In part 1 of “Discerning Readiness in a Potential Sent One,” we talked about the positive traits that would lead us to give a green light to those wanting to do overseas missions. In part 2, we are going to look at the factors that should slow down a potential Sent One who is in this process.
Sometimes candidates will have areas of their life, giftings, and capacity that should give you pause as you’re helping them move forward. For many of these candidates, putting their pursuit of overseas ministry on hold and focusing on a personal development plan (PDP) is their next step. Thinking again of the five areas of health we discussed in part 1, here are some characteristics of un-health that might cause us to question the readiness of a potential Sent One:
Spiritual and Moral Un-Health - Areas of compromise in character, spotty relationship with God, unrepentant trajectory, low flexibility, needs hand-holding, struggles with suffering, flakey.
Emotional Un-Health - Lack of self-awareness, insecurity, defensiveness, low teachability, unmanaged anxiety and depression, living beyond limits.
Relational Un-Health - Awkwardness beyond quirkiness, bitterness, co-dependent relationships, lack of close friends, relationally cold.
Ministry Un-Health - Unclear internal and external calling, lack of evangelistic fervor, inability to cross cultural barriers, unaware of spiritual gifts.
Personal Un-Health - Unhealthy eating, sleep, and exercise habits. Overspending, high college or consumer Debt, lack of organization skills.
If they are struggling in any of these areas, then a plan for how to move forward should be added to their PDP. Everyone is going to exhibit some yellow lights, but a pause is necessary when there is no repentant trajectory in any of these areas. It’s ok to struggle—it’s not ok to be stuck.
It’s ok to struggle—it’s not ok to be stuck.
As we did with the green lights, let’s get more specific on some specific yellow lights that missions leaders need to be concerned about in their potential Sent Ones.
Pornography Usage - Unfortunately, especially among Millenials and GenZers, there are very few who have complete freedom from this. Most missions organizations are going to look for, at minimum, a strong trajectory towards freedom and at least a month in between usage. Some will look for complete freedom. Any usage should give pause and be added to their PDP.
Debt - Newsflash: Missionaries do not make a lot of money. It’s hard to pay off debt on a missionary salary. Most missions organizations will cap college and other debt at between $10,000 and $30,000 for their candidates. For an amount higher than this, it would be wise for the church to encourage them to take a job for a season to work off that debt before going overseas.
Mental Health - Those who are aware of their mental illness(es), have sought the help of a counselor, recognize triggers and core beliefs, and, if needed, have a steady medication plan should not be held back from going overseas. If a candidate is struggling with emotional health or has a diagnosed mental health disorder but isn’t taking some of the above steps, then their process should be put on pause. The stress of being overseas will only exacerbate their mental health challenges.
Churches may need to discourage entirely the pursuit of overseas missions if a candidate is diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or some other serious mental health disorder. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, and there will always be exceptions, but churches and missions organizations must take these issues seriously. Get to know trusted mental health professionals to help you discern the path forward if you run into these challenges.
Unstable Family Background - Even with great candidates, an unstable or abusive family background should slow down their process. While many with these backgrounds have thrived in everyday church life, the stress of living overseas has the potential to cause traumatic past experiences to rear their ugly heads. For those with this kind of background, taking the time to process their family of origin and areas of trauma with a professional counselor is a must, even for the best of candidates.
#adulting - I predominantly work with college seniors or recent grads. If I could, I would have every single missionary candidate work full-time for two years before going overseas. The ability to faithfully perform a job, follow a boss, execute tasks, and do work even when it’s not fun is essential for thriving overseas and making the life of the team leader enjoyable. In the absence of work experience, I’m looking for things like: responding to emails and accomplishing tasks in a timely manner; faithfulness to ministry when it's hard; holding down a job while in school; and the ability to follow a supervisor, leader, or boss. While this may not seem directly related to overseas fruitfulness, you will save team leaders a ton of headache if this box of readiness is checked.
Learning Disabilities - What is the first thing a Sent One will likely have to do when they land in a foreign country? Learn a language. While language is primarily (and in some places exclusively) learned through oral conversation, the Sent One’s ability to read and write in the local language will likely be vital to them thriving in their work. In many cases, participating in language school that includes reading and writing is a requirement for obtaining a visa. It can save a lot of heartache down the road to help potential Sent Ones with learning disabilities think through the challenges they will face in acquiring a new language. Getting in touch with language professionals can be very helpful in understanding this issue and making a decision about moving forward.
Inability to Suffer - Gauging a potential Sent One’s ability to suffer well, both in extreme situations and in the mundane, is really important. Their “grit” can often be hard to discern because, for many candidates, life has been pretty easy. If you haven’t been able to observe them persevere through difficult circumstances, you could have them share about a time they experienced suffering and ask: How did you respond? What did you believe about God during your suffering? After? What are your coping mechanisms/tendencies when you are suffering? (in other words, What do you turn to for comfort?)
There is so much more that we could talk about on this topic, but here is the main point: missions leaders need to have the awareness and courage to help potential Sent Ones discern their calling and their readiness for living and ministering overseas. While this process can be painful in the short-term, the pain will be worse down the road if we send too soon and fail to prepare our people for the work we’re sending them to do.
Missions leaders need to have the awareness and courage to help potential Sent Ones discern their calling and their readiness for living and ministering overseas.
LET’S HEAR FROM YOU!
Do you have a situation with a candidate that is making it difficult to discern how they are to move forward?
What characteristics have you found that tend to derail Sent Ones when they’re on the field?
Mike Ironside is Missions Pastor at Cornerstone Church in Ames, Iowa. He has served on staff with Cornerstone since 2006 in varying roles–from college ministry to pastoral staff to being an overseas missionary sent from Cornerstone for two years. Mike is the Director of Cohorts and Content for the Upstream Collective. He also serves as Chairman of the Board for Campus to Campus, a missions organization dedicated to getting US college students connected to church-planting movements among college students worldwide.