Understanding missionaries through the lens of relational accountability
My family finished 11 years of Siberian missionary service at the end of 2008. A decade later, I have been exceptionally blessed to pastor in two larger churches, serve many mid-sized and smaller churches, work closely with denominational leaders, and to regularly teach on outreach and missions. Even though many financial resources are allocated toward global missions, I am increasingly observing that missionaries are among the most misunderstood servants in God’s global work! The aim of this article is to give you a greater clarity and actionable understanding on how to relate to cross-cultural missionaries, by examining the seven layers of missionary accountability that influence the missionary relationship. Though many new missionaries are increasingly seeking support from individuals, it is important to keep in mind that a missionary relates, in different ways, to a host of authority-bearing influences. It is not likely that any of these influences see themselves as ominously lording authority over a missionary, nonetheless, as experienced missionaries will attest, each influential layer holds distinct elements of authority and responsibility. Newer missionaries will tend to sequentially experience these layers of authority, but as experience grows, they become simultaneously integrated into a missionary’s worldview. As you will find, with the help of several discussion questions and the offered next-steps, this topic has direct bearing on how sending churches, denominational districts, financial donors, and mission agencies understand, encourage, evaluate, and co-minister with missionaries. Admittedly, these are the authoritative layers under which donor-supported Evangelical missionaries typically serve. Just the same, non-donor-supported missionaries, and those engaged in tentmaking “Business as Mission” (BAM) or “Business for Transformation” (B4T) will also find themselves in strong alignment with many points.
The authority of God's calling
At some point, emerging missionaries experience a personalized version of Isaiah’s famous dialogue with God, saying, “Yes, Lord. Here am I, send me.” (Is. 6:8) As with Isaiah, this call to missionary service promotes an enduring fear of God that internally echoes with the Apostle Paul, “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16) Regardless of how often churches transition senior pastors, how hard the ministry becomes, or how financial support ebbs and flows, what ultimately holds missionaries accountable is a Holy-Spirit-given conviction that they have been called by God to cross-culturally take the good news of Jesus Christ to the lost world. Missionaries know that, before God, they will give an account of how they stewarded their unique gifting and missionary calling.
How are people in your church being challenged to towards missionary service or active missionary involvement? Who is responding to this and how are they responding?
How are missionaries (sent ministers who cross-culturally advance the gospel) involved in equipping your church for the works of the ministry? Who, in your church, is managing those decisions? (See Ephesians 4:11-16)
The authority of the missionary's sending church
(and the role of denominational district support)
Once a person senses that God is directing them into missionary service, the first step should be to share this with their local church leadership. The church from which a missionary emerges is likely to take on the responsibility of the sending church. This is not the same responsibility as the other individual or church donors to be later discussed. It is the sending church’s responsibility to ensure that a missionary’s calling is confirmed, the missionary has been spiritually prepared for missionary service, is ordained (if necessary), and commissioned for the cross-cultural work of the gospel ministry. Though sending churches typically commit between 10% – 25% of their missionary’s financial support need, this is not a one-time event nor is it a mere financial transaction. This is the beginning of an enduring, sacrificial, and God-ordained relationship. It is at this point that denominational districts should be informed about those who are on a missionary trajectory because they can give great assistance in the process and help to organize supportive regional church introductions for new missionaries. If a sending church is not part of a denominational district, then it is still their responsibility to do these things. Ultimately, the sending church’s relationship with their missionaries is meant to bring ongoing encouragement, accountability, and support to the cross-cultural work of the ministry. This means that sending churches must work to continually update their congregation regarding the work, needs, and blessing of their sent missionaries. Sending church, under the headship of Christ, you are your sent missionary’s primary earthly authority. As an example of this, take time to explore the Apostle Paul’s relationships with his sending church in Antioch, as well as his supporting churches in Jerusalem, Philippi, and Berea. (Acts 13:1-3, 14:26-28, 15:1-29, 16:10-15, 18:22-23, Phil. 1:3-11, 4:10-20, 2 Thess. 2:1-20)
For which missionaries are you serving as the “Sending Church”? What are their names, fields, families, agencies, and field information?
How is your church responsibly working to keep the congregation informed about missionaries commissioned from your church, their ministries, lives, and needs both on the field and when they return on home assignment?
To whom can your church’s commissioned missionaries go if they experience failure or a need for counseling? How are you prepared to assist them? How can you best let them know this before the need arises?
How might you work together with your church’s sent missionaries, your congregation, your district, and your missionary’s sending agency to ensure ongoing support, accountability, and encouragement?
The authority of the missionary's sending agency
Sending churches are to serve as a missionary’s primary authority, but missionary sending agencies have largely been developed and entrusted by local churches to help them steward their Great Commission responsibility of making disciples among every ethnicity on earth. With the assistance and blessing of their sending church, upcoming missionaries should begin building a relationship with a fitting sending agency, who will eventually become their employer. In other words, missionaries legally serve under the authority of their employing sending agency. As the employer, the sending agency takes on certain authoritative and legal responsibilities related to finances, human resources, training, and establishing job performance expectations. They also have the responsibility of receipting and appropriating donor support as well as performing annual missionary evaluations. These annual evaluations, at the very least, should be shared with the sending church of the missionary to preserve the trust and purpose for the sending agency in relationship to the sending church. Strengthening the partnership between sending agencies and sending churches takes intentionality, but it will necessarily serve to bring greater support, accountability, and encouragement to missionaries.
If you are the sending church, describe the relationship between your church and your missionary’s sending agency. Regarding that relationship…What is right? What is wrong? What is confusing? What is missing? What are the core issues of this relationship and how might your church begin to address them?
If you are the sending agency, simply apply the same questions to your relationship with the missionary’s sending church.
If you are a denominational sending agency, then apply these same questions to your relationship with the denominational district office with which the sending church and missionary are networked.
The authority of the financial donor
Before being permitted to depart for the mission field, missionaries are required, by their sending agencies, to raise a responsible level of financial support. Please note that financial support discussions should not be the missionary’s first meaningful interaction with their sending church nor with their denominational district. Getting this far in the process is, ideally, a result of those healthy relationships. Just the same, it is easy to understand the authoritative role that donors play in the missionary’s life and ministry. If the support stops, the missionary comes home or becomes bi-vocational. It’s really that simple. The challenge for missionaries is to continually exercise the discipline of simplicity, not creating an unhealthy dependency on material things that could unnecessarily disrupt gospel advancement (Phil. 4:10-13). Missionaries not only ride the waves of their donors’ economic ups and downs but also financial ramifications of pastoral transitions and the ever-changing ministry philosophies of their supporting churches. Donor authority over missionaries requires responsible stewardship. As evidenced through the local churches addressed in Rev. 2-3, I do believe that entire local churches, not just pastors, will be held accountable for their stewardship of the gospel ministry, including their financial relationship and intentional ministry partnership with cross-cultural missionaries.
For Church Donors: Describe how your church’s ministry philosophy serves to encourage or de-emphasize cross-cultural missions. Explain how your church is celebrating or marginalizing your existing missionary partnerships? How are your church’s ministry decisions affecting the support of your missionaries? If they are, then how are you responsibly communicating and making these changes?
For Individual Donors: Knowing that missionaries must intentionally simplify their lives, how are you developing that spiritual discipline in your own life? (A good book to read on this important subject is the The Freedom of Simplicityby Richard Foster).
The authority of international law
Though a missionary may be assigned to a specific field and a specific ministry team, the next authority that they are likely to face are the laws of the host nation. The fact that a missionary must abide by the laws of his/her host nation is perhaps the easiest authority to logically understand, though it may be the most challenging authority for missionaries to endure. Many missionaries wait months for temporary visas that need annually renewed. Expatriates serving abroad often experience specific restrictions on the transference of various licenses or the securing of housing and transportation. Discrimination is openly allowed in many nations, permitting two tiers of local and foreigner pricing and treatment. Laws and customs vary greatly from nation to nation and many of the world’s unengaged and unreached people groups reside in the most legally restrictive nations on earth. The authority of international law is perhaps one of the greatest reasons to place high and even support-connected expectations on missionaries to master the language of their host nation. Without strong language capacities, it is extremely difficult to clearly understand and navigate the laws of the land.
What do you know about the laws where your missionaries are serving? From which key websites or books could people in your church learn about them?
How will you knowledgably pray for and best support your missionaries, considering the legalities of the nation in which they are serving?
The authority of the missionary's team
Did you know that most missionaries who prematurely leave the mission field do so out of missionary team dysfunctions? Field-based missionary teams that work hand in hand, day in and day out, have been compared to marriage relationships. Together, they are likely engaged in a Kingdom effort that will take a lifetime to accomplish. Healthy teams provide the missionary’s greatest day to day accountability. However, apostolic missionaries are often gifted leaders who may not be the best team players. Just the same, missionary teams are typically led by a team-appointed leader, but the dynamics are different than that of a local church staff. First, the team is often comprised of couples and singles who have raised their own financial support. Second, it is unlikely that a good annual review will result in a raise or cost of living adjustment, because the missionary would be left to go and raise that on their own. Third, because everyone has worked so hard to raise their own support, team authority is not primarily positional, but rather relational and influential. Finally, the authority and recruiting power of the team relies on the health of the team’s culture and the strength of the Kingdom vision for which they are giving their lives. It would be very healthy for sending churches to know their commissioned missionary’s team and team leader!
Who is the team leader for your missionary partners? Who else is on their ministry team?
How can you best support and pray for your missionary’s ministry team?
The authority of the national ministry leaders
In an ideal setting, missionaries work fluidly with existing and emerging national leaders at a completely round table. Of course, this usually requires strong language fluency on the part of the missionaries. However, because the employment relationship of missionaries differs from that of national local church leaders, these teams are often separate although collaborative. A missionary’s aim is typically not to re-create American churches or ministries on foreign soils. They are there to make disciples, who make more disciples, who make even more disciples. Eventually the missionary is likely to work his/her way out of a job. Especially when it comes to church planting, missionaries and missionary teams will posture themselves in a servant posture to the national church and national church leaders. In other words, missionaries typically choose to serve under the authority of Gospel-centered national churches, not at all desiring to usurp the authority of these critical leaders. This authority is visible when missionaries and visiting teams recognize and resist ethnocentric tendencies, not imposing their nationality’s ways onto the local ministries and national church leaders. Again, without fluency in language and a deep understanding of cultural landscapes, it is hard for missionaries to authentically be submissive to national leaders. Choosing to submit to the authority of national ministry leaders is one of the most Christ-like attributes of a missionary’s incarnational ministry. In many regards, missionaries set themselves aside, become servants, and do their best to manifest the good news of Christ, within a new culture and language. (John 1:1, 14)
Who are the key national leaders with whom your missionary partners are serving? What is their ministry and what is their influence?
What are the victories and challenges being experienced by national ministry leaders and their churches? How will you pray for them and for your missionary’s relationship with them?
How well have your missionary partners mastered the language(s) of their host nation? How can you best support, encourage, and hold them accountable to language acquisition goals?
Your church's next steps
I trust that understanding and discussing these seven layers of missionary accountability have served to promote healthy attitudes and intentional actions regarding missionaries. I have met many churches that have a significant transactional commitment to missions, allocating between 10% to 35% of their annual budget, but admit that they lack intentionality and direction with their missions’ budget and partnerships. If this is the case in your church, then perhaps it is time get intentional about the stewardship of this responsibility. Having served as a missionary, church planting pastor, outreach pastor, on church and missionary agency executive teams, and as the Converge Heartland District Executive Minister, I feel that I have experienced the many differing perspectives and felt needs regarding missions and outreach. To specifically assist churches in bringing intentionality to their missions and outreach, I have created a MAXIMIZING OUTREACH WORKSHOP, that is available to inquiring churches and their respective leadership teams. This live workshop coupled with a weekend experience that emphasizes the Great Commission priorities of outreach and global missions can serve to catalyze a renewed passion in your congregation for spreading God’s fame among your neighbors and the nations. I think we all desire to see gospel-centered churches, both domestic and foreign, growing primarily with Great Commission-driven conversion growth and so, if you make the call, I will gladly discuss this next step with you. He is worthy!
Jim Capaldo, Regional President
Jim Capaldo is Converge Heartland Regional President.