How God called me as a missionary

Thom Schotanus

Converge Africa Impact Team

  • Missions

I was in trouble a lot as a child. I always struggled when I asked my parents why I had to do a particular thing or had to go to a particular place when maybe I had other plans or felt it was otherwise inconvenient. They would occasionally answer my question with “because I said so.” I never for a minute doubted my parents’ love for their children or their wanting what was best for us, but I guess it was just because of the way God wired me that I found it difficult to do things without having an apparent reason. I had to know the why of everything. 

     It was a bit of a shock to me when God called my wife and me to serve Him in Cameroon as missionaries. I had been self-employed as a building contractor, my wife had her own house cleaning business, and we both enjoyed our work. I was teaching the high school Sunday school class at our home church, my wife was teaching a children’s class, and we were both working with the high school youth group with another couple. We were very busy, and yet I felt a real pressure that my life priorities were out of order. 

    All this came to a head one week prior to a missions conference at our home church. The frustration I was feeling with the lack of time to give to important things and the seemingly confused priorities in my life ended in a small argument with my wife one evening. I believed that the priorities should have been God first, my wife second, and my business third, but the business kept pushing itself into first place! This led me to pray and ask God what He wanted me to be doing with my life and through a series of events and conversations, I received a clear answer to that prayer.  

     It wasn’t an answer that I expected, even though I cannot say I had expected a clear answer, but if I had, being missionaries probably wouldn’t have been on the list. 

     I was asked in 2001 to work with as the Advisor to the Technical Services Department of the Cameroon Baptist Convention Health Board, the medical wing of the denomination. Ellen was going to be working with hospitality at Mbingo Baptist Hospital where we would be living. We were involved in those jobs, but the first three years provided us with opportunities that we never expected and were way outside those original job descriptions. In addition to the positions we were originally assigned, we also had a chance to help start a couple of churches, and my wife started teaching some children to read, which led to her starting a primary school on the hospital compound.  

     I had the privilege of teaching Sunday school for a few years in one of the local churches that we helped start and following a study we did on the book of James; I challenged the church to think of a project we could do to meet a need in the village. It was through this challenge that I learned how to design and build gravity flow water systems. That project inspired a sideline ministry as clean water was a huge problem for much of the country.  

    Moving down this path began to generate the “why" questions in my mind about the state of development in Cameroon and in West Africa. Why does a country like Cameroon, that is rich in natural and human resources, still lack basic services like reliable electricity and clean water in the vast majority of cases?  Even in the major towns and cities that have pipe-borne water, the water is unfit to drink due to exposure to potential sources of contamination, in some cases, dirt flows from taps along with the water. I was in the capital city for a meeting once and had to bathe in reddish-orange water coming from the public water supply, the same color as the region’s clay soil. 

    I want to clarify that the impetus of our work as missionaries wasn’t focused on development or education or the construction and maintenance of medical facilities; it was on the Great Commission, the making and teaching of disciples of Jesus. Growing God’s kingdom was why churches and individuals were supporting us financially and in prayer. It wasn’t just about my wife teaching children how to read or my assisting with building facilities where people would receive medical help or providing clean drinking water to help reduce waterborne illnesses. It was our goal, however, to use these activities to provide open doors to the Gospel by showing love for people and concern for their felt and very real physical needs. 

     As time went on, more questions began to occur to me regarding the lack of development despite the abundant available resources. I was especially wondering why sustainable change was not happening even after the trillions upon trillions of dollars in aid money that had been poured into countless development projects in Sub-Saharan Africa. An answer began to develop in my mind. 

    A colleague recommended a book to me early on: When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor ... and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. One of this book’s main points is that we should help people become the people God created them to be. We can rob people of the opportunities to be the salt, light, and witnesses for Jesus that He has called them to be in a broken world by giving them things or doing things for them that they could and should be doing for themselves.  

     I read many other books over the next few years that began to assemble a picture in my mind that showed an unquestionable link between the lack of development in Sub-Saharan Africa and its society’s moral culture. This link is true in every nation and society on earth; therefore, this correlation is also relevant everywhere else in the world. God began to use these books and their expertise, together with our experience on the ground and the relationships we had developed to help reshape our ministry philosophy. 

    The writing of each of these authors to shin a different light into a different corner that has added to a deeper understanding of a problem. Each one highlights a different piece of the puzzle that most people and churches want to help solve but that I believe have for many, been missing the target. The lack of development in many places has been something that many people have been interested in for years. Love, concern, and a desire to help alleviate the challenges many people face has been the foundation of many missions’ trips, the end goal of countless NGO projects, and huge amounts of money contributed by governments.  

     During the course of my work with the Health Board, I had lots of interaction with businesspeople and government officials, many of whom became my friends. And money of these people also professed Jesus as their Lord and Savior. However, in the course of my work I discovered that there is corruption at every level of these institutions which is being carried out by many who also sit in pews or benches in churches on Sunday mornings. And for those who did want to be honest and live out their faith in their jobs and in the public square, they found the resistance difficult to push back against. 

    Through several experiences in the legal and justice systems, we discovered corruption existed everywhere where instead, we would have hoped to find relief and protection for those victimized by a corrupt system. 

     As time went on, we learned much about African culture and cultural values. We learned that many cultural values were not godly in nature, and as such were actually detrimental to the business, economic, and political systems that would be conducive to the development of the country and an increased quality of life for the people. It became clear over time, that many of the people who were in positions of greater influence in these various institutions may be church members or attenders, but were not experiencing the transformation of their hearts and minds. The values that inspired ungodly behavior and held back development were not being adjusted by God’s word.   

     We began to understand that development can’t be given to people, and it can’t be bought, because it is a product of values, values that reflect (or don’t reflect) godliness. The hearts and minds of people, that if they were being transformed by God’s Word would help bring about the development that so many people want to see happen. Most importantly, that transformation can help the local church grow stronger and increase in number to become a powerful force in the hands of God to build His kingdom and reach the uttermost parts of the earth. 

     I began talking with many people that I met in these positions and many of them were indeed goldy men and women, but had never given much thought into the connection between behavior and development. One man in particular, a person Ellen and I had met in the Southwest Region of Cameroon was a very prominent businessman and knew many people, including the president of Cameroon. We became close friends and whenever we were down in the port city of Douala, we would get together with him and his wife.  

     On one trip I had made by myself, he and I had dinner together and talked a lot about the connection between corruption and development. During the course of conversation, I threw out the idea of starting an organization, with Christians in positions of influence, who would be willing to join together to support each other and push back against corruption and promote integrity in the public square. He looked at me with a smile and said “Thom, God must be in this because I have had the same thought myself!” 

     A lot of time and energy has been poured into theological teaching of pastors and church leaders in general, but we began to see that the lay sector, the majority of the church has been neglected at the level of being able to put into practice, the values of their faith in the workplace. There are many reasons for this that over the years have created what is referred to today as the sacred/secular divide. 

    We have been working on materials and working with individuals in Cameroon and even in Liberia to see how we can begin to bridge that divide in an effort to create what we call “whole life disciples”. 

    One of the authors that has been a great inspiration to me and a mentor as well, Dr. Bob Osburn Jr., has written a new book entitled “Developing Redemptive Change Agents”, a term I like a lot. We currently have a group in Cameroon who are in the process of legally registering their group “Integrity Group Cameroon”. This small group, the “founding members”, include a pastor, a dear friend of ours, a lawyer, and a government delegate got together in mid-July to begin developing a draft for their constitution. There are several others who are ready to join, but I have been interacting with these three for several months and they are rock solid in their faith and understanding of the objective. The two lay people are also heavily involved in teaching in their home church and came to me highly recommended by another pastor friend of ours.  

   The objective here is twofold, the primary objective is to strengthen the church in the most populous sector, the laity. It is also the sector where godliness will have the greatest impact outside the church. Everyone expects to hear about godliness, honesty, and trustworthiness from pastors, but when it comes from people who could benefit substantially from their positions in the workplace, that will raise eyebrows!  

       Standing firm against corruption, a very lucrative opportunity for many, will bring about plenty of pushback.  Here Peter, in 1 Peter 3:13 – 17, offers some encouragement and a challenge. “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?  But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled,  but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,  having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.  For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil”.  

      One of the ideas we have been focusing on is the phrase in this passage that says to be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is in you – why do you behave the way do?  In a culture where corruption is known to be wrong, yet expected, behavior inspired by godly behavior is rare and usually subdued.  

   There are many great churches, pastors, and believers in Africa, but the pews are still full of people who see themselves as limited in potential. We hope to see that change. Cameroon has lots of least and unreached peoples as well and the Integrity Group is hoping that the unfortunate testimony of the church that some have seen will change, and opportunities for evangelism and discipleship will be had.  

    In early 2020 I made a trip to Liberia with John and Karen Ames. John is the leader of the Converge Africa Impact Team to which we belong. While there I had the opportunity to speak with a group of about 80 deacons from several churches who were attending the annual gathering of the Liberian Evangelical Baptist Convention. I gave four interactive presentations on values, Integrity, spiritual capital, and trust. The response was excellent and the comment from one of the attendee’s who said, “this actually gives us hope” was inspiring for me. I was asked by the denominational head to work with him to develop a curriculum for young people in the church. This will be focused on encouraging them to consider careers in business and politics with the expressed end goal of being their ministry. 

    Other opportunities may be opening up in Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Kenya. It is interesting as we look back 21 years to see how God used two ordinary business people from the US in ways we never would have dreamed! 


Thom Schotanus, Converge Africa Impact Team

Thom and his wife have served as missionaries with Converge for the past twenty years. Eighteen of those years they served in Cameroon. The author worked primarily as the Technical Advisor for The Cameroon Baptist Convention Health Board. During the first few years in Cameroon, they were involved in local churches in areas of teaching, evangelism, and discipleship. These provided opportunities for the author’s technical skills to be put to use in the area of community development both is designing and overseeing clean water projects for many villages and towns. His wife began teaching reading and English to hospital staff children, which led to her being a catalyst for the starting of a primary school on the property of the hospital where they lived.

Additional articles by Thom Schotanus