by Stan Smith
A look at some of the factors that cause conflicts and ways that may diminish their unfortunate consequences.
When missionaries get together, conversation frequently turns to anecdotes about spectacular blunders perpetrated by their visiting home agency personnel, or to points of disagreement between their sending agency and the people on the field. Sometimes feelings of distrust, lack of support, and even alienation have serious consequences on missionary morale and may even precipitate withdrawal from effective evangelistic or other missionary work.
Misunderstanding, poor communication, and the resulting friction are perhaps inevitable. They are almost surely to happen when a group of individuals in an industrialized society gathers perhaps two to six times a year and makes decisions vitally affecting the lives and work of another group of individuals living thousands of miles away in a society with vastly different cultural and economic norms. Both mission societies and missionaries, normally well-supplied with good will and tolerance, recognize this fact. However, patience and submissiveness may be carried to the point of bottling up frustration and resentment, so that the missionaries lose their joy and satisfaction. Strained interpersonal relations with other missionaries, and, worse, with national co-workers, may vitiate and even terminate the missionary’s activity.
Let us look at some of the factors that cause these conflicts and then examine ways that may diminish their unfortunate consequences.
Home staff see missionaries as the means to enlarging the home end. Missionaries see home staff: as the means for doing their work on the field. Each uses the other.
Obviously, the functions and thrusts of the two groups are very different. The home board seeks to solicit funds and prayer support for the missionaries, and is therefore directing thought and effort toward the home congregations and districts. Missionaries, on the other hand, are at the end-point where preaching the gospel, discipling, and meeting acute human need are their preoccupations. The home society may come to see the missionaries as the excuse and support for its fund-raising efforts; the missionaries may become the means to the end of enlarging the budget and staff and work of the home office.
Missionaries feel that they are at the focal point and goal of fulfilling the Great Commission, and that the home office is there to facilitate their work; the headquarters personnel are the means and the work on the field is the end. Polarization may result, each faction attempting to use the other.
Home end planners do not seek and heed missionaries’ counsel.
Another source of friction may be the role model adopted by the governing body in the sending country, whether it be a denominational mission board, or an independent mission board. These groups like to picture themselves as planning the grand strategy for the mission. They see the missionaries as being locked into mission patterns of the past. Alternatively, the home board congratulates itself on a broad, objective outlook in contrast to the missionaries who are viewed as being sentimentally fixed on their own little area or project.
These attitudes often lead to a minimum of consultation with the missionaries, even those home on furlough. Token presence is sometimes allowed, but real listening on the part of the home executives is a rarity.
While there may be some justice in these categorizations, sending agencies would do well to heed the experience and counsel of missionaries, many of whom have studied current works on missiology and have had varied exposure in their travels to various mission strategies of their own and of other societies. An enthusiastic dedication to their own particular niche in the mission effort does not necessarily preclude a broader vision of the whole work.
Home staff have financial advantages over field missionaries.
In some instances, differences in personal income between the home office executive and the missionary on the field may present a conscious or subconscious barrier to close collaboration and a sense of unity. Not only is there usually a large difference in the salary scales of the two groups, but hidden factors may also augment this discrepancy. While the home base executive frequently has a spouse working full- or part-time, this is usually impossible for field missionaries, either because there are no paying jobs available where they live, or because the job demands every minute of both members of the couple, or because mission policies prohibit receiving extra income.
Vacations, extremely important for the missionaries’ mental and spiritual health, may require long and expensive travel. In-country vacations may simply add to the burdens of other missionaries who must put the vacationers up. Such holidays are sadly lacking in real escape from tension. There are other factors, such as difficulties in managing investments, building a retirement home, having children live at home while going to college, and increased costs of vehicles, parts, and fuel.
Home staff criticize missionaries for not "going native."
Some mission executives carp at missionaries for their supposed resistance to integration into the local lifestyle. One missionary, wanting to prove his willingness, moved into one of the slum areas of a large African city. The mere existence of the family soon required barbed wire, shattered glass spikes on high concrete walls, and a fierce-looking dog. The experiment did not last long. Or again, on one of his infrequent visits to an African nation, an executive was invited out to lunch by the missionary. As was his custom when doing business in the big city far from his village post, the missionary went to eat in a small shed "restaurant" in the marketplace, where a good meal could be had for about a dollar. The supervisor was unable to face the dirty surroundings and insisted on taking the missionary to a very expensive establishment that catered exclusively to the wealthy.
Even those mission agency executives who have themselves spent time as missionaries may quickly forget the pressures and annoyances of many overseas situations. These stresses change from one year to another and may affect different people to differing degrees. Their lack of real comprehension of and sympathy for the harassments, large and small, experienced by the missionaries makes for poor relationships with those who, living in a different world, criticize the missionaries’ lifestyle.
Home executives impose unrealistic work loads on missionaries.
While agencies have rightly tried to incorporate aspects of personnel management techniques from business into church organizations, job satisfaction among missionaries has not noticeably improved. Missionaries expect deprivation and sacrifice, but excessive work loads and nonproductive "Mickey Mouse" activities are hard to accept gracefully. The mission board may see the situation as inherently impossible to deal with, either because overwhelming needs are incessantly stressing the missionary, or because the board is persuaded that the missionary is a chronic "workaholic" who will always try to do too much, regardless of the circumstances. Such ideas obstruct any movement toward solutions.
Much stress could be avoided by realistic job descriptions for missionaries, provision of more adequate logistical support, recruiting replacements in time to fill gaps with job transfers and language mastery time overlaps. Roman Catholic missions, which have a reputation for low personnel turnover and high work-term-to-furlough ratios, generally have strictly limited responsibilities for each missionary and compulsory daily and periodic rest periods for spiritual renewal, as well as for psychological repose in their own cultural milieu. This may not be fashionable, but the destabilizing psychological influences of constant exposure to an unpredictable and often twisted foreign culture are more devastating than armchair theoreticians may believe.
Visits by home executives are too rushed. Pastoral care is lacking.
Among the most knowledgeable and understanding North American Christians are those who have come on extended fact-finding tours, ministers, and church officers, and those who have come for short terms of work, such as in building, secretarial, or medical work. For their three-week or six-week (or whatever) tour they have made the mission their number one priority. They get to know the missionaries well enough to evoke their deep concerns and frustrations, and they get a feel for the general situation.
In contrast, quite frustrating for tired missionaries, perhaps almost paranoid after months of unanswered questions, long postal delays, and repeated crises, is the whirlwind visit of their liaison person with the home board. Not wanting to seem ungrateful for the many good things that the home agency has done, and not wanting to appear depressed or entirely negative, even if there is a 30-minute interview scheduled with the board representative, missionaries may never say many things that they really should get off their chest. Frequently, there is not even enough time for that, because of a scheduled gathering of all the missionaries, at which the board representative brings the group up-to-date on recent events and actions of the home governing body, with little or no explanation about the reasons behind the decisions taken.
In many circles, the pastoral care of the church professional in North America is much more seriously pursued than the pastoral care of missionaries. The message inevitably conveyed by a fleeting visit by an agency representative is that the preaching of the gospel in the cross-cultural setting, the church planting, the discipling of young Christians, and the works witnessing to the love of God in meeting human need and the causes of justice-that these activities at the critical point of actual delivery are less important, lower on the list of priorities, than are meetings in Bangalore, Bangkok, Botswana, or Bangor.
Recruitment and screening of candidates are ineffective.
Another misapprehension afflicting the relationship between sending agency and those engaged in the nitty-gritty overseas is the problem of recruitment and screening of candidates. The home base, all but paralyzed by budgetary restrictions, may be almost afraid of too many volunteers. The candidate secretary has an unbelievably difficult job trying to determine which of the sincere and eager recruits will really be able to "hack it" and make a needed contribution in a distant land. Some boards seem to send out anyone who shows up with a guarantee of his support money in hand. This policy has resulted in some catastrophic mistakes.
Home executives are out of tune with the basic purpose of missions.
Perhaps the most serious source of conflict and unhappiness in the home office-to-field relationship is a theological and ideological gap separating the two groups. This is most common in the mainline denominations. The majority of those offering themselves for missionary service are of evangelical persuasion. A further selection process takes place on the field where those of deep biblical faith are most likely to persevere through the years. Likewise, most enthusiasm and financial support for world missions comes from those individuals and congregations in the denominations where the Bible is accepted as completely trustworthy and authoritative. Between these two kindred groups of evangelical conviction is placed a reference board and its staff of bureaucrats, the majority of whom may have a very different set of presuppositions and goals. A revealing case history demonstrating this dichotomy is given on pages 81-84 of Richard G. Hutcheson, Jr.’s penetrating book, Wheel Within the Wheel (John Knox Press, 1979).
Whether some denominational mission agencies are purposely stacked, or simply reflect the pluralistic mix of the denomination, their outlook and goals are often very different from those who volunteer to carry out the mission of the church. This lack of unity is reflected in ambiguous statements, consultations which change no one’s mind, lack of real communication between the executives and the missionaries, and at worst, intrigues and dishonesty in getting programs approved that do not fit into the rival faction’s priority system.
A problem sometimes overlapping with the above is the fact that some mission agency executives are chosen for their expertise in management techniques rather than for their dedication to Jesus Christ. Many have both qualifications, but such are not always easy to secure. The managerial whiz may be hampered in his duties by a vague or contradictory set of goals, because the different parties in the denomination may disagree about the mission of the church. Hutcheson rightly points out that the emphasis on management in church agencies has resulted in groups of managers without leaders. Not only do such crippled sending agencies fail in encouraging and sustaining the troops on the mission field, they also fail to build confidence and develop support from the members in the pew.
Some denominational mission agencies have been steadily losing their work forces. The managers would like their constituencies to believe that this is by design, as the young churches in the developing world assume more and more responsibility. However, as populations grow, and economies falter, and refugees multiply, the needs increase rather than diminish for all types of missionary outreach. Missionaries may see themselves with bigger and bigger jobs, with fewer and fewer co-workers and dollars to help. They may attribute this to the ideological cross-purposes in their sending boards that fail to produce either recruits or financial support in sufficient quantities.
Under orders from the home office, missionaries are subservient to churches in "receiving" countries.
One further element in the lack of rapport between missionaries and their home societies is the trend toward making the missionaries completely dependent upon and subservient to the local bishop, conference, or assembly. This has many advantages and is a necessary step in the encouragement of the flowering of independent and mature new churches.
However, local executive persons or groups do not all have the same degree of maturity, and some have goals very divergent from those of the home church or the missionaries. In order to be pure in this regard, the mission agency may completely abdicate any responsibility for the missionaries’ job description, living conditions, or emotional support. Missionaries may find themselves with less say about their work than they would have in whatever form of church government they were used to back home, episcopal, presbyterian, or congregational. They may even find themselves an accessory to intolerable financial or moral irregularities. Without sympathy and moral support from their home base, they may have to resign or be fired rather than continue in an impossible situation.
In search of solutions
So much for the causes of friction. What about solutions? Here are some practical suggestions.
1. The sending agency should accept its role as the support base and the means whereby the real work of mission (and of missions) takes place at the point of contact between the sent Christian and area of need: spiritual, educational, or physical. The home office and its staff may be like the football coach, uniform manager, trainer, and cheering section, but the real game is on the field. The coaching staff will not be successful by measure of their after-dinner speaking prowess, but by measure of the winning ways of the players in the muddy conflict.
2. The mission board needs to place much greater emphasis on listening than on pronouncing. Every missionary returning from an overseas tour should be invited, or perhaps required, to give a presentation to the entire board explaining the work done, the problems encountered, the positive aspects, and suggestions for improving the work. In particularly knotty decisions, the opinions of knowledgeable missionaries should be sought and highly valued.
3. Home staff should seriously consider not laying on the backs of the missionaries burdens they themselves are not prepared to bear. Salary scales should be equivalent, as nearly as possible, all things considered. Single headquarters personnel should seek a salary equivalent to that of a single missionary. Income from other members of the home staff household who are working should be used to increase income for missionary support. Does the Lord really expect a lesser dedication on the part of one group as compared to the other?
4. While encouraging maximal identification with local peoples and cultures, mission executives may cultivate an attitude of tolerance and sympathy for the missionary who sees aspects of the cultural interface unknown to the casual observer. People differ and some can accept what is intolerable for others. Also, a single missionary, or Peace Corps emissary, may be able to live for one or two years in a lifestyle unendurable for a family with small children who expect to remain three, four, or more years.
5. Missionaries should be forewarned that upon arrival on the field they will see so much that urgently needs to be done that they will need to discipline themselves to stick to limited areas, so as to get language proficiency and to avoid emotional burnout. A manageable job description can be given to the missionary and to the local church authorities to avoid overloads. The home board should consider making sure that vacation and retreat facilities exist, are well-equipped and well-supplied, and affordable. Adequate tools, labor-saving equipment, and vehicles in good condition should be provided along with the job.
6. Participation in work projects on the field that do not require language comprehension should be encouraged for pastors, vestrymen, elders, youth groups, medical teams, and other missions-minded groups and individuals. This would help them understand and in turn explain to churches and groups in the home country the frightful spiritual and physical conditions, as well as the obstacles and pressures faced by their missionaries.
Visits by home staff should be assigned a truly adequate period of time, worthy of the importance and the complexity of the missionary task. Time in itself speaks to the missionary about the level of importance assigned to his function. However, the character and personality of the executive will also determine whether or not he or she fulfills a truly supportive and problem-solving role. Being able to listen and understand, and being able not only to transmit agency decisions but also to explain the reasons behind them, will enhance the effectiveness of the visiting mission representative. Visits by special people chosen for their gifts of pastoral care and counselling, and their ability to build up a group through Bible studies and other talks, may be arranged with great profit to the morale and effectiveness of the missionary team.
7. Most mission agencies are constantly trying to improve their recruitment and screening procedures. This needs to continue. If missionaries on the field were to understand the process used and the criteria applied, it might help them understand the wisdom of the home staff. The candidate department should constantly review orientation programs, eliminating elements their young missionaries regard as without merit after they have had a year or two on the field.
8. The importance of the damage done to the mission effort and to the missionaries themselves because of a sending agency whose goals and theological orientation differ from those of the missionaries can hardly be exaggerated. Volunteers for the mission field need to examine carefully the quality and thrust of the societies they approach. Semantic subtleties must be inspected, such as the difference between "missions" and "mission," and the meaning of such terms as "liberation" (From what? For what?) and "human need" (How much emphasis on the spiritual, how much on the physical, and how much on the political?).
Both headquarters staff and mission board should be composed of those who wholeheartedly endorse one theology and philosophy of mission or missions. Double-minded organizations will be ineffectual, not only in carrying out a coherent program but also in building support and confidence in the constituency. If a denomination desires to be pluralistic, it needs to allow for a pluralism of program emphases with honest and clear-cut administrative channels. Thus, the donor could be sure his gift would go to the cause he felt led to support, and the missionary could be assured of the wholehearted support and sympathy of his home office.
9. The relationship of the missionary to the local church structure on the field needs to be reviewed from time to time. What was at one time required because of an intense nationalistic spirit may no longer be so important. Cooperative give-and-take and flexibility can iron out many of the problems caused by doctrinaire fixations. It is often unrealistic to expect the receiving church to provide the missionary with furnished housing, banking services, a vehicle, radio communications, and so on.
Many missions and many missionaries are hurting because of these and other related problems. Let us, with the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, do all we can to solve them, for the sake of accomplishing the huge unfinished task assigned by the Head of the church.
READERS CITE RUSHED VISITS AND LACK OF PASTORAL CARE
Rushed visits by home executives and lack of pastoral care. Readers of Evangelical Missions Quarterly say these are their chief sore points with their sending agencies. Of the nine "causes of friction" cited by Stan Smith in the preceding article, readers identified most with number six (see chart).
Closely following in the list of missionary concerns were ineffective recruitment and screening of candidates (number seven), and failure of the home office to seek and heed missionaries’ counsel in planning (number two).
The other six problems described by Smith are not common among EMQ respondents. At the bottom of their list of complaints was being criticized for not "going native" (number four in the article), followed by home executives being out of tune with the basic purpose of missions (number eight), and too much work piled on by the home office (number five).
Likewise, generally speaking, readers do not see home and field people "using" each other, they are not concerned about the financial advantages of home staff, and they don’t feel subservient to the church in the countries where they serve.
Readers offered a number of helpful insights about their relations with their sending agencies.
Regarding rushed visits with U.S. executives and the lack of pastoral care, Pam Simons of Chad noted, "Executives haven’t always taken the time to see how I am really doing in my ministry. A 10- or even 20-minute interview with an executive who is answering phones, etc., is not enough."
James Medin of Brazil wrote, "I fault leadership for a lack of confidence and a lack of sincerity in listening to us. Quick superficial answers seem to lack sincerity. They do need to spend more time listening to us, letting us get things off our chests about policies, situations, and personnel. I would be greatly encouraged to see a mission exec listen to a problem, jot it on paper, and then ask how it had been taken care of the next time he came around. I had a mission exec say to me once, T don’t like problems. They bother me.’ "
Friction over inadequate screening of candidates brought these comments. Doug Trick of the Philippines wrote, "Occasionally, it seems almost as though recruitment is basically a matter of ‘whosoever will may go.’ I know that this is not the policy, but I do believe that the work could benefit by much more interaction between home and field concerning recruitment, and that recruitment should be more closely tied to specific needs on the field. Too often the field is faced with the task of creating a position in order to provide a ministry for an individual."
Edmund F. Caes, Jr., of Italy explained, "Getting the right person to fit the right slot in a career ministry remains one of the most difficult problems. Candidates are highly trained, but continue to lack experience before they get to the field. Many lack an effective coping strategy. Emotional insecurity produces cracking under stress. Better psychological screening is needed. More preparation is needed in learning how to cope with stress on the field."
Scott Grandi of Taiwan commented, "While our recruitment and screening process seems very good, I strongly feel that the field needs to have some input into the selection process. One of our executives told me that IBM doesn’t let each branch office have input in the hiring of a person. But when a new missionary comes to the field, it is more like a marriage than a job."
In the matter of missionaries’ counsel not being sought and heeded by the home office, a woman who has spent 27 years in Zaire wrote, "I have felt that some of my questions have been answered flippantly, as though I am not quite capable of handling or understanding such matters. When I expressed concern about a mission policy, I was told, ‘We’re doing this because it is best for you.’ I would like our executives to treat us wives with the same respect they do single women and the men."
From the Netherlands, an EMQ reader wrote, "They not only reject my suggestions, but I am told to buzz off."
From a reader who has spent 15 years in Europe and Asia: "The sending agency lacks body-life principles. They operate more on the basis of secular corporate principles. The relational nature of interpersonal needs are subservient to organizational needs. Frequently, goals are set to be essentially self-serving of the organization itself."
Commenting on work required by the home office, Ralph Brown in Pakistan wrote, "Sometimes the paper work keeps us from doing what we are supposed to be doing."
Different points of view surfaced on the matter of missionaries being subservient to churches in their host countries. Ralph Waldrop of Honduras claimed, "Missionaries have far too much authority in the national churches."
But in Bangladesh an EMQ reader faces this problem: "I have trouble with a denomination’s overemphasis on church-to-church only as a basis for missionary strategy, and ignoring all the compelling findings concerning unreached peoples and new frontiers. My hope and prayer is that our denomination will make the ‘unreached’ part of the policy, along with the present one of sending missionaries only when invited by a church."
Not listed in the EMQ survey of home-field frictions was this one cited by Ron Callaway in Spain: "A few American pastors who exercise subtle (sometimes not so subtle) pressure on us."
Representing many EMQ readers who are on the field independently of a U.S. sending agency, Joe Young wrote from Argentina: "The questionnaire does not apply to us. Some 1,500 missionaries from different countries are sent out by local churches, and do not respond to a mission board. We are of the Plymouth Brethren tradition, and though we are very autonomous in our work, yet we generally have a coherent program and work in unity. I realize that our independence can lead to abuses, and it has, yet serving under a board can also lead to abuses."
Missionaries who answered the EMQ reader survey are much more positive than negative about their relations with their home boards. Total responses were considerably heavier (two to one) on the "rarely true" and "never true" side of the scale (see chart below).
Perhaps capturing the spirit of many of our readers was this note by Doug Trick in the Philippines: "In general, I have a very high regard for the home administrators. They live exemplary godly lives and faithfully strive with us in prayer. They are competent, gifted men and women whose partnership I value highly."
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