The normal work of discipleship is a type of suffering. This, according to Paul in 2nd Timothy 2:2-7.
 You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus,  and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.  Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.  No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.  An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.  It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.  Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.
2 Timothy 2:2-7, ESV
Notice how verse two, which discusses the entrusting of Paul’s message to other faithful men, is immediately followed by an exhortation to share in the suffering of Christ. Along with the local brothers with whom I attended an exegesis and preaching workshop this week, I had been assuming this mention of suffering here referred to persecution. But our cohort leader helped us to see the kind of suffering meant here is illustrated by the three examples of soldier, athlete, and farmer – all examples which emphasize the costliness of hard work and discipline. The costliness of steady, focused, tough labor. Not the costliness of persecution. That was an eye-opener for me, and a timely word.
Yes, elsewhere in 2nd Timothy persecution is mentioned, but the immediate context of these verses suggests that Paul has the suffering of discipline in mind. The kind of discipline and hard work that comes with entrusting the gospel message to faithful men who will entrust it to others also. Like a faithful soldier, a disciplined athlete, a hardworking farmer. This is the suffering of sweat, long hours, and extended seasons of toil.
Why was this takeaway so helpful for me? Because I feel the costliness of trying to disciple others and trying to raise up local leaders. I feel it keenly. Even during the several days of this training, the conduct of the local believers was deeply disappointing. It was exhausting. And it wasn’t just this three-day workshop. It has been a long season of walking through one conflict after another with local believers. And I am tempted to feel like the difficulty, the sweat and fatigue of this season, means I am doing something wrong – or that I am simply not gifted enough for this kind of task.
It seems every time we are ready to extend greater trust and responsibility to locals, some petty conflict emerges (or rather, explodes), showing that the maturity piece just isn’t there yet. Crisis reveals character again and again, and yet again.
How long, O Lord, until your word and your Spirit do their work of making our friends trustworthy and faithful? Will we ever see elder-qualified men emerge in this context?
And yet here in 2nd Timothy 2, I have been given a timely word. The work of discipleship is a kind of suffering. It’s not just me. Even a sharing in the suffering of Christ himself. What an honor! Paul found a Timothy, Timothy found other faithful men, they taught others also. If not, the gospel would have never come down to me, and to my local friends. This work is not impossible. To feel like a weary soldier, a tired athlete, a sore farmer, this is exactly how I am supposed to feel.
Dwelling on this truth these last several days has steadied my soul. Unlike how many missions trainers use verse two to advocate for rapid multiplication of disciples, this context shows us the work is long-term, tough, and yes, even a form of suffering.
That is not bad news at all. For weary workers like myself, it is in fact very good news. It means we are not off-track and unfit simply because the work often feels like working cursed soil in a desolate land. No, this is the nature of the work itself. Deprivation before honor. Sweat before victory. Toil before the harvest feast.
That is the kind of suffering that leads to faithful men who teach others also.
We recently discovered that one of our colleagues here was best friends growing up with a good friend we knew from our sending church.
“You were best friends with Matt?” I asked. “That’s amazing. We really appreciate that brother.”
My colleague went on to tell me about their growing up together and sharpening of one another.
“You know what I really appreciated him?” I said. “Matt was clearly gifted in leadership when he showed up as a new seminary student. But he didn’t balk at the time it took to become known in a church that was already full of gifted leaders. He plugged in, he served, he didn’t demand to be platformed quickly. Not everyone was able to do that. But he humbled himself and spent years as a good follower – and then became a servant and leader in the body – especially to the internationals.”
It’s true. Matt was one of the promising leaders who made it. Our sending church is in a seminary town. And it has a very strong and gifted team of elders. That means it attracts young men who are eager to lead and teach – because of its culture, its location, and its robust track of leadership training.
It’s as if the church is located at a river delta. Many streams brought the students to the seminary and for a period they are bottle-necked in one place, jostling around awkwardly in the current, before being sent out from the delta to do ministry all over the world. This river delta dynamic presented some real advantages – and some serious challenges – for our church and its leadership.
It also provided a crucial testing ground for young leaders.
What would they do when faced with a church body with a hundred other men just as gifted as they are?What would they do when told that they wouldn’t have opportunities to teach quickly, but that the nursery was desperately in need of help, the refugee ministry needed volunteers, and there’s a three year leadership apprenticeship that they could plug into?
I was one of the young and sure-of-myself students who experienced these dynamics myself. Then eventually I had the privilege of serving as an elder – focusing on strengthening and overseeing our leadership development and sending out of church planters and missionaries. As I’ve written before, I learned in this season how the teachable will lap the gifted. The ones who got to work in the messy behind the scenes ministry, who served the widows, and who didn’t push to be platformed – those men are now serving as faithful small group leaders, deacons, elders, church planters, and missionaries. They are faithfully laboring in the trenches of the kingdom of God.
But many did not pass the test. Faced with a seemingly insurmountable leadership ladder, some left for places where they could lead upfront more quickly. “There’s nowhere in the world harder to become an elder than at this church” is how one brother put it (Though he later became an elder – sweet irony). Others bristled under the slow pace at which they were invited into visible leadership and left angry, broadcasting stories to this day about the supposedly abusive leadership they experienced when they were “unjustly” not given the kind of influence they desired in their preferred timeline.
For all of the situations like this that I was aware of, one thread stood out. Men felt they deserved to be in leadership – and they were not content to be faithful followers for a longer timeline than they had expected. Overall, these brothers who left have not thrived in the contexts where they have ended up. Should we be surprised? “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, and at the proper time he will exalt you” (1st Peter 5:5-6).
We need to be careful as terms like “spiritual abuse” are being thrown around like trump cards on social media – and mud is being flung at the bride of Christ. What I saw going on behind the scenes was very different than abuse. It was leaders wisely saying “not yet” and young men reacting to this in pride rather than in humility. Idols were being exposed. And that always gets messy.
Do I grieve the fact that dear brothers experienced hurt through not being invited sooner into leadership? In one sense, yes. But I am also grateful for what that delay exposed in their hearts. I do not want to be led by a man who does not know how to wait and how to follow. I myself do not want to be a leader who does not know how to humble myself and embrace a slower timeline – even if I disagree with it. A leader who does not know how to defer is not a trustworthy leader. Rather, it’s when he doesn’t get his way that a leader’s true character is graciously exposed.
Furthermore, leadership is often synonymous with suffering. My most recent increase of responsibility was not one I was looking for, but one given to me, attended on my end by some degree of trepidation. The previous two men had to leave the field because of the costs associated with the role. I myself have already known many of the costs of leadership far more intimately than I expected – costs to my heart, my health, my family. From this vantage point I cannot help but wince a bit at young men who are hungry and ambitious for increased leadership. Brothers, do you really know what leadership is going to cost you? Why is it not enough to serve unseen? Do you not know that God sees and rewards it all?
Let us seek to be and to raise up leaders who know how to follow, who know how to wait, and how to defer to other wise believers. The transience of this life is such that, sooner or later, it will be our turn to lead. Let us trust God with that timing – Like my friend Matt, who is now a church planter.
Somewhere along the way, my wife and I developed a decision-making philosophy for costly or risky situations. No matter what, if we moved into that risky situation, we would only do so if we were both on the same page – and if we felt that God had been clear with both of us. That way, whatever costs might come, we could together rest in the knowledge that these were potential costs we had both embraced, and costs which were from our Father’s kind hand.
This knowledge has been practically helpful countless times, such as when a gang of refugee Somali youth tried to break down our back door, when a local leader-in-training turned out to be a divisive wolf, and when our daughter almost died in a Central Asian ICU from new onset type-1 diabetes. What in the world are we doing here?! Oh, that’s right, we came into this together. From everything we could discern, God was clear with us. We obeyed, and that has brought us to this place.
This step keeps us from blaming one another or others when things go sideways. It also serves as another safeguard to make sure we are rightly applying verses like 1st Peter 2:20.
For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.
When suffering because of ministry and lifestyle choices comes, it can make all the difference to be able to fall back on these kinds of thoughts – that we’re not facing this fallout because of sin, foolishness, stubbornness, or self-will. This suffering is simply part of the good (though painful) path we have been asked to walk. It has a thousand good purposes that we may someday see. And yes, we signed up for it.
But as a newer team leader on the mission field, I have at times failed to invite my whole team into this same cost-embracing posture. And that’s where I made my mistake. I stepped into leading a team, knowing that some things would need to change, and by the very nature of where we work, many risky decisions would need to be made. I believe I did a decent job of listening, getting feedback, and pondering. I am a reflective, creative-thinker type. So I’m in my happy place when I’m getting feedback on lots of issues and exploring what possible changes can be made to improve the situation.
Yet I underestimated the importance of having discussions and conversations as a whole team when it came to the actual issues and changes that needed to be made. I would have many one-on-one conversations about issues, chew on things for a while, and then introduce a change – one made very much in response to what team members had been saying for a long time. Surprisingly (to me), I would then get a lot of resistance to these changes. As I tried to figure out why the team was kicking so much against these decisions, I began to see how much change and transition itself was costly. That made sense for our context, where transition can seem never-ending. Sometimes a bad system is preferred over the cost of yet another change. Were I older and wiser, I would have known to ask, “So I hear you saying that this is difficult. Is it the kind of difficult where you think we should take on the costs of changing it?”
I also began to better understand the nature of healthy team decision making in a costly environment. These decisions were in fact resulting in risks and costs to the team as a whole. Sometimes they were big costs, sometimes only more transition. The most heartbreaking one was losing a teammate. Yet my team wasn’t sensing that they had been able to speak into those risky calls enough to have buy-in. Hence much of the pushback.
Just as my wife and I gave one another ample time to discuss, wrestle with, and pray though an issue, turns out my team needed this as well. I began experimenting with discussions in team meetings about difficult things that we might need to change. After a couple hours of everyone getting to say their piece and wrestle with our limited options, we would often arrive at a calm unity. No one was under the illusion that costs weren’t coming. But the team had been able to discuss together which risks they were more or less willing to embrace.
As I reflected on this and back on many team conflicts from the past, the light bulbs started flickering on. Much of the resistance came from costly decisions being suddenly announced, without proper time for contributing, processing, praying, and buy-in from those affected by the changes. Just a little bit of this quickly leads to team conflict. A lot of this can make people leave the team or the organization.
Now, organizationally, I am free to make the decision as the team leader. I am fully within my rights and authority to make most calls without consulting the team or having a lengthy discussion. This might be more efficient on the front end. However, for my team – and many teams made up of millennials (or just humans?) – it has proved to be much less efficient on the back end as we continually had to rehash decisions team members thought should have been made differently. As I grew to know my team more, I understood my mistake more clearly. These discussions, though very time-consuming, were key for us being able to embrace the possible implications – together.
Going forward, as much as possible, I hope to embrace this principle of wise leadership: If a decision is likely risky or costly for my team, I need to lead a team discussion about it before that decision is made. Just having a voice into that potential cost honors my team members. And yes, even the new folks should be encouraged to speak up. But in addition to having a say (or even a vote) in the matter, this kind of conversation enables a team to embrace possible costs together, and with a good conscience – and when things go sideways, that can make all the difference.
Other leaders may feel differently, but I need the teams I lead to have the freedom to fail. We are seeking to plant healthy local churches in the hard soil of Central Asia. We need to take big risks. Our very living here is a big risk. But to do this well, we must find practical ways to embrace these costs in ways that don’t divide us. So I hope to learn from my mistakes, and thereby do a better job of honoring my team in costly decisions.
Last night we were having dinner with some dear friends, one of the few families that has served here for more than a decade. They shared a story with us about the power of the title, pastor, here in this culture. In spite of being an ordained minister back in the West, learning the local language, and doing residential church planting work, many of the local believers were markedly more responsive when a visiting pastor from the outside would show up. All of the sudden, they would bring out great spiritual questions and want to sit and receive training – when they had resisted these very same things when offered in their language by a man who knew them and was actually living among them – because a real pastor was now present. My missionary friend, by doing the work of a church planter under the radar in a place where you can’t do so officially, was regularly not granted the respect given to someone who could afford to use the title of pastor or missionary openly.
“He’s been sacrificing everything for you for years! And you only show interest when the foreign pastor shows up? That’s the power of that title in this culture!” his wife said at one point.
What is going on here? Shouldn’t the one who does the labor of a pastor but can’t use the title for security purposes be granted the same level of respect as one who can use the title openly? At least part of this dynamic has to do with what is called high power distance and low power distance cultures.
Every culture has to deal with the unequal distribution of power within its own society. The difference between high power distance and low power distance cultures is how they think about what kind of power arrangement is most ideal. For those in low power cultures – like the West – we mentally and emotionally prefer to envision a culture where power is shared more equally. We don’t like authority figures to have too much more respect or power than their followers have. But those in high cultures actually value there being a big difference between how much respect and power is given to authority figures. In a low power culture, a more just society is one where everyone is treated equally. In a high culture, a more just society is where everyone is treated according to their status.
This comes out in interesting ways. Have you ever noticed how majority culture, middle-upper class Westerners have an aversion to titles? “Please, call me Bob,” a doctor might respond after you’ve just addressed him as Doctor so-and-so. However, this is not necessarily the case even in minority cultures in the West. In the US, African American and Hispanic cultures tend to put a higher value on the use of titles. Pay attention to the church signs and you’ll see what I mean.
High power cultures really value titles. They also value other signals of status, such as differentiation in dress and living standards. Framed certificates are displayed proudly in the workplace. Even in the home, titles for older siblings can often be used in place of their first name. To call an older brother (or any man) by his first name only can be taken as a grave offense. “Where’s your respect, you young whippersnapper?” The respectful maintenance and visibility of the hierarchy of power (age, class, position, etc.) is understood to be one of the cornerstones of a just and healthy society.
This is the unique situation my missionary friend found himself in, here in Central Asia. We, coming from a low power culture, deal daily with these strong dynamics of a high power culture. We live and work in a place where the use of the title missionary or pastor would actually accomplish a lot. But for security purposes, we can’t actually use these titles. And methodologically, we’re not always sure that we want to use them, given the ways these dynamics are often abused by local leaders. A local wolf in sheep’s clothing has no qualms about applying these titles and status symbols to himself, and thereby tapping into the honor the culture automatically extends to anyone who flaunts them. Domineering leadership is a real problem here, in basically every kind of authority. This gives us pause about merely taking on these authority status symbols uncritically. Yet to ignore them altogether is also not a very good option, because that often signals that we don’t actually think we have any authority at all.
Now, the Scriptures were written in high power cultures. The cultures of the ancient near east and the Greco-Roman world definitely held to the ideals of high power distance. And yet the word of God spoken into those cultures strikes an interesting posture. It both affirms the reality and goodness of authority, and the need to honor it appropriately, while also affirming the ideal of servant leadership and the equal dignity of every person (1 Pet 2:17, Eph 6:1, 1 Tim 5:17, Luke 22:26, 1 Pet 3:7). Going further, a common theme in books such as Luke and James is “the great reversal” where those the world does not honor are the ones who end up most honored by God: children, the poor, gentiles, and sinners (Luke 13:30, Matt 19:14, James 1:9-10, 1 Cor 1:26).
So, what are we to do when navigating these differences between low and high power cultures? We need to be able to study the whole counsel of the word on this topic, then study our own personal culture, and finally, study the different cultures we are interacting with.
We need to have a practical theology of power and authority. Again, the Bible affirms that authority is established by God (family, government, church, etc.) and therefore it is good and not to be rejected (Rom 13:1). However, our fallenness means that all authority here tends to be warped by sin (Gen 3:16, Ezekiel 34). Power in this age needs to be redeemed and transformed – but cannot discarded while living in the real world as God created it. What does redeemed and transformed authority look like? Jesus and the Apostles model this for us (Luke 22:27). Now, in the local church, the priesthood of all believers is to be celebrated, as is the special role of leaders within the body (1 Pet 2:9, Eph 4:11). Those with natural power are to rejoice in how the gospel makes them lowly. And those without natural power are to rejoice in how the gospel lifts them up (James 1:9-10). There are times when the use of titles is inappropriate, according to Jesus (Matt 23:1-12). And there are times when the use of titles can be done for the sake of godly respect (Mark 3:14). Wisdom, love, and context make all the difference here.
We also need to know our own cultural bent. If you are a Westerner reading this, it’s helpful to realize that we live in a culture that has serious issues with the very idea of power and authority itself. Western culture is philosophically bent towards living in a fantasy where power differences don’t have to exist. Yes, this even affects missionaries. Some have experimented with this fantasy in the house churches they plant overseas, trying to get rid of the role of a teacher or preacher altogether. However, being fantasy and not reality, this never works for the long term. Sooner or later leaders, teachers, and preachers always emerge. We might cringe when our local friends use respectful titles for us, but why is that? Where does that cringe originate? The Bible or some kind of cultural reaction we’ve inherited and continue to propagate? We need to take an honest look at our own power distance preferences and make sure we can pinpoint what is biblical and what is personal.
Studying the local culture’s power distance preference is also crucial. How do they envision the ideal distribution of power in society? And why? What of this needs to be redeemed and what needs to be rejected? In our local culture, I am thrilled that our local believers are trained from their youth to respect the elderly and to use respectful titles for them. This good cultural value needs to kept and deepened via gospel motivation. But the prideful arrogance that so often comes once a title like pastor has been bestowed – and the idea that this title is some kind of status for life that can be genetically passed onto children – that practice needs to be done away with among the new community of faith.
As with so many of these spectrums of culture, there are going to be cliffs on either side, expressions of a low power preference and those of a high power preference that clash with biblical principles. If you are flirting with the idea of getting rid of teachers in the local church, you’ve gone too far – just as you are if you believe that the pastor controls the decisions of the members of his church. Yet there’s going to be a range of expressions in the middle that are faithful to scripture, yet still feel very different from one another. It’s just not necessary that a church in Kentucky give a visiting speaker a special scarf in a public ceremony (complete with photos) after his sermon. But for Nepalese churches, this is highly honorable in the sight of all. When in Kentucky, privately give brother “Bob” an envelope containing an honorarium as a thank you, and that will do just fine.
Practically, it will be helpful for high power distance believers to wrestle with ways they can publicly honor the “least of these.” This will be radically counter-cultural. Just as it will be helpful for low power distance cultures to think about if there are particular ways they need to give “double honor” to the leaders and authority figures among them, as so much of the popular culture is raging against this – and even the leaders themselves might squirm when honored!
Fellow missionaries and anyone involved in ministry, let’s be sure we are making these decisions with scripture-informed intentionality, and not merely out of cultural default. This will take some work. But it will be work that will result in a community that leverages power differentials in a compelling and other-worldly way. In this world reeling from the abuses of the power and the abusive reactions to the abuses of power, this kind of redemption of power distances is desperately needed.
We have a new teammate. And we have been praising God for her heart. Why? Because she is teachable, humble, and lights up when we talk about gospel truths.
We have come ourselves to light up when we encounter a heart like hers. This is because we have learned that what the psalmist says is true. Mark the man of peace, for he has a future (Psalm 37:37). Not only will someone who has a humble and teachable heart flourish under God’s kind hand, but those around them will flourish also. Teachable peacemakers make the best teammates and colaborers in the trenches of ministry. They also make wonderful friends.
Looking back on my Bible college and seminary days, it’s interesting to note how some of my most gifted classmates didn’t really end up flourishing spiritually in life and ministry. At least not to the same extent that the steady, humble, teachable ones did. In fact, over time the seemingly gifted ones were lapped by the ones most of us would have been tempted to initially overlook. The unassuming, the unpretentious, the ones who didn’t have to lead, but who eventually led anyway because of their steady faithfulness and consistency – these friends are the ones who quietly got started in ministry, have so far persevered, and are now harvesting righteousness (James 3:18).
How do we spot them? Well, the humble show up. Consistently. They listen. They are open to feedback and counsel and eager to learn how they can grow. They don’t pine after influence. They are willing and even eager to serve. They know how to laugh at themselves. They know how to follow and how to rejoice in others’ successes. This, even though there is very much a quiet gospel fire burning in their souls and often very wise things in their minds. It just seems to take a while for the rest of us to gradually shift our gaze away from the flashy ones so that we can see the better and more trustworthy embers burning in the hearts of the lowly. But time will inevitably expose the humble, and sooner or later we will not only see them, but come to lean on them more and more.
It’s just as true for marriage prospects. I remember walking down the road as a college student debating with myself about this girl that I had recently started dating. In some ways she was different than what I had imagined. Looking back, like a typical idealist, I was putting way too much emphasis on secondary things. But suddenly a thought stopped me in my tracks. A.W., you fool, what would you give for a woman with a heart of gold? It was a valid and pointed question expertly aimed to undo my wrongheadedness. Right then and there I decided to stop focusing so much on minor things and to pursue this godly woman who had a gracious and humble heart. Ten years now into marriage, I daily experience the rewards of having gone for the heart over the external details. Turns out that beauty in the heart unfailingly spills out and beautifies the world around it.
The teachable will lap the gifted. Every time. I need to keep reminding myself of this as we eagerly look for new local believers who could be future leaders and as we recruit for future teammates. If someone is very gifted, but proud, I need to remember that it’s OK to move on, in spite of the great needs around us. A better harvest comes from the hands of the humble. It’s an exercise of faith to let these types of people go, or at least to not invest in them in as deep a way as I would initially like to. And, wonderfully, some of these eventually become humble themselves, more often than not after having walked through the fire of suffering or failure. Or by simply learning to not take themselves quite so seriously. There’s frankly more spiritual power in that than we often admit.
Want to impact the world for Christ? Go all in for teachability, grace, and humility. And after others in your church start affirming the grace they see in your heart, then consider attaching yourself to some struggling church or rag-tag team of church planters like ours somewhere in the world.
Humble yourself. Sow Peace. Trust God with the timing. A harvest of righteousness awaits.
I continue to learn just how important self-awareness is in the effort to do good missiology and contextualization. In order to understand my target culture and know how to apply the gospel to it, I am deeply handicapped if I do not understand my own preferences and my own culture. The danger of confusing personal and cultural preferences for biblical principles and commands lurks ever hidden under the surface – not unlike the sea mines in the Bosphoros that prevented the allies from taking Constantinople in WWI. In this vein, I have been greatly helped by this article by Tim Keller that addresses church size dynamics.
Every church has a culture that goes with its size and which must be accepted. Most people tend to prefer a certain size culture, and unfortunately, many give their favorite size culture a moral status and treat other size categories as spiritually and morally inferior. They may insist that the only biblical way to do church is to practice a certain size culture despite the fact that the congregation they attend is much too big or too small to fit that culture.
My mistake as a former house-church-only advocate was this very thing, confusing a house church size as being a more biblical choice. Small was holier than big. Simple was holier than complex. Just as good missionaries need to constantly remind themselves that many strange things in their new culture are “not wrong, just different,” so Christians must remind themselves of this same truth when interacting with churches of different sizes. The key takeaway is not just that churches of different sizes usually have different cultures, but rather that they inescapably have different cultures. To refuse to let the culture change because of some personal size preference is to do damage to the church and to impede its healthy growth, like new grandparents insisting that Christmas must always look the same even though their grown children now have their own children plus another other set of in-laws that need to be honored.
This article is also full of specific wisdom to help leaders when their churches are passing from one size culture to another. Since many of the churches that are planted in Central Asia will exist in the house church to small church range, I am helped to be aware of how to proactively lead or help the local leaders anticipate what kind of shepherding is needed to make this transition.
If it opts to grow out of the house-church size into a small church, it needs to prepare its people to do this by acknowledging the losses of intimacy, spontaneity, and informality and agreeing to bear these as a cost of mission, of opening its ranks to new people. This has to be a consensus group decision, to honor the dynamics of the house church even as it opts to change those dynamics.
Or as Uncle Ben from Spiderman so famously said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Growing influence and means necessarily come with greater responsibility, and yes, even greater problems. Too much snow and a roof that’s not strong enough can even lead to collapse. So a wise man knows the importance of a strong roof and speedy removal of the snow if it’s getting too high.
Merry Christmas to everyone who might read this post! And may your roof, literal and proverbial, not collect too much snow.
Two units on my team have recently had to come back to the US temporarily. These kind of unexpected returns to the home country are increasingly normal in this year of 2020, due to both the pandemic and the changing security situation in some parts of East Asia. Because of my team members’ return stateside, I have been thinking again these days about caring for missionaries upon reentry.
A few years ago I served as the missions pastor at what would become our own sending church. I inherited a practice there that I want to commend to others as a unique way to honor and care for missionaries who have just returned.
When missionaries returned during that season, we would set aside an entire evening for them to debrief with the whole team of our pastors and their wives. It was a big commitment to make given the number of folks we had overseas and the number of elders as well. But these gatherings always proved to be very sweet times. We’d arrange abundant snacks and beverages, childcare for the missionaries if needed, and then give them our undivided attention for several hours.
The goal was to give them an opportunity to share everything – the good, the bad, and the ugly. There wasn’t a set agenda for the time other than mingling for a bit, an extended time of listening and Q & A, and then prayer over the missionaries at the end. Yet it was amazing the kind of ground that could be covered in evenings like this. Tears and laughter were not uncommon. It was also a way to show particular honor to our friends who had embraced the costs of the mission field for the sake of the gospel and on behalf of the our church. I’ll never forget the scene of one of our single missionaries sharing her story of serving in SE Asia while all the pastors and wives listened with full attentiveness, seated in the living room and on the floor around her. What an honor, I thought, for this godly woman who may sometimes be overlooked because of her singleness.
When missionaries return to their home country, they are in need of a ministry of listening. Despite other kinds of honor and attention, it’s rare that they actually get to share in depth about their time overseas. Yet there is often a need to process what actually happened, to figure out what the high points and low points were, and to begin the path toward healing after the scars of the previous ministry season. This comes most often through verbal processing with trusted counselors.
There is also the need to be reminded of who they are in Christ and that there is a body of leaders behind them who know them and vouch for them. Many missionaries have such hard seasons on the field that they come back questioning their calling and their fit in the task. These types of conversations with pastors can be key to preventing missionaries from being swayed too much by the attacks and trials that they have experienced. As they pour out their hearts to their shepherds, this can be the beginning of their passion and confidence in their calling being restored.
As a missions pastor, there were other benefits as well. This kind of gathering helped to keep missions front and center for all of our church’s elders. It also provided a rare opportunity for us to actually get together with all the other pastors and their wives for a time centered around our missionary friends. In a fast-paced and time-oriented culture, it was an evening where we got to be event-oriented together, letting our missionaries share as long as they needed to (After all, most missionaries become more event-oriented the longer they are on the field). Also, missions pastors tend to have certain kinds of gifts and not others, so I was always helped by the wise questions and different kinds of insights that came when all the diverse pastors and wives were interacting with our sent ones. In an abundance of counselors there is safety (Proverbs 24:6).
My encouragement to my teammates heading back home was to request this kind of a time with pastors, mentors, or friends soon after they get back. If asked how the church can serve you, it’s not selfish or silly to ask for an evening where you can share everything you need to, unfiltered, with those who have sent you out. This kind of time can be the beginning of processing the victories and losses of your previous term in a healthy way. Getting to share so fully in a setting like this also helps when the relatives or fellow church members don’t really take an interest in the details or stories of our time overseas. Even one chance to get it all out there and be prayed over can be very restorative.
My encouragement to any pastors out there reading this is that you also consider how to implement some kind of expression of this time. The actual format and details of this suggestion are not as important as the principle: Local churches can serve their returning missionaries by providing a context where they can share their heart, in depth and at length, with trusted leaders. The applications of this could be as varied as the unique makeup and contexts of local churches. But any church that pursues this kind of ministry of listening in order to serve their missionaries will be caring for them well, even in a manner worthy of God (3rd John 6).
Listen on, listen in
Have you seen my Master?
You ask is He like those I’ve met
Or kings with slaves in number
They cheat their way to glory’s seat
Lay burdens on mens’ shoulders
Their fingers soft their knees too weak
Unmet by work or prayers
Served the man who served Him death
Washed the filth from his feet washed the dirt from him
Betrayed for a pocket silver-laced
By a heart that didn’t understand
My Master is a humble man
When He knew His hour had come
He kept His cup tight in hand
How great it’d be to see Him old
Still how much better the way He chose
Served the man who served Him death
Washed the filth from his feet washed the dirt from him
Betrayed for a pocket silver-laced
By a heart that didn’t understand
Then to hang on a hill He died
With the company of thieves on His left and on His right
Said one man ‘Remember me if You can’
And He gave it all to him
Even when no one saw
He loved us to the end
Even when everyone ran off
He loved us to the end
Even when we have to stare through the holes
In his hands
He loved us to the end
A name great and renowned, but a village broken down.
Local Oral Tradition
This Central Asian proverb speaks to the importance of a leader’s immediate circle and responsibilities. He may have an impressive reputation, but the state of his household and village tell a lot about his real character and leadership. If teaching locals on the eldership qualifications from 1st Timothy chapter 3, I would use this local proverb as one way to illustrate the statement that an overseer must “manage his own household well” (1st Timothy 3:4). Ground the teaching in the text, illustrate it with the culture. In this case, with the oral tradition.