Church Plants and Missions: Failing Missions, Better Approaches, Part 2

5. Be honest and forthright. Tell him exactly what you are concerned about, ask for his views, and discuss the problems man to man. Most churches are so afraid to hurt someone’s feelings and to engage in a hard conversation that they’d rather cut  him off with a letter than spend an hour or two on the phone discussing their concerns.

If you think he’s not cut out for the work, say so. If you think he’s working a bad plan, say so.

6. Of course, sometimes a church needs to cut off a missionary’s support for reasons entirely independent of his success. The church’s budget may be in decline (a very common problem, nowadays) The church may need to trim costs for a building program. The church may conclude that its place in the Kingdom is medical missions or short-term missions.

In such a case, it’s my view that you have to give the man ample time to raise new support — maybe even as much as a year or two. You should prefer to delay your building program or do without a minister rather than fail to honor your commitment to the missionary.

Now, by “commitment” I don’t mean your contract. Even if you have a year-to-year formal commitment to the missionary, he’s still a brother in Christ and someone who relies on you to feed his family and serve in God’s kingdom. Be overly generous in transitioning him to other support — every single time.

Help him find additional support. Write letters. Work through the universities. It’s your responsibility, whether you like it or not. (It’s like having an adult child. Yes, you are not legally obligated to support her in hard times. No, you don’t really have a choice.)

7. This doesn’t change just because you’re not the sponsoring church. In the Churches of Christ, a missionary will generally have a single sponsoring church and several other churches that send support to him via the sponsor. Usually the sponsoring church feels the most ownership of the missionary and his work, and so the contributing churches often feel more willing to cut off support on a month’s notice. That’s wrong.

If a church’s support is nominal — $100 per month — then perhaps not as much notice is required. But often when one church cuts off a missionary’s support, several others do as well. Maybe it’s because of a recession that affects churches across the country. Or maybe they talk to each other. It’s critical that several churches not all drop a missionary at once, leaving him to starve. The solution is to give LOTS of notice and to help him find alternative support — and work with the sponsoring church. Act like you care about the man and his family.

Of course, as noted earlier, if the support is being dropped because he has no business being in the field taking money to do what he’s not talented to do, then be upfront and offer to help bring him stateside and get re-acclimated to the U.S.

8. When the missionary adopts views the sponsoring church rejects, the sponsoring church often feels unable to continue his support in good conscience. Unfortunately, conservative Church of Christ theology can be so narrow at some places that a man can lose his support for any disagreemenet with the preacher’s views at all — and the poor missionary is thousands of miles away and has no idea what the new preacher is teaching!

If a missionary is teaching actual heresy — denying that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God and Messiah or denying the need for repentance, for example — a church may well need to quickly cut off his support — but I wouldn’t leave even a heretic to starve overseas. Rather, I think the proper response is always the loving response: help him come home and leave the mission field. God makes it rain on the just and unjust, and we must be like God. Jesus was quite clear on this one.

When these issues arise, it’s important that the sponsoring church be willing to study openly and honestly with the missionary. They should seek truth together rather than simply sitting in judgment, as though they are the masters of all truth. Who knows, sometimes the missionary may even be right.

But the key is not to be so zealous for sound doctrine that we fail to love — even our enemies. God handles punishing people. It’s not our place. But neither are we compelled to support to false teaching. We just need to exit a bad situation with grace.

9. Long-term missionaries often have difficulty adjusting to life in the U.S. It may take months for the missionary to deal with our peculiar lifestyle. That’s true even if he’s coming back from Europe — and much more true if he’s coming back from a much poorer field.

And many struggle to fit into US church life. They are used to being the evangelist — the expert in the field, the best theologian for hundreds of miles. They often aren’t used to answering to an eldership.

Therefore, when it’s time for the missionary to come home, you can’t cut off all support immediately. He and his family need time and help to re-adjust to life in these United States. They may not need money so much as love and encouragement. And they may well need the counsel of another former missionary to coach them through it.

This has to be particularly tough if the missionary’s work failed. Imagine returning home, having been effectively fired by your sponsoring church, and knowing that the Christians in the field you spent 20 years converting and training will likely soon fall away — and needing to start a new career having failed as a missionary. It has to be incredibly difficult, and yet churches tend to send a one-page letter and drop the man like a rock.

Look for ways to help with the transition and show your love and support. Help him find his niche in the U.S. — in ministry or otherwise. He’s your responsibility.

10. Be patient. Some mission fields take a lot of time to produce a harvest. But don’t be naive. Make sure the missionary is doing what it takes. Don’t let patience be an excuse to avoid hard decisions.

If you’re not sure which way to go, find an expert in that particular mission field to help — not only to tell you that it may take 20 years to build a church, but also that your missionary is doing what it takes to build a church.


2 Responses

  1. Jay,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I appreciate them — of course I’m a missionary…. Really, it’s good for churches to understand that a lot of workers out in the field already feel like a mere monthly check to their supporting churches. Especially to some of those contributors who are not the sponsoring congregation. Oftentimes the deacon in charge of missions has very little contact with the missionaries themselves; and it seems that, to many members of the congregation, the missionary family is just a name in a bulletin and a slide show once every couple of years.* There are a lot of situations, even, where an eldership tells a missions “committee” or deacon whom they have decided to support — without the committee ever having met the individual. So we can see why in so many cases it’s easy for a church to pull support one month without thinking twice. The missionary is not much more than a name on a check. And the decision to fund him in the first place seemed to be a financial decision, and not a spiritual one.

    *This is really a sad situation, because few congregations know how useful foreign missionaries can be to a church in the states. There are a lot of people who are in many ways waiting to rally behind some cause, to send drink mix packets and big red gum, to have a missionary family into their homes on furlough, and to feel that their congregation is making a difference even in a far away place. SOMETIMES we tap into these opportunities.

    But rarely do we go deeper into the realm of possibilities. There is potential for a missionary to be a “hero of faith” to youth in the congregation, to be a prophetic voice saying hard things that a preacher might not get away with in his own congregation. There is the chance to stretch a group’s worldview and help them see a bigger picture of faith and culture, growing their perspective on not only faith, but life. But we often miss those opportunities. It seems it’s often an issue of program over purpose?

  2. James,

    A hearty “amen”!

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