While living overseas I had the opportunity to develop a couple of young men to become pastors. One day I decided to take a break from our typical meetings. We walked into the nearby fields on the edge of the city and began talking to a couple of shepherds. We simply asked questions about shepherding sheep to see if any of it paralleled pastoring people. One shepherd nodded toward his flock and began saying seemingly random words with great emotion.
After a while we realized he was telling us the name of every one of his sheep. Though there were dozens of them—dirty, munching, mindless sheep—the shepherd affectionately knew them all by name. No, not just by name. He knew them well enough to name them according their unique personalities! That day, the guys walked away with a tremendous lesson in pastoring. Shepherds know their sheep.
When it comes to caring for the missionary’s soul, pastors must know and love their people.
It must be a knowledge and love that stretches across time zones and sky miles. Staying connected will take great intentionality.
Though there are numerous well-known stereotypes of missionaries, in reality no two missionaries are alike. They cannot be pastored according to processes and policies. They are people. They need to be known and pursued, not exalted nor presumed.
To pastor missionaries is to shepherd a flock in perpetual crisis. Yes, they often live in dangerous places. And yes, they often get sick. But transitioning to another culture and learning another language are packed with daily mini-crises. Living far from family, friends, and their church is painful, especially with children. If you presume anything, presume their neediness.
The Biblical Example
Thankfully, the Scriptures are packed with help on this issue—though perhaps not where you would expect. I would argue, the most comprehensive example of missionary care in the Bible is God the Father to God the Son. Let me explain.
3 John 5-8 reads,
5 Beloved, it is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers, strangers as they are, 6 who testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God. 7 For they have gone out for the sake of the name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. 8 Therefore we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth.
Here the Apostle John was commending Gaius for his hospitality to what appears to be itinerate evangelists or missionaries. Take note of the sentence, “You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God” (v. 6, emphasis added). The commendation of caring “well” for these workers was defined by sending them in the same way Gaius might send God himself.
In what manner would we, in theory, send God himself? Five words come to mind: roll out the red carpet.
Perhaps a better, more concrete way to answer the above question, however, is to look to the Scriptures once more. In what manner did God the Father send and care for God the Son on his missionary journey to the earth?
It’s easy to identify several of the Father’s actions:
- The Father sends the Spirit to the Son
- The Father sends angels to minister to the Son
- The Father speaks verbal affirmation and encouragement to the Son
- The Father supplies co-laborers for the Son
- The Father compels the Son to retreat and rest
- The Father lets the Son grow in wisdom and stature
- The Father uses the Scriptures to strengthen the Son
- The Father communicates with the Son
- The Father loves the Son
- The Father allows the Son to suffer
- The Father has empowering expectations for the Son
- The Father has a plan for the Son
- The Father is ready to rescue the Son if he calls
- The Father welcomes the Son home with honor
Though not all these actions are prescriptive of our care for the missionary’s soul, they are motivating and catalytic. Truly, this is sending in a manner worthy of God himself! And this is the kind of missionary care that John laid before us as good and commendable. It is sending and never letting go.
Where does all this begin? Long, long before the mission field. Missionary care begins in the context of the local church as the candidate grows in self-awareness among community. In other words, it’s about discipleship. A culture of discipleship.
The three key words to remember here are community, vulnerability, and plurality.
Missionary candidates must be growing deeply in community (gospel relationships) with other church members. That means they are being vulnerable (open and honest) about the good and the bad in their lives and hearts. Rather than seeking the appearance of competency (as often befits the traditional idea of missionaries), they are becoming more and more aware of their need for Christ and community. Along the way, this lays the foundation for a plurality of brothers and sisters in Christ who will, alongside the pastor, continue to care for the missionary’s soul once they have landed on the field.
As part of the missionary candidate’s training, consider including the responsibility of building an Advocacy Team. It’s simply a group of 5-10 people with a designated leader who commit to continue caring for the missionary. They meet regularly to do things like pray, Skype, send care packages, provide logistical support, and plan a visit (if possible). They’re the go-between: they communicate to the church on behalf of the missionary, and they communicate to the missionary on behalf of the church.
It’s also important to make a connection with the care leaders at the missionary’s partner agency. Get to know them by name and exchange contact info. Make them aware that you desire to take the lead in caring for the missionary, then talk through what that looks like.
One of the most helpful ways to care for missionaries when they arrive overseas is by communicating consistently. Text regularly using iMessage, WhatsApp, or Voxer. Talk face to face via Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom. Be genuine and casual, but also have some diagnostic questions in mind. Consider these categories:
- Emotional health
- Physical health
- Soul health
- Ministry engagement
- Cultural bonding
- Language acquisition
- Team and community
- Relationship with agency
- Level of care from your church