The best way to do missionary care is to put people on great teams.
There are a multitude of reasons why missionaries leave the field: loneliness, lack of clarity regarding their calling, inadequate medical facilities, lack of sustainable financial support, slowness of the work of ministry, etc. These are all legitimate challenges, but one of the most preventable reasons that missionaries leave the field is conflict with their teammates and/or team leader. How sad it is that disunity within the body of Christ would lead to attrition from the front lines of fields that are white unto harvest.
Conflict is inevitable. Even Paul and Barnabas experienced it over the idea of bringing John Mark on their second missionary journey (Acts 15:36-41). When handled correctly, conflict often brings people with opposing viewpoints closer to the heart of the Lord; however, the root causes of much of the conflict that is experienced on the mission field can be avoided. Proper pre-field training on managing expectations, emotional health, handling stress, and developing a vision and strategy for dealing with conflict are all important skills in which we need to help our people grow.
Whether we do currently, or whether we did when we worked in the pizza place, we have all had that boss who had very limited management skills. They got promoted simply because of tenure. They were either too aggressive or too passive. They were too black-and-white or too gray. They were ready to dish out criticism but could never take it themselves. We have probably all had great bosses and bad bosses; great work environments and poor work environments. For even the best of us, it is likely that the quality of our supervisors and our co-workers has had a direct effect on the enjoyment of our job and our longevity in it.
Now, imagine being a sent one. You are entering one of the most stressful situations of your life. As you move across the ocean, your ability to talk, to know where to go, and to maintain a basic level of success in most endeavors is taken from you. Stress builds and comes out. When there is stress, the capacity to live the one-another’s of the Bible–to keep no record of wrong against others–and assume the best of leadership and teammates is challenged.
In an overseas team, not only will you work with your teammates, but you will also do church with them and be their only options for relaxing game nights. The stress you are feeling from your move overseas might lead to blame shifting and a lack of trust in your teammates and leadership. If you do not actively fight to give trust, stress will wear away at those team relationships. This happens in the best of situations.
Now imagine all this stress coupled with an unnatural work environment, differences in vision, and possibly even incompatible relationships. This scenario is a recipe for missionary attrition.
When I was overseas, I saw how team conflict could easily lead to workers leaving the mission field. Friends of ours were placed on a team with leaders who were fifty years older than them and of a different nationality. Some of our coworkers were by themselves in a city. Others had severe conflict with their team leaders and were unable to continue to follow their leadership. It was sad to see poor team placement inevitably lead to team conflict, which directly contributed to missionary attrition.
Too often potential missionaries come to missions leaders and already have a fixed plan for their destination, ministry model, and partner. Having an internal calling without input from external leadership is not the biblical pattern for determining one’s ministry trajectory. Discerning one’s calling in the context of a community and with the vision and blessing of the local church is key. Sending churches can help mitigate the risk of team conflict that leads to missionary attrition by being involved in selecting, developing, and maintaining strong relationships with field partners. Our goal as an organization is to help your church get Upstream before the green light has been given to go, before the partnership has been decided on, and before the model and strategy have been put in place.
When I came back from the mission field and moved into a sending role, I knew one of my goals would need to be making sure the teams we connected our people with were spiritually and relationally healthy and that their vision aligned with what our people were heading out to do. Here are some things to look for as you are vetting partners for your potential sent ones.
When I’m engaging with potential partners, one of the first things I want to see is that they are spiritually healthy and that they can shepherd the people we send them out of their own deep well of fellowship with Christ. While a healthy sending church will provide care to people, everyone needs someone in their lives (and in the same time zone) that is directly supervising them and providing for their care. Team leaders overseas need to be: skilled at leading and shepherding in a gospel-centered way; full of grace and truth; regularly practicing spiritual disciplines; gospel-saturated, not legalistic, in their approach to dealing with sin.
I want to put people on teams that enjoy being around each other and where a culture of family has been created, a culture in which, when the mission is hard, they can find real respite and relationship with one another. I want our people to be on teams that have learned to be honest with one another and are skilled at seeing conflict as an opportunity to align more closely with God’s will instead of avoiding it or using it for their own gain. Taking vision trips or sending short-term trips to the target location prior to sending long-term workers can be helpful for determining what relationships will be like when your people land. If you don’t want to hang out with your overseas partners on a Friday night, don’t send your people to them. As teammates, they will have to relate to one another in much more intense settings than a weekly game night!
If you don’t want to hang out with your overseas partners on a Friday night, don’t send your people to them.
Alignment in Vision and Strategy
While a team can be spiritually and relationally healthy, if the goal of that team is not aligned with the vision of the sent one and the sending church, there will likely be conflict. In best-case scenarios, team members are able to recognize the differences in their goals and amicably decide to part ways. But more often than not, this lack of alignment leads to hurt and a personalization of the issue, causing a relational rift that could have been avoided with more thorough discussions prior to sending.
Many of you are great at missionary care. You are skilled in walking people through relational challenges on their team, and they have been able to continue through tough on-field situations as a result. I hope you will continue to provide that care for your people. Think for a moment about the crisis missionary care scenarios you have worked through or are currently working through. While we cannot turn back the clock, we can learn from our mistakes. Would greater evaluation of the team they are joining have helped them to be more successful on the mission field? How could you do a better job of evaluating potential partners to help your sent ones find their sweet spot?
As you face immediate or impending crisis, how could you build rapport with the team leader to help with the alignment of vision, strategy, and personality? When we try to help our sent ones work through their challenges overseas without the perspective of the team leader, we are only hearing one side of the story. Proverbs 18:17 reminds us,
“The first to state his case seems right
until another comes and cross-examines him.”
There is always more than one side to the story. When we do missionary care and just agree with everything our people are saying, especially when it has to do with authority, we do the team leader injustice by not understanding where they are coming from and not hearing their side of the story. Maintaining a strong relationship with the team leader helps everyone involved be more fruitful in the work they’ve been called to.
I enjoy talking to our people overseas and helping them work through their challenges. What I love even more is seeing them get on a team that feels like family–to see them grow to love that team and find their community in that place; to see them aligning with and loving the strategy of the team; to have them come back to us during a furlough healthy and without relational baggage; for our Zoom conversations to be about updates on the ministry, not about relational conflict they have with the team; to see the gospel movement amongst their people flourishing because they are living lives full of the power of the Holy Spirit and at peace with all men.
It is critical that sending churches take the time necessary to help their sent ones develop healthy partnerships. In order to assist you in this effort, we have a resource on our site titled, “Evaluating Sending Partners and Models.” It contains questions we would encourage you to consider as you look to develop cross-cultural partnerships.
This resource is available free in the Upstream File Share for all members, or for purchase for $1.99 for non-members. To become an Upstream Member, please visit www.theupstreamcollective.org/join.
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 amongst college students worldwide.