How can churches maximise the effectiveness of their mission partners and prevent them from returning prematurely?
Having spent 5 years working as part of mission agency teams in southern Africa, Tim Herbert returned to the UK in 1999. On his return, Tim found himself increasingly involved in meeting the practical and pastoral needs of mission partners he was still in contact with.
As the number of projects he was involved in reached a critical mass he undertook specific training relating to member care, and formally established Syzygy Missions Support Network in 2004. Over the last 10 years the focus of his work has shifted and he is now spending more time providing resources, materials, and working directly with agencies or through Global Connections and its forums to help the member care sector as a whole maintain standards of excellence. We asked Tim about the role of sending churches in providing member care for mission workers.
Why do you feel that member care is important?
I originally got involved because I became aware of a number of people leaving the mission field for utterly avoidable reasons. I found that there were poor levels of support, a general emotional wear and tear of being in the field, that there were cases of stress that weren’t being dealt with, and it grieved me that people who were willing to give up their homes and livelihood to go abroad and serve God were being let down and frustrated in their ministries. All the investment they had made in going to Bible college, doing cultural orientation and language learning was effectively going to waste. They were putting in all this effort, spending three or four years in the field and then leaving thinking “that didn’t work out”. We as a church need to help make it more sustainable, to help people to go long-term if they want to, to help people be fruitful and effective in their ministries. Good quality member care is a major factor in helping mission partners in going the distance and in being spiritually vibrant and missionally effective whether in the field or back home.
Why do you think that there is so often a deficit of care for mission workers overseas?
Within churches in the UK there is often still a sense that you are supposed to lay down your life in ministry and ‘get on with it’, and particularly some older people hold that attitude who don’t necessarily realise the emotional and spiritual cost of being on the mission field. Even if you go back 100-150 years to some of the great pioneers in world mission you can see in their biographies the impact of them burning out or suffering from stress-related sickness (which wasn’t diagnosed at the time because it wasn’t understood). If some of these great pioneers had had some concept of member care they might have been able to avoid some of the illness, some of the stress, some of the relationship breakdowns, because they would have had more resources to deal with it.
There are also still a lot of churches for whom world mission is one optional extra amongst many other competing ministries and not seen as a core ministry of the church. It’s quite understandable with busy people and not a lot of time, resources and funding, that a church ends up focussing on its key ministries of keeping the church going, providing a Sunday meeting, and meeting the needs of its members before looking at other things which they see as optional. Some would see involvement in global mission as a luxury. That’s why a lot of mission workers end up without support from their churches that they really could benefit from.
From a member care perspective, what would an ideal partnership between a church and an agency look like?
We are coming out of a period in which agencies were effectively saying to churches “give us your people, prayers and money and we will do it for you.” Now we are moving into an era where partnership in mission is promoted a lot more. Many agencies are now doing a really good job of working together with churches in caring for their mission partners. The ideal partnership is that of different groups and individuals all sharing a common vision of pulling together in the same direction, contributing from their own strengths. This would be a partnership that includes the agency, church, family, friends, and local people in the field - a partnership of support networks including the local church. Sadly this doesn’t always happen.
Many people I support are not with agencies and I am usually involved with them because something has gone wrong and they are in need of member care that they are not getting. While I recognise that there are valid reasons why people are not with agencies, I always recommend that they at least explore the possibility of serving through an agency because of the member care that an agency should be providing. Even with larger churches with full time staff who can support mission partners well, there may well be a role for agencies – there will always be a need for people in the field who can provide support, for specialist or local knowledge which no matter how good the church is will not be their strength.
It does make a huge difference where there is ‘in-field’ member care. But having a dedicated member care worker in the field is a huge resource investment for a mission agency. You need to have a sufficient quantity of workers to support this and many agencies cannot do this. So sharing resources becomes really important. Sometimes I come across 40 or 50 people all looking for someone to provide some kind of pastoral care for them, debriefing, counselling etc. and the only people available in the field are the leadership - who are often too busy to provide pastoral care, or they may even be part of the problem so the mission partner might not want to talk to them. Or there may be a fear that to go your field director and admit you are struggling could lead to the possibility of you ending up on a plane home - this might be in the back of the mind of the mission partner.
Do you have any advice for churches looking to improve the member care they offer to their partners overseas?
I would like to remind churches that just because one of their members has gone overseas in ministry that doesn’t mean that they have stopped being a member of the church. The church still needs to look after them at least as well as it would if they were physically present, and also needs to take account of the fact that there are greater challenges in cross cultural ministry, as people are remote from their home culture, their family and friends, and from their usual support networks. So actually church and families need to be providing even more to fill that gap.
Churches can be tempted to think that global mission is a drain on their resources - when somebody goes to the mission field the church may be losing some of its most effective volunteers, as well as being asked to contribute resources to support them. But my experience indicates that it is not a drain on resources - it’s an investment of resources that can actually feed back into the life of the church, helping the home church to become more vibrant, more mission-engaged, and adding a greater involvement in fulfilling the Great Commission. So it might seem paradoxical, but one of the best ways to grow your church is to give people away! I have worked with one or two churches who have really developed their member care function extremely well. One had no real experience of supporting people overseas long term and when the first couple decided to go the church didn’t really have much of an idea of what to do. And then another family went and the church applied its experience from the first, and then someone else went and by the time they’d got up to having a dozen people serving overseas they had built up quite a wealth of experience and were very proactive in member care. They made sure training was provided, that people could recognise early signs of burnout etc. and as a church they would take appropriate action.
There are certain key questions to ask well before mission partners leave, there are big issues when people arrive, there are things to consider around the return of mission partners to the UK, and if churches have to figure it all out themselves they can make a lot of mistakes and take a long time to work it all out. I would suggest that churches have a look at the Syzygy website where there is a whole sequence of guides on different stages of mission and links to a number of excellent resources. See www.syzygy.org.uk.