I think I have one of the best possible jobs that anyone on a church staff could have. My entire focus is ensuring that the missionaries who are sent from our church are cared for well before they go to the field, during their time of service, and after they return home. If this is part of your role as a pastor or missions leader, I hope you find as much joy as I do in meeting the needs of people who are giving their lives to serve Christ in hard places overseas.
However, I think oftentimes we miss the opportunity to share this joy and responsibility with others in our churches who are uniquely equipped to provide for the needs of our missionaries.
We as missions pastors/leaders have the opportunity to equip lay members of our congregations to meet the needs of missionary care. Many church members who would do the best job of caring for missionaries may never get the opportunity to do so simply because they don’t know the needs of our missionaries or they think our staff has it figured out anyway. I, myself, have been guilty in the past of not sharing the responsibility of missionary care because caring for missionaries was a part of my job description. Without realizing it, I acted as if we—the staff—were the only ones who could accomplish the task. Nothing could be further from the truth!
Our missions team actually stumbled into this idea of identifying and equipping church members to serve as front line missionary care providers. Several years ago we started our missionary training pipeline, which was basically a class taught by our missions team and professors from Southeastern Seminary. The content was great, but we recognized our need to have a practical element—“walking with” each missionary candidate personally.
“A vibrant walk with Jesus is the core element that missionary care volunteers must possess.”
The Lord gave us the idea of incorporating coaches to lead tables at these gatherings, but we needed help from people outside of our team to pull it off. We started by having recently returned missionaries serve as coaches. This is a great blessing and they are wonderful resources, but using them exclusively reinforced the misconception that only a select group of “professionals” were up to the task!
Enter Herb and Cathy Young. The Youngs found themselves in a small group with many of our folks preparing to move overseas. They were attractive to these future missionaries because of their generous hospitality and their life wisdom. Cathy had also previously served as a two-year missionary before she married Herb, so missions was already in their blood. It became undeniable to us that they should serve as coaches for our trainings. They were some of the best at this as they intentionally walked with these candidates during their preparation and even while they were deployed overseas or back on stateside visits.
Since the Youngs broke our mold of missionary care providers (in such a good way!) we have sought out more members of our congregation for their unique aptitude to provide for the needs of our missionaries. The Lord has been gracious to provide for our church in this area without us knowing how much we were lacking in our missionary support. Here are some of the folks that the Lord has provided:
a retired clinical psychologist to come alongside our team to provide assessment and resources to care for the mental health of our missionaries, especially during re-entry.
the parents of one of our sent ones who have helped us to care better for other “sending parents.”
several “older” couples who have become marriage mentors, additional grandparents for TCKs and even financial advisors for our missionaries.
These are some things that we have learned as we expanded our pool of missionary care providers.
Screening is Necessary
Not everyone that volunteers for missionary care is a good fit for the task. Just as you do the work of screening missionary candidates, your missions team needs to know that missionary care volunteers are committed to being great listeners and learners. One of the most desired traits for missionary care volunteers is the ability to ask good questions.
“We find that when we invite volunteers into what we are already doing they often come up with great ideas of how to make it better.”
If a volunteer desires to provide missionary care, they must be committed to maintaining relationships with missionaries for the long haul. It can be a very deflating thing for missionaries to be passed along between ever-changing supporters. The missionaries’ capacity to engage in new relationships with members of the sending church vastly diminishes with each volunteer that drops the ball in their support.
Volunteers Often Increase and Improve Processes
Most of the time the volunteers that help us serve our missionaries do not need a new role or job description written up for them. There are many ways that these servants can come alongside our church staff to expand, deepen, or add layers to processes that already exist.
One best practice we have found is to invite volunteers to shadow staff in the rhythms of training and support. We find that when we invite volunteers into what we are already doing they often come up with great ideas of how to make it better. Here are some of the ways our volunteers have deepened and improved our missionary support:
They run a re-entry support group every other week.
They are our coaches for our monthly missionary trainings.
They are advocates for ongoing care overseas.
They are often short-term trip team leaders.
They take member care trips that they initiate and organize.
They participate in quarterly calls with all of our personnel overseas.
They organize prayer points from missionaries to be shared with church prayer groups.
Only One Prerequisite
As mentioned before, missionary care does not require that volunteers have an extensive background of service on the field. A missionary care resource entitled Tender Care describes what is essential:
“The prerequisite to effectively serve those in ministry is not that we have come to understand all the questions and know all the answers. The character of which we speak is humility, authenticity, and the unmistakable fragrance of having had a fresh encounter with the living God.” (24)
A vibrant walk with Jesus is the core element that missionary care volunteers must possess. From that foundation, we as missions leaders can further equip these volunteers with needed training such as a healthy theology of missions and security mindfulness in communication with missionaries. Add to this a vision of the possibilities that exist for dynamic, realtime missionary care in our world today and watch as your missionary care volunteers come alive with passion and fresh ideas.
The need for deep and intentional missionary care is great in the church today. I believe that God is calling our churches to expand the pool of missionary care providers that are up to this task. I join the authors of Tender Care in praying in this way: “We hope and pray that the once-neglected, now specialized field of missionary care will continue to evolve to include a much broader base of caregivers.” (8)
Join us in praying for these volunteers, casting vision for their involvement, and equipping and encouraging them to help meet the needs of our servants on the field.
Matt Clark is the Pastor of Missionary Care at the Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham where he has served on the Sending Team since 2007. Prior to that, Matt was a missionary with the IMB in East Africa for a couple of years. Matt is married to his amazing wife, Alicia, and they have three awesome kids together.