by Barbara Cross
In most of my conversations with missionaries, one particular dilemma always seems to come up—how to keep up with correspondence.
In most of my conversations with missionaries, one particular dilemma always seems to come up—how to keep up with correspondence. On the other hand, pastors and mission committee members are also frustrated by the lack of correspondence from their missionaries.
The regular, required printed prayer letters are not usually the problem. Most mission boards give some advice about how to write them. The problem comes with the personal correspondence not covered by the general prayer letter.
THE RIGHT ATTITUDE
Success begins with the right attitude. Too many missionaries view correspondence as simply a nuisance. Some have such a negative attitude toward it that they simply do not do it, much to their own hurt and the frustration of those who want to pray for them and support them. To correct this bad attitude, two things have to be recognized:
1. Prayer and financial support will not be maintained without these personal links between the missionary and the home constituencies. Missionaries battle to keep the attention and interest of people who have their own pressures of daily life to contend with. The people are regularly bombarded with new projects needing financial support and prayer. Unless ties are maintained with supporters, their original interest will die or be diverted elsewhere.
2. Personal correspondence concerning missions is a ministry, not a nuisance. Each time a missionary, through correspondence, motivates a person or church to pray, give, or develop more concern for the cause of missions, that missionary is having a valuable ministry to that individual or church. While the missionary’s primary calling is to work on the field, correspondence is also an important part of the ministry to which each missionary is called.
Always deal with correspondence within a reasonable period of time. This is the main rule for effective correspondence. Once letters pile up, it’s easy to give up. Letters that require an immediate reply should be answered at once in order to maintain good will between the sender and the receiver. Even letters that do not need a hasty reply should be scheduled for writing within a certain time. Two weeks is about the limit. A block of time must be set aside, and strictly observed, to answer those letters.
LOOK FOR GOOD MATERIAL
Too many missionaries think they don’t have anything interesting to say, other than what they have put in their printed prayer letters. However, there are certain things to remember.
1. People are interested in far more than a large meeting or a dramatic conversion. Everyday life on the field, although common to the missionary, is new to those to whom they write. Look at the country through the eyes of someone who has never lived there. Then share the big and little events and ways of doing things that make up the culture and everyday life. Not only are there interesting, unique variations of the culture, but most people are curious about other people. Write about a colorful conversation you have had, or describe a special person you have met. Share a reasonable amount of information about your family, or some personal experiences. Tell a story in which you laugh at your cultural or language mistakes.
Our supporters have expressed great delight in some of the small things we have written about: how to prepare the favorite local beverage; the hassle of obtaining a foreign driver’s license; stories from the history of the country; differences in electrical appliances; observances of national holidays, and so on.
2. Look for things to capture attention. Keep a list of things worth sharing in a letter. Jot down interesting things as they occur, to be used as source material for letters.
WRITE WHILE IT’S FRESH
From time to time things happen that will be very interesting to write about. Use these experiences to write a large number of letters while the material is fresh. Old news loses its punch, no matter how exciting or interesting it was when it happened.
With wordprocessors, answering a number of letters at one time is much simpler. Begin by using the list of news items you have collected and then write a standard letter. Much of what you write will be appropriate for a number of people. Prepare a letter with the same basic stories and you do not have to write hand-written letters over and over again. Having prepared the main part of your letter, you can add a few sentences or a couple of paragraphs to respond to questions and to personalize it. The same letter can be used, by adding a few lines of personal greetings, to stay in touch with some of your prayer partners and financial supporters. It can also be sent to those who may be lonely, or need a bit of encouragement.
If you do not have access to a computer, or are untrained in using one, take advantage of a photocopier. Neatly write by hand, or type, a general letter that is of common interest and then add personal notes. As long as people receive something that acknowledges them personally, they will not mind receiving a photocopied letter. In fact, most people will understand that you are busy, and that this is an efficient use of your time.
We use post cards as a quick, easy way to write thank you notes to supporters, or to give prayer requests. We get a quantity of cards from a printer at very little cost per card. One set had a color reproduction of the flag of the country where we are ministering. Another card used a mission theme bulletin cover design from a clip-art book. The prayer of a great missionary, with a nice border around it, provided the design for the front of another card.
Keep your eyes open for inspirational sayings, poems, Scripture verses, pictures, and simple line drawings with a mission theme that can be used on a post card. Symbols from your country will also catch the eye of the receiver.
Post cards take very little time to write; they can be written at odd moments; and they can be written anywhere.
LETTERS FROM CHILDREN
Missionaries often receive letters, notes, and drawings from children in Sunday school classes and vacation Bible schools, and from children who have been encouraged to write by their parents. We have to take their letters seriously, too.
Answer them as soon as possible, because children do not understand how busy missionaries are. Children are quickly disappointed, and they lose interest if they do not hear from the missionary in a fairly short time.
Answer them at their level. The quickest, easiest way to answer very young children is to use picture post cards featuring scenes or objects of interest, such as animals, from your country. These cards please children and assure them of your personal interest. For older children, a short note with an interesting anecdote and a prayer request will meet the need. Many children have developed a lifelong interest in missions because they knew and had a friendship with “a real missionary.”
To lower your postage costs, send a stack of letters back with anyone returning to your home country. These carriers can be fellow missionaries, businessmen, and tourists visiting your field. After you have asked them to help, prepare a packet of letters with stamped envelopes. Keep stamps from your homeland for this purpose. If you do not have stamps, give your courier the cost of the postage.
Arrange with someone back home to do small mailings for you. You may have a friend or family member who would be happy to take on this “ministry” for you. When you have written a number of letters mail them, minus envelopes, in one packet. Arrange with your friend to have envelopes and stamps on hand for whenever your packet of letters arrives. Write the name of the person to receive each letter on the outside of the folded letter. Enclose address labels for the envelopes.
Even though the letters go through two mailings, from the field and within the country of destination, the cost may still be half the price of individual letters sent directly from the field.
Keeping up with correspondence takes time, effort, and discipline, but the results are well worth it. People intersted in your ministry will feel they truly are part of your team. They will develop a strong, personal relationship with you through your notes and letters. They will be motivated to be more faithful in giving and praying.
You, on the other hand, will be free from the guilt that comes from unanswered mail. With a good system, your correspondence becomes less of a duty and chore, and more of a happy link between you and those who assist you by their concern, prayers, and financial support.
EMQ, Vol. 31, No. 2, pp. 202-205. Copyright © 1995 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.