The Ways Missionaries Gain and Lose Support
Recently, I had some dealings with a person who is in training to be a missionary. After about a week I came away thinking, “I would never support that person as a missionary.” I was a little surprised by this thought because our encounters were not “missions” related at all. In fact, I had not even considered supporting this person. To compound the confusion, the person was, polite, pleasant, and had a great personality. If this person was speaking at a church trying to raise support, most people would probably think, “What a nice person, I hope they get the support.”
Afterwards, I tried to figure out why my mind went in the direction that it did. As I thought about my encounters I began to realize that my mind had been quietly raising numerous red flags. Although I won’t go into the specific details about this person, I will share my discoveries. Hopefully, this will help other missionary candidates avoid some common pitfalls.
Unknown to many missionaries and missionary candidates is the fact that most churches and individuals seeking to support a missionary, look at the candidate the same way that a businessman looks at a prospective employee. They look to see if the potential employee is a hard worker and has qualities that meet the business’ specific needs. (For simplicity I will no longer say “churches and individuals,” I will simply say “church.”)
You would think that the choice to provide support would be based on the church’s burden for the lost, it isn’t. The desire to support foreign missions in the first placed is based on their burden for the lost, but the actual selection of the missionary is based on something else. Once in a while it is based on the missionary’s outgoing personality or charisma, but usually it is based on cold, hard facts. The supporters usually try to evaluate whether this missionary candidate is a good investment.
Although we don’t often think of it this way, in a sense a missionary is an employee of the churches that support him. When a church is looking to support a missionary, they go through a mental check list, similar to that of an employer, to determine if the missionary candidate would be a good employee overseas.
Before I go any further, I want to clarify what I mean when I use the word employer. The term employer gives the impression that the supporters are the missionary’s boss and that their position is above that of the missionary. This is not true. We all have the same boss: the Lord Jesus Christ. I only used the term employer to help the missionary candidate better understand the unique dynamics of fund raising. In reality, the term should be co-workers. We are all brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. Missionaries are not the only ones who are commanded by God in the Great Commission to reach the world. Every believer is under the same command and we are all in this job together.
Now, let’s go back to the qualities that the church is looking for in a future missionary. It should go without saying, but I’ll state the obvious anyhow; a missionary candidate needs to be both emotionally and spiritually mature. They need to have a deep love for our Lord and a burning passion for the lost. They need to be actively witnessing in their current situation. This is critical. If they are not sharing Christ with others in a location where they know both the language and culture, they will not be very active in sharing Christ overseas where communication will be much more difficult.
Any missionary worth consideration would already have these qualities, so these qualities aren’t really relevant for this discussion. So, let’s look at some of the less obvious qualities, the qualities that are attractive to an employer. I call them the employer’s checklist. Remember, if a person is not a good worker here in the U.S., he will not be a good worker overseas. Following are qualities that employers are looking for:
Is he a hard worker? Is the person a hard worker or does he exhibit patterns of laziness? Does he only do the minimum that is required or does he strive to go the extra mile? This is just common sense; if a Christian is going to sacrifice his hard earned money to support someone, he wants to make sure the missionary is going to do the job that he is being paid to do. A supporter would not be a good steward of his money if he didn’t invest his money wisely.
There was a missionary on furlough who spent her year in the states at my sister’s church. During her stay she offered to help out with the children’s ministry. At first everyone was grateful that they had this extra help. This joy soon turned to dissatisfaction. Yes, she was there every week, but she never really helped out much. Instead, she usually spent most of her time in the corner playing with the children’s toys and eating their cookies. My sister wondered why the church was even supporting her.
Apparently, the language instructors at my school understood the importance of people giving their all, instead of doing just enough to get by. There was a guy in my class who was brilliant with linguistics. It would only take him half an hour to do his homework, whereas it took most of us at least four hours. Even though his grades were better than most of our grades, the staff realized that he was not living up to his full potential. The staff approached him one day and told him that he was not properly utilizing the great resources that God had given him. They told him that either he lives up to his potential and give it his all, or they would ask him to leave. Fortunately, he chose to give it his all.
Is he self-motivated? Is the person self-motivated or does he need to be told what to do all of the time? What does he do when he sees a need; does he ignore it or does he take the initiative and meet the need? A motivated worker will automatically do what needs to be done; he doesn’t need to be told what to do. If a motivated worker is by himself, he’ll still work as hard as he would if his employer was standing next to him. This is an important trait for those going to the foreign field, especially those working in the jungle. Jungle missionaries will often be by themselves without direct supervision and they need to be doing the job that they are being paid to do.
Is he a person of his word? This goes back to the issue of being trusted. If a person doesn’t follow through on the things he has promised while others are around him in the U.S., he certainly won’t follow through on his promises when he is alone in the jungle. Employers find this trait very undesirable. Therefore, if you say you are going to do something, make sure you follow through on it. Don’t commit to things that you might not be able to fulfill. You would be much better off saying, “I probably won’t be able to help out on this project” and then show up if time permits, than to make a commitment and not show up. People remember broken promises much more than they remember fulfilled commitments.
Another reason why a person who is a “man of his word” is so valuable on the mission field is because he (or she) will usually be a good co-worker. The other missionaries can count on him to have their back when times get tough. The phrase “got your back” is a military term that has come into common use with civilians. When a group of soldiers is moving forward, most of their weapons and attention is focused on what is in front of them. This makes them vulnerable to being flanked; being attacked from the side. They are even more vulnerable to being attacked from the rear.
Therefore, military strategy requires that at least one soldier be assigned to protect the team from the rear. This job is important because the lives of his team literally rest on him properly doing his job. In order for the team to properly focus their full attention on the threats in front of them, the team has to have complete confidence in the guy covering their back. If they don’t, they will be continually taking their eyes off of the enemy to see if the rear guard is doing his job. The guy guarding their rear has to be willing to stand his ground even under withering gunfire.
This rear guard position is sometimes referred to by the team as “bringing up the rear,” “having my back,” or “taking my 6.” If the team splits up in combat and loses their rear guard, someone near the rear will automatically assume the position and yell out, “I’ve got your back.” The members of a good team will always protect each other.
Of course, missionaries don’t face the same physical threats that soldiers do, but they still need to have teammates that can be trusted during the difficult times. They need to be able to go into spiritual battles without having to worry about whether their partner is going to stand his ground.
Think about it, if you are working with a person who doesn’t always keep his word, will you really be able to trust him during times of extreme need and trouble? Don’t ever tell someone, “I’ve got your back,” unless you are willing to stand your ground with them through the thick and thin. Agreeing to team up with other missionaries on the field is the same as saying that you got their back. Don’t make that commitment lightly.
I worked as a correction officer in a prison for 25 years and it was very important for me to be paired with people I could trust. When you are surrounded by over a thousand prisoners, you need to know that the person you are working with has your back. I never felt safe working with a person who had a pattern of not keeping his word. I guess subconsciously I felt that anyone who didn’t have the backbone to fulfill the small simple promises that he made, probably would not have the backbone to stand his ground when faced with death or extreme violence. Sadly, this hunch has been proven true on numerous occasions. I’ve been left high and dry in some dangerous situations more times than I like to remember.
Is he driven? Many employers don’t include this in their list, but I’m including it because it is a quality that is essential for people facing extremely difficult times. Foreign missionary work, especially tribal work, often extracts a great price and there will be times when the missionary feels totally overwhelmed. It is during these times that the missionary needs to be able to dig down deep and find the resolve needed to complete the task. This could make the difference between success and failure, sometimes even life and death.
Some people may say it is unfair to hold missionaries to a higher standard than everyone else. They would be correct if this was the case, but it isn’t. God holds us all to the same high standard. Colossians 3:23 says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.”
Even if we have a “secular” job, God still requires us to work at the same high standard to which missionaries are held. When we stand before God and He is determining our rewards, He will look to see how wisely we have handled our resources. He will look to see if we were good stewards in everything that we did.
There are two reasons why I singled out missionaries. First, their job of reaching the lost is so important and obtaining proper support is essential for them to get to the field. Second, they need to realize that they have to satisfy multiple employers instead of a single employer in ordered to get “hired.”
People often think that raising support starts after they have completed their missionary training. It doesn’t, it starts long before that; sometimes even before they enter Bible school. Your best support, especially prayer support, comes from getting personally involved in people’s lives. This is done by helping out at church and offering to help individuals with needs.
It is through these encounters that you will become known and accepted. It is through these encounters that you develop a rapport with the people who are in the position of making decisions about your support. This is, however, a double-edged sword. They can see that you are a dedicated, hard worker who is self-motivated and highly driven, or they could discover that you are just the opposite.
A good way of getting involved in people’s lives is to offer a helping hand. If you hear that someone at church is moving, you should offer to help. If you hear that someone is painting their kitchen, putting up a shed, etc., you should offer to help. Even if you don’t possess the necessary skill set to help out directly, you can still do grunt work. There is always a need for someone to carry things around, sweep, clean up, etc. If you don’t see a need, ask around and put out the word that you are willing to help.
Even if you can only stay an hour, that short amount of time will still means a great deal to the person being helped. Our church has had several projects where members would get together to help with a construction need of a fellow member. Our associate pastor would often show up to help. He readily admits that he isn’t very skilled in some types of construction work, but he still comes. Often, his busy schedule only permits him to stay an hour or two, but it means a great deal to us that he cares enough to come. I cannot over emphasize the impact that his participation has meant to me and the other workers. I don’t know if he is aware of it or not, but these types of “co-worker” projects are one of the greatest ways for a pastor to integrate himself into his congregation. Working side-by-side as a “fellow worker” with the other church members builds a very unique bond, a bond that cannot be built any other way.
I appreciate the fact that missionary students have a limited amount of time and that they don’t have the luxury of being able to help out every time they see a need. Nevertheless, they need to understand that missionary preparation doesn’t just involve education. It also involves raising prayer and financial support. The process of raising support starts long before they finish their training. You need to find the time to do these things. Remember, this is part of your missionary preparation.
Don’t make the mistake that many missionary candidates have made. Don’t wait until you have finished your training and are in the process of raising your support to offer your help. I have seen this happen many times. I have seen missionary candidates who have never offered to help when they were students, suddenly become friendly and helpful when they need to raise support. People often question the candidate’s motive when this happens. People know that if the person truly has a helping spirit, he would have already offered his help long before now. A true missionary has a servant’s heart.
I was at a church that was starting a capital fundraising campaign. Part of the process was to have the church leaders visit all of the members and ask if they could pray for any particular needs that the family was facing. Then, after they finished praying they would present their fundraising pitch and try to get some pledges.
When they invited my wife and me to be part of the process we asked them if they were going to continue on with this newfound interest in their member’s lives. They hadn’t done much visitation of church members up to this point. When they said, “Probably not,” we told them that we were not interested. We told them that the members would have serious doubts about the sincerity of such an approach, and would probably be offended that the leadership was trying to appear concerned in order to raise money.
You would be surprised by the number of people who are secretly observing future missionaries. They are not spying on these people. Rather, they are assessing them, trying to see if they would be a good future investment. Sometimes they are the people who make the financial decisions at a church about supporting future missionaries. Sometimes they are simply lay people who are looking for spiritual investment opportunities.
My wife and I have supported a large number of missionary projects and missionaries. Unfortunately, we have made some poor choices over the years. Fortunately, we have learned from these mistakes and are much wiser. We are now much more careful about who and what we support. We carefully evaluate future projects and the people we support.
Some people may say, “You are supporting ‘God’s work,’ so in the grand scheme of things, it’s not that big of a deal if some of the missionaries are not hard workers.” First of all, if some of these missionaries are not adequately doing their job, then some of “God’s work” isn’t getting done. Second, the parable of the talents (Matt. 25) makes it very clear that we are to be wise stewards of our resources. Apart from the serious issue of reaching the lost for Christ, there is the other important issue of being obedient to Christ by being faithful with the resources he has entrusted to us.
A good way of evaluating someone is to watch them perform their day-to-day activities. Another way is to watch them when they are helping on a project. You watch their basic work ethics; you watch to see if they are men or women of their word. Do they offer to help and fail to show up? You watch them when they encounter significant obstacles. How do they react? Do they give up or do they dig down deep and find a way to overcome?
I’ll give you another example of secret observations. The Navy SEALs are considered by many to be the most elite Special Forces group in the world. As you would expect, they have very demanding physical fitness tests embedded throughout their BUD/S training. The physical fitness requirements become more stringent as they progress through the training. If a candidate is unable to pass any of the tests (running, swimming, pushups, etc.) he is washed out. The primary purpose of these exams is to determine if the candidate is fit enough to be a SEAL.
There is a secret secondary purpose, however. The instructors use these PT tests to determine the depth of the candidate’s drive; they want to see just how deep the candidate is willing to dig in order to get the job done. The instructors look to see how the candidate conducts himself during these tests. For example, let’s say that one of the tests requires the candidate to do 50 pushups in 2 minutes. The instructors quietly watch to see what the candidate does when he finishes the pushups early.
The norm is for the candidate to stop when he has met the requirement. In fact, it is often considered wise to stop at the quota. The candidate needs to conserve his energy for the upcoming sit ups, swimming, running, etc. Remember, he is washed out if he can’t pass all of the PT tests. However, the instructors are greatly impressed if the candidate continues on until the clock runs out. This shows that the candidate is willing to go above and beyond what is required of them. It shows that he wants to do more than just the minimum.
This attitude is reflected throughout the SEALs training manual. For example, the section called Continuous High Intensity training (CHI) says, “These sessions typically involve moving for 15-20 minutes without stopping at a pace approximately 90-95% of the maximal pace you could hold for that duration.” They want their SEALs to get into the habit of operating near the top of their capacity. They don’t want them to do just enough to get by. They want them to get the job done to the best of their ability. In order to be able to get the energy needed to operate at this high pace, the candidate needs to be able to dig down deep, deeper than what he has ever done before. He needs to be able to find a resolve and determination he did not know was possible.
Why is this so important? This attitude of being able to dig down deep will probably make the difference between life and death, between success and failure. It is not uncommon for four SEAL members to be surrounded by a couple hundred enemy troops far behind enemy lines. There will be times when they will face impossible odds and will want to just give up and die. Yet, because of their training they will be able to dig down deep and find the necessary energy and resolve to maintain a level head. As a result they will be able to claw and climb their way out to safety and success.
When a person considers supporting a future missionary, it is important for him to really get to know the candidate. Not only should he watch the candidate from a distance, but he should also try to get to know the candidate on a deeper, personal level. As much as possible, he should try to establish a close friendship with the candidate. He should spend time with the candidate and be their friend. There are two reasons for this. First, on the practical side, this will provide the potential supporter with a solid vision of the candidate.
Although, gaining deeper insight is important, the second reason is equally as important. A friendship will help the potential supporter better understand the emotional needs of the future missionary. Yes, financial and prayer support are important for the missionary, but emotional support is also important. A person cannot provide this type of support unless he has become a close friend of the future missionary.
There may be times when the missionary's world comes crashing in. There may be times when he (or she) is feeling overwhelmed and their heart is breaking. During these times the missionary will need to have a friend to whom he can turn. The missionary will need to have a friend with whom he can be open and honest. Foreign missionaries are often cut off from the normal support lines that we enjoy here in the states. They may not have anybody nearby to whom they can turn in their time of need.
It is hard enough for us to open up and bare our souls when we are face to face with our close friends. Think about how difficult it would be to open up if you are thousands of miles away and your only communication is by phone or email. A missionary really needs to feel secure in a relationship before they could feel comfortable communicating their vulnerabilities through these mediums. This type of trust has to be earned. This type of trust can only develop through a deep, personal friendship. To foster this type of relationship, the potential supporter needs to be honest with the candidate about their own doubts, fears, and struggles. This in turn will help the candidate feel safe in opening up to them.
Obviously, a supporter can’t have deep, personal friendships with everyone he supports. This is neither practical nor realistic. Yet, emotional support is a significant need that is often neglected. Corporately, the body of Christ should strive to build a solid emotional support system for the missionaries they support. On an individual level, the members of supporting churches should try to establish deep, personal friendships with at least two or three missionaries. Think about the impact that this could have on world evangelism if each church had a few dozen members that took this initiative?
I have one last thing to say. Cell phones have become a valuable tool for missions, but they have also become a significant source of distraction. On most Sundays, my wife and I will invite someone out for dinner after church. One couple that we took out to dinner worked on staff at a local Bible school. Throughout the whole meal they were both looking at their phones and texting various people. It was very distracting and irritating. They have since moved on from the Bible school and are now preparing to go overseas as missionaries. They continually send us newsletters seeking support and I continually delete their emails. Socially, it is very rude to be texting someone when you are having dinner with someone else, but to do this with someone who could potentially be a supporter is insane.
After reading this paper, some missionary students may realize that they need to change some of their work ethics in order to successfully raise future support. Although it is important for missionaries to be able to raise sufficient support, there is a more important reason why they should be consciousness, hard-working people: obedience to God. Simply put, God expects us to be good stewards of the resources He has given us. He expects us to always give it our all. The bottom line is this: Don’t be a hard worker because it will result in more support. Instead, be a hard worker because this is what God commands.
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