recently said, "I never thought of my occupation as having missionary potential."
One family we know (with another mission) recently told us that its home church raised its monthly support level from $50 to $700 when the family agreed to go on a one-year overseas assignment, doing exactly the same administrative work they were doing in the mission home office.
Some church policies deny support to any missionary candidate whose ministry is not specifically defined as evangelism or church planting among an "unreached people group."
One missionary couple that we know was asked by the field to be dorm parents for a term. They were deeply discouraged to receive (while still on the field) a letter from their home church, stating that their support was being reevaluated.
Nearly every missionary I know who moves into a "home office" role (often due to factors such as illness, family concerns, or educational needs of children) experiences a significant drop in support.
In 1996, we returned to Nigeria for a second term. I am a family physician. My wife hasbeen our household manager, educating our three children, and recently teaching English as a second language. Twice during this term (still in progress as I write) we have been moved to help in "support roles." We spent four months managing a conference center, and two months as hostel parents to MKs attending school in Jos, Nigeria. These experiences opened our eyes to the crucial role of the "forgotten missionaries." The conference center provides one of the few affordable and convenient places on our field for missionaries who are burned out and need a break. It is one of the only places in northern Nigeria available (and affordable) to national church groups for conferences. It was a rich and rewarding experience for us to serve our brothers and sisters in Christ, missionaries and nationals alike. We helped them have a significant time of rest, retreat, or strategic planning for their ministry.
The hostel where we spent two months included children from a Korean couple teaching at a Bible college; a doctor and his wife doing pioneer outreach in a remote area of northern Nigeria among a nomadic Muslim tribe; and two teachers at a Nigerian church school. We realized that our ministry extended far beyond the walls of a building. We had the chance to love and disciple these children, and we gave their parents the freedom to carry out their significant ministries with the security of knowing that their children were in a secure and loving environment. Perhaps some will criticize our field for calling a doctor away for this task. We never felt this way. Our role allowed four other missionary families to carry on so that in effect our ministry was multiplied fourfold!
I believe that the "forgotten missionaries" are overlooked and misunderstood. Their contributions are undervalued by most churches, and sometimes even by other missionaries. Here is just a partial list of the services that others do to help keep us on the field:
• donor support services, and mailing of tax receipts for our ministry;
• computer advice and expertise, including helping us with e-mail;
• hostel parents who take wonderful care of our kids while they are away from us in school;
• field administrators and travel coordinators, who negotiate with the government for work permits, visas, and quota positions;
• other home office staff who handle the mail, answer the phones, and, above all, pray for our success!
We have estimated it would take at least 20 hours a week to do these administrative tasks ourselves (and this doesn’t include the education of our children!).
Several factors contribute to the "forgotten missionary" syndrome. Our fallen and sinful natures are not easily clothed in servants’ robes. Churches often struggle to get volunteers for unglamorous tasks like running the nursery, teaching children’s Sunday school, or washing up after the fellowship supper. Such failures extended to a larger scale partially explain why service positions on the mission field are unappreciated and undermanned.
Then, too, many of us (at least we Americans) operate with a dichotomized worldview. We tend to divide the world into the sacred and the secular, and define "work" as what we do to "earn a living" and "ministry" as what we do to please God. This unbiblical mentality probably explains the almost apologetic remark we heard from a missionary candidate: "I never thought of my occupation as having missionary potential."
We (again, broadly generalizing about Americans) tend to be task oriented, and we want quick results from our missionary activity. Support ministries rarely produce the opportunities to give glowing reports to supporters about numbers of indigenous people converted or baptized. Support ministry missionaries may feel that they cannot compete with the dramatic stories told by their "front line" colleagues. Tales of quiet service and dedication behind the scenes aren’t heard often enough.
Our missionary theology reinforces our neglect of support roles. The ruggedpioneer evangelist types are our heroes. May God bless gifted individuals like this and send more into the mission fields of the world. But that is not the whole story of missions!
Theologian John Frame points out that we often make the mistake of "individualizing" scriptural commands and promises. The Great Commission was given to the church as a whole, not just to isolated individuals. The apostle Paul tells us that all the parts of the body are essential, and that the parts that are considered the least may in fact contribute the most to the body as a whole (see 1 Corinthians 12).
We lack a developed theology of missions that connects us to the rich biblical imagery of the church as the body of Christ. Such a theology will, I believe, unleash the energy and gifts of all parts of the body of Christ. Missionaries in supporting roles, and the churches that support them, need to understand their work in relationship to the whole. When we all do our work to the glory of God, "the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work" (Eph. 4:16).
1. Len Deighton. Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II. (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1993), p. 445.
2. Information on file with SIM International, Charlotte, N.C.
Allen Pelletier is a family physician with SIM-Nigeria.
EMQ, Vol. 35, No. 2, pp. 174-179. Copyright © 1999 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.