Time to Reboot Agency/Church Relations?
by Gary Corwin
Events of the last few years have raised serious questions about the adequacy and accuracy of assumptions about how mission agencies and churches relate, and what is necessary to correct shortcomings in existing patterns.
Events of the last few years have raised serious questions about the adequacy and accuracy of assumptions about how mission agencies and churches relate, and what is necessary to correct shortcomings in existing patterns. Our purpose here is to describe several of the assumptions that currently exist, discuss places where reality contradicts those assumptions, and suggest steps to improve the situation.
Assumption #1: Churches are the God-ordained senders in missions. Agencies exist to assist the churches in fulfilling this task.
Unfortunately, churches often don’t take seriously or don’t recognize their God-ordained role as senders, and agencies often function as if that doesn’t matter. Likewise, too many churches and agencies don’t adequately embrace the churches’ role in ensuring the suitability and preparation of candidates for missionary service.
Agencies should refuse to process candidates who come to them without the enthusiastic endorsement of their home church, based on a history of effective and faithful ministry in that church. If frequent moves or other factors have rendered this impossible, the agency should require time going forward to achieve it. Organizational goals for new missionary recruits should not trump getting the right people properly prepared.
Assumption #2: Churches can and should delegate to agencies the screening of candidates, as well as the field supervision and member care of missionaries. Missionary care is a primary responsibility of the agency, but supporting churches should be consulted and engaged when serious issues arise.
While agency communication with the home churches of missionaries facing crises of various kinds has generally improved in recent years, room for improvement remains.
Annual reviews should be the norm for all mission workers, and their home churches should be copied the results. Areas of serious concern should be shared with the home church as early as possible. When crisis situations do arise, the home church should be fully involved in providing an effective response. None of this will work, however, if agencies and churches are strangers, which underscores the importance of implications from the remaining assumptions.
Assumption #3: Agency accountability to churches is handled adequately through the regular reporting of missionaries sent, the provision of more general agency reports and publications, field visits by occasional short-term church teams, and the presence of select church representatives on agency boards.
While all of the above are useful ingredients, it is a mistake when agency accountability to churches is handled more as a public relations function than the development of a multi-faceted relationship built around shared passions. So how can such relationships be fostered, particularly when agencies must relate to so many churches?
The answers are not easy, and there is little doubt that hard choices must be made. Although most churches want to support their own, whatever agency they go out under, there is no reason why agencies and churches cannot also negotiate special relationships based on shared purposes and values, and reciprocal services. What that will actually look like depends on the particular needs and strengths of each, but it can indeed be done. Some are doing it. A more intense and intentional level of relationship and shared purpose between agency and church will not only go a long way in addressing issues of accountability more adequately, but also stoke congregational passion.
Assumption #4: Mission strategy is left in the hands of the agency unless some theological or missiological approach is brought to light with which churches vigorously disagree. Withholding funding is the one meaningful action that churches can exercise in response.
It is rare that forums of agencies and church leaders come together to discuss God’s purposes in mission and explore theological and missiological fault lines. Instead, this should be a regular feature on agency calendars each year—not that the same churches are included each year, but that the whole spectrum of engaged (or at least interested) churches might be covered over a three or four-year cycle.
If this were done, I suspect that far fewer churches would resort to withholding funding or instigating petitions as their primary means of expressing concern. The fact that such approaches are being employed is symptomatic of a broader communication and relational breakdown. The churches should not be, and cannot be, allowed to be passive spectators.
Assumption #5: Our church is more than capable of handling its own mission involvements. Agencies are an aberration that wouldn’t be necessary if churches were properly exercising their God-given role in missions.
For a tiny minority of large and well-staffed churches this assumption may actually be accurate. Some churches can handle the functions of training and oversight that agencies normally do. But such churches will in effect have to also become agencies to do so. When that is the case, agencies should welcome the church-based agency to their fraternity, and be as helpful as they can be. There is little doubt that the church agency will also learn some humility in the process.
Whatever the actual pattern of relationship, churches and agencies do need each other. The sooner they get more serious about strengthening their relationships, the better it will be for achieving God’s purposes.
Gary Corwin is associate editor of EMQ and staff missiologist with the international office of SIM.
EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 1, pp. 6-7. Copyright © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.