Church Plants and Missions: Failing Missions, Better Approaches, Part 1

I’m talking about — except I do know something about having employees. I have a few dozen. And there are certain principles that govern how you treat people who count on you for their living.

You may well have to lay off employees when the economy forces cut backs, but you do it with compassion and with fair notice and severance. You give employees who are failing training and another chance — unless it’s clear the employee cannot succeed. Then you let the employee go, but you do it on generous terms.

You don’t retain unproductive employees indefinitely – no matter how much you like them. And you deal honestly and kindly with employees — all the time.

And executive employees get more severance, because it takes them longer to find a new job — and many moved to take the job and may have to move to take a new job.

If an employee is a bad fit — tell the employee to consider a career change — and help him or her make the transition. You might even help the employee seek career counseling. Lying to an employee to avoid hurting his feelings isn’t kind to him or his next employer. You owe him an honest evaluation.

Finally, the goal isn’t to squeeze all the labor you can from an employee for the least possible money. You treat employees fairly — and expect them to work hard and loyally. You shouldn’t expect them to be more loyal to you than you are to them.

Let’s apply these principles to missionaries and church planters.

1. If a missionary is under-performing, but hasn’t done something just awful (like stealing), as a rule you try to rescue the missionary rather than firing him or her (or dropping his or her support). Some people can perform perfectly well with some extra instruction — and maybe a little motivation. But they have to be coached as to what needs to be done. If they could figure it out on their own, they already would have.

(Luke 13:6-9)  Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

8 “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'”

The problem in missions is that the supervising deacon or committee rarely knows how the missionary can do better. If they’ve visited his work on a regular basis, they may well be able to diagnose the problem, but if they’ve just read his quarterly newsletter, they really aren’t likely to know how to help him do better.

That means that the deacon or committee may need to consult with a group like Missions Resource Network or a professor of missiology at one of our universities.

Of course, the problem may not be solvable. Even a hard working, devout missionary may well be working a method that doesn’t fit his community. He may be trying to build a Southern US church in an Asian nation. He may need a church-planting team to work with him. He may even need a better theology.

As one of our former elders used to say, “Prescription without diagnosis is malpractice.” Figure out what the problem is.

Sometimes, the problem can be fixed through re-training or getting him some help from another missionary. He may just need a teammate or a bigger budget for mail outs. Or there may be a personality issue within a team that requires someone to leave.

The key is to first go to the trouble to figure out what the problem is.

2. Not all problems can be solved by leaving the missionary in the field. The field he’s in may not be responsive. He may not be theologically compatible with his sponsoring church. He may just not be very good at the job. Not all problems can be solved through training.

This is one reason it’s so very important that missionaries and church planters be evaluated, trained, and mentored from the start. When these steps have taken place and a problem arises, you should easily know what the problem is, and it shouldn’t be that the missionary is untrained, inexperienced, lazy, or not cut out for the work. That means the problem should be fixable.

But skip those critical steps, and you could be sitting home wondering why on earth it’s not working — and not knowing whether to fire him, re-train him, or recruit more help for him.

3. If the missionary won’t accept wise counsel (not uncommon for men used to working without supervision) or if you conclude that the missionary is not cut out for the work because he lacks the innate abilities for the work — and it happens — bring him home. Don’t encourage him to find other support and waste someone else’s money.

Bring him home and maybe he’ll be a great preacher for someone here. Or maybe he could become a part of someone else’s team. Help him find a role in the Kingdom suitable to his talents. Don’t let him waste his talents and his heart for God working a plan that can’t succeed but it doesn’t suit his talents.

And don’t go through the motions of making him try harder or change plans if he’s just not the right guy. The kindest treatment of someone whose talents don’t match the work is to help him find another career.

Think outside the box (sorry for the cliche but it just seemed to fit, you know) — just don’t keep shoveling money into a failed mission and hoping it miraculously gets better.

4. On the other hand, if he needs a training problem, or if he’s in the wrong country for his skills, or if he needs to be part of a larger team, help him find the right situation where he can be effective in God’s kingdom.

But that doesn’t mean you have to continue to support him. For continued support, his new work needs to fit your church’s vision. If you’ve decided to work exclusively in Latin America and he needs to go to India to be effective, continue his support long enough for him to raise new support for India, and then do what you think God wants your church to do. Just don’t drop him before he has a fair chance to find his place and gain new support.

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3 Responses

  1. Adoniram Judson worked in Burma for 6 years before the first convert. If the three-year rule had been applied to him, he would have been terminated. Soon after his death, the government of Burma completed a census that showed that there were 210,000 converts in the country.

  2. tlutke,

    “The three-year rule”? It’s Jesus’ rule, and I’m sure that it’s truth … for fig trees.

    I think the time you wait for other kinds of fruit will depend on the kind of tree at issue, right? And it may depend on what you call “fruit”?

    A mission field may not see fruit for years, but we should certainly see evidence that the missionary is working hard at it, making necessary course corrections, seeking advice, learning the culture — growing in his ministry and skills set — long before 3 years has run.

    And we should take the trouble to benchmark our work. If the Baptists and Christians Churches are having great results and we are not, the solution isn’t likely to be patience but retraining.

    But I entirely agree that we should be patient — just patient in a way that’s consistent with good oversight and stewardship.

  3. […] I was reading Jay Guin’s blog, and he quoted one of his fellow elders as saying, “Prescription without diagnosis is malpractice.” And then I thought of a […]

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