We can probably all think of people from our churches who have returned from the mission field earlier than expected or under difficult circumstances. The situations are varied and often complex but one thing that’s clear is that there are too many unnecessary casualties in the mission field. William Taylor (1997)1 estimates that over two thirds of mission workers around the world return during the first five years as a result of largely preventable causes. Is it time for us as the church in the UK to ask ourselves why we are losing so many good people from long-term cross-cultural ministry and to consider what we could be doing differently to keep people in the field?
It’s also important to realise that the consequences of this problem run much deeper than depletion of the mission workforce. It’s naïve to think that returning will be the end of the problem. Emotional, spiritual and physical damage that might cause mission workers to come back prematurely is very likely to continue to have implications for them as they restart their lives in the UK. In fact, alongside the tragedy on a personal level, church members wounded by unhappy experiences in the mission field may well, even inadvertently, have a negative impact on the outlook of a whole church with regard to mission. Too often, where there might have been a testimony to inspire others, there is disillusionment and cynicism.
Of course there are many appropriate or understandable reasons for mission workers to return. These include health problems or retirement, completion of a project, loss of visa, or a sense of calling to another ministry. But there is still far too much ‘preventable attrition’ – those who leave before the mission agency or the church feel they should because of mismanagement, unrealistic expectations, poor cultural adaptation, inappropriate training, lack of home support, personal failure or other avoidable personal reasons. Perhaps there could have been better initial screening or selection, or better equipping or training, or better support during their time of service.
And then there is the thorny issue of those who actually should be returning but are not. Missionaries can sometimes stay too long and hinder the maturing of the national church and local leadership. Some unhelpful mission partners stay who should leave - and add to the problem in that their staying is the cause of others leaving. Others may have become ineffective, worn down by the continued stress of cross-cultural mission yet may not have the courage or support to return home.
Perhaps, in the first instance, it is time for us to take the time to stop and examine our ‘attrition history’ as individual churches. Have we ever considered looking back over our own stories of returning mission partners? What is the picture that emerges? What about length of service, the reasons people returned (if we actually know the ‘real’ reasons), and whether – if the return was sooner than anticipated – it could have been prevented if someone had intervened with support? Have we created an atmosphere where mission partners can be vulnerable and real about their struggles? Or have we burdened them with unrealistic expectations, as if they were on another spiritual plane from ‘ordinary’ Christians?
Of course it’s not just about longevity in service - it’s also about effectiveness in ministry. We also need to be reflecting on whether any of our mission partners serving overseas have become ineffective in their ministry, for whatever reason. As a church, are we helping our mission partners to not just survive, but to thrive? Do we seriously consider what we could do for our mission partners to help them to flourish in their situations?
For many years in the UK the mission agencies have taken the lead in preparing and supporting mission partners, with the sending church playing a more minor role. A huge change is necessary – and has already started in some cases. Churches and mission agencies both need to recognise their unique roles and responsibilities. Agencies have gained vital experience and expertise that churches must learn from, and churches doing global mission on their own risk making avoidable mistakes. Yet churches need to take back the initiative. In the New Testament it was the local church which sent and supported missionaries in many ways (see Acts 13). The challenge is for the church to retake the leadership role, and this includes the issue of care of missionaries (or ‘member care’ as it is often called).
Examples of member care in the New Testament range from financial support (Luke 8:3, Acts 11:29 and Phil 4:8), prayer support (2 Cor 1:11), moral support and encouragement (Acts 4:10 and 14, 1 Thes 3:2), practical and emotional support/pastoral care (Phil 2:25, 1 Cor 16:17-18, 3 John 6), to communication support and home assignment (1 Thes 3:6-7, Acts 14:26-28), and accountability (1 Thes 2:6-9 and Gal 6:1,2,10). We also read in the New Testament about people devoting themselves to member care: You know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints. I urge you, brothers, to submit to such as these and to everyone who joins in the work, and labours at it. (1 Cor 16:15-16) And the “fruit” of member care was: I was glad when Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus arrived, because they have supplied what was lacking from you. For they refreshed my spirit and yours also. Such men deserve recognition. (1 Cor 16:17-18)
With so many specific scriptural references to care, it would be easy to overlook the applications of more general passages. For example, the Apostle Peter calls leaders in 1 Peter 5 to be “shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers, not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” The responsibilities of shepherding and good stewardship2 apply to the leaders of sending churches just as they do to leaders in the mission organisation or in the mission field. Therefore, if sending churches are not to neglect their God-given duty of care, they need to see their mission workers as being just as much a part of the ‘flock’ as those in the congregation each week.
Furthermore, fundamental to the heart of member care is the Great Commandment given by Jesus in John 13, “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” If we understand that the call to love one another needs to include those that have been sent out, we see that “the Great Commandment and the Great Commission are inseparable”3.
It’s tempting to think of member care in terms of actions taken at specific stages (e.g. briefing or debriefing) but perhaps it is more helpfully defined as “the ongoing preparation, equipping and empowering of mission personnel for effective and sustainable life, ministry and work”5. Member care is a continuous process of helping missionaries to grow in their faith, persevere in adversity, maintain their physical and emotional health, be an effective part of their ministry team, encourage and care for others, communicate effectively, and adapt to new situations and challenges.
As Schulz says, “Think of all the ways missionaries can be strengthened. What kind of food does the church offer them? When they are wounded, how can the church bind them up? If they begin to lose their way, how does the church seek them out and care for them? How can churches avoid harshness with their missionaries? How can they build community and be community for their missionaries? When churches answer these questions, missionary care will happen….Missionary care is first of all an attitude”6. Let’s pray and work towards cultivating that attitude within our churches, so that we can all play our part in reaching the nations for Christ.
1 From Too Valuable to Lose, William Taylor
2 From Member Care, Detlef Bloecher, in Worth Keeping, ed Rob Hay.
3 From Developing a Flow of Care and Caregivers, David Pollock, in Doing Member Care Well ed Kelly O’Donnell.
4 From Why Do Missionary Care? Dorris Schulz.
5 Definition by the Global Member Care Network of the WEA Mission Commission.
6 From Why Do Missionary Care? Dorris Schulz.