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Pre-Field Care: The Oft-Forgotten Element of Missionary Care

Church leaders should recruit like coaches. Successful coaches know what type of players they want, and instead of waiting for them to surface, they seek them out. These coaches find players who want to be on the team and who are eager to do the work required to be successful. I recall (as a missions pastor) coming back from a vision trip to East Asia where we discovered an opportunity to use football as a pathway for gospel proclamation. Immediately, my teammate and I knew exactly who would be well-suited to lead this ministry. Just like a coach, I approached these two individuals, who both had a heart for the nations and a passion for football, and presented the opportunity. They prayed and answered the call to go, and they ended up spending more than six months serving alongside long-term workers, having many fruitful gospel conversations, and supporting the long-term work of church planting. By being proactive rather than reactive, we gave these young men a chance to see their God-given gifts, talents, and desires come together for missionary service.


Leaders within churches ought to take the same approach when considering the task of equipping and releasing members to the mission field. Mack Stiles, missionary to the Middle East, says, “Healthy churches produce healthy Christians who become healthy missionaries.”[1] The local church, both its members and leaders, should be sending and supporting well for the promotion and advancement of the gospel. We see in 3 John 5–8 how missionary care happens in the sending of missionaries, primarily through local churches, for the sake of the gospel. John’s exhortation in this passage demonstrates the centrality of local churches in the care and support of sent ones, who go forth “for the sake of the Name,” particularly in the pre-field stage.


Sadly, though, many missionaries would attest to the fact that this is not their experience. Churches often don’t consider the pre-field stage as part of missionary care and tend to outsource this phase of preparation to the mission agency. As I was researching for my book, Holding the Rope, I interviewed missionaries about their experience through their sending church in the area of pre-field care. A number of them noted no involvement in areas of assessment, equipping, or training. These same missionaries expressed a desire to see churches increase their involvement in equipping missionaries in the areas of evangelism, discipleship training, educating kids in the home, cultural acquisition, and suffering.

The local church is the training field where future missionaries ought to be developed.

While agencies do offer specialized training, particularly from those who have previously served (or even currently serve) on the field, the local church is the training field where future missionaries ought to be developed. Steve Beirn and George Murray concur that this assessment and equipping time is a key stage in a missionary’s preparation. They state, “A better ministry fit makes a better missionary.”[2] Churches need to work alongside their missionaries and in partnership with the agency during the pre-field stage to find the right ministry fit, which will aid in missionary retention on the field and strengthen the partnership among entities. So how can churches do this well? Let me offer suggestions in two broad categories: assessment and training.


Assessment

As churches observe and evaluate a candidate’s readiness, they have the opportunity to note areas where they can extend care and establish metrics by which to do so. The church I served worked with two different missionary units that we were able to assist in the assessment process alongside the mission agency, helping to evaluate and hone areas of marriage, purity, and discipleship, as well as cross-cultural ministry. Mike Ironside writes, “Church leaders should be able to observe these members engaging in missional living and cross-cultural missions. Their capacity to excel at these things is a key marker of whether or not they should go overseas.”[3] Other markers might include spiritual disciplines, service, teamwork, faith, persistence, and flexibility. Even though the assessment should be led by key church leadership, it is a whole-church process. As a missionary candidate is both known in relationship and their gifts are evidenced by a good cross-section of the church, the church can have collective confidence in that candidate’s call, character, and competency.


Churches can assess readiness by crafting a personal development plan (see The Upstream Collective’s resource on PDPs) through their pre-field correspondence with the mission agency and field personnel. Ironside encourages churches to focus on the spiritual health, emotional health, relational health, ministry skills, and personal health of the candidate as they develop this plan.[4] Churches should measure these areas in the pre-field assessment and use them as an ongoing metric for health and sustainability in the missionary’s life on the field.


Seasons of trial will come, and it is during those seasons that the inward call of God must keep a missionary tethered to the field. That call must be sensed inwardly and affirmed outwardly by the sending church. Asking probing and open-ended questions in the assessment process about how a candidate has had to work through a challenging situation or a relational conflict will shed light on how they might handle potential cross-cultural challenges or team conflict. Providing opportunities for short-term missions work will also allow the candidate to display their character and skill in a cross-cultural context. Thomas Hale and Gene Daniels write, “The sending church must share in this call—they have the duty to examine the call and modify it as necessary. And together with the missionary, they will need to evaluate the results of the call. An isolated call in itself never justifies a missionary’s activities.”[5] By affirming a missionary’s call, the church makes itself accountable for providing the care needed within that individual’s life and ministry.

As a missionary candidate is both known in relationship and their gifts are evidenced by a good cross-section of the church, the church can have collective confidence in that candidate’s call, character, and competency.

Training

As the church assesses and affirms missionaries, they then need to train and equip them for life on the mission field. They should not silo the training but, instead, seek to make it a whole-church effort to equip both goers and senders adequately. An awareness of the spiritual battles missionaries face ought to spur churches to ensure and affirm a clear call and, in connection with mission agencies, provide thorough training. Eric Wright exhorts, “Missionaries should be among our best-trained professionals. They represent Christ in new churches. They must know the Scriptures thoroughly, as well as have facility in missionary methodology.”[6] Eckhard Schnabel writes that such training is reflected in the Scriptures (namely, 1 Timothy and Titus) and “distinguished in four areas of character, commitment, competency, and culture.”[7] One is able to determine readiness by observing a candidate’s life and doctrine, as well as the faithfulness and fruit of their current ministry, especially as it relates to their engagement with other cultures.


This training must involve not only intake but also output. Rob Hay notes, “A high correlation for retention was found for selecting people who had a chance to ‘practice’ ministry in their local church.”[8] Missionary candidates, in partnership with the church, can clearly see their strengths and weaknesses as they engage in pre-field training. As in any field, the better one is prepared, the better they will perform and the longer they will serve. Considering how one might not only survive but also thrive on the field can occur through a pre-field visit. This type of visit allows a candidate to evaluate their gifts and talents and whether the context matches their personal calling as they interact with the existing team in that location and assess their competency for the job requirements. It also provides the opportunity for them to receive feedback from the field as they do their own self-assessment. This assessment and equipping in discerning calling, developing skills, and deciphering location are needed components for both the prospective missionary and sending church to mark out steps to the field and establish a plan for care on the field.


Seeking to develop strong assessment and training, even in conjunction with the agency, will go a long way in deepening the long-term partnership with your sent ones. Missionary care shouldn’t begin with the commissioning service but in the early stages of pre-field assessment, training, and equipping. Bonds that can withstand the ups and downs of life on the field develop when relationships form with missionaries before they reach the mission field. Knowledge gained by the local church in pre-field assessment and experience helps foster the development of the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being of a missionary before they cross into a new culture.


NOTES

[1] Mack Stiles, “9 Marks of Healthy Missions,” 9 Marks Journal: Missions (Fall 2015), 31.

[2] Steve Beirn and George W. Murray, Well Sent: Reimagining the Church’s Missionary-Sending Process (Fort Washington, PA: CLC Publications, 2015), 92.

[3] Mike Ironside, “The Sending Pipeline: From US Senders or Potential Goers to Committed Goers,” Upstream Collective, 27 September 2021.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Thomas Hale and Gene Daniels, On Being a Missionary, rev. ed. (Littleton, CO: William Carey Library, 2012), 22.

[6] Eric E. Wright, A Practical Theology of Missions: Dispelling the Mystery; Recovering the Passion (Leominster, UK: Day One, 2018), 189.

[7] Eckhard J. Schnabel, Paul the Missionary: The Realities, Strategies and Methods (Downers Grove: IL, 2008), 390.

[8] Rob Hay, Worth Keeping: Global Perspectives on Best Practice in Missionary Retention (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2007), 72.

 

Ryan serves as Director of Missions and Operations with Lightbearers Ministries and is the author of the recent Upstream publication Holding the Rope. He graduated in 2022 with a Doctor of Ministry from Southeastern Baptist Theological seminary, where he also serves as a trustee. He has received a MDiv in Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (2008) and an undergraduate degree from Union University in Jackson, TN (2005). Prior to joining Lightbearers, he served for thirteen years as a missions pastor in the local church. Ryan lives in Fayetteville with his wife, Rebekah, and three children: Hudson, Annie, and Hattie.

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