I recently read an article about a public works official in India who was fired after not coming into work for twenty-four years,
Shri A.K. Verma, an executive engineer with India’s Central Public Works Department (CPWD), took an earned leave in December 1990 and never came back to work.
Now, after 24 years and one month, he has been fired by the CPWD “for unauthorized absence from duty.”
Verma sought extensions of his initial leave, but they were not granted; however, he still refused to come to work. In 1992, an inquiry was launched against him; in 2007, charges were brought against him by the then-minister of urban development.
Yet he was still not terminated — until now.
Sometimes our beloved missionaries live at the expense of generous benefactors and sponsors, but don’t really do much on the field.
I say that carefully, as on a few occasions over the years, especially the early years of living on the field I felt as though I was doing nothing of significance. But that’s not what I’m talking about when I ask you if you know what your missionaries are doing abroad.
I’ve heard a few reports about the lifestyles of missionaries both here in Peru and elsewhere in the world that has made my blood boil. In a few rare cases I’ve looked at the content of their social media profile and wonder if they’re even saved. I’m talking about the kinds of things making me wonder what missions agency with any integrity or credibility actually thought it was OK to send these individuals out, or allow them to go?
Missionary Or Glorified Tourist?
On one occasion when I first moved here to Peru, I became aware of a few couples who didn’t seem to really do anything other than seemingly attend conferences all the time. As I mentioned before in a previous post
While it is true that one doesn’t need to go abroad to fulfill the Great Commission, it conversely doesn’t mean that just because you’ve gone to another culture that you are necessarily advancing the Gospel, either.
Now, most people in the sending countries might not realize or take into consideration that in the first year or two, depending on the culture, a missionary is usually spending much more time learning the language and culture than they will be in later years. So it’s to be expected that they might not appear to be too “fruitful” yet. They could be busy doing non-glamorous things and laying a foundation they will build on in the years to come.
But eventually that should change, eh?
When I first went out in 2006 originally to The Netherlands, I was part of a US-based missions organization called FIRE International that mostly only allowed graduates from their sister Bible school to head overseas. I’ve since been told it’s not that they only send FIRE School of Ministry graduates, but they really seek to actually know who they’re sending abroad, as the missionary not only represents Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God, and their home sending church, but also their missions covering organization. As such, I would commend F.I. for the thorough job they do vetting their missionaries and doing their best to make sure people who go overseas to plant churches or spread the kingdom of God aren’t living in outright sin themselves, or sympathetic to some heretical doctrines they’re going to intentionally or inadvertently spread.
At the same time as I went out with F.I., I was also under Calvary International Canada, of whom the pastor of our Canadian home church is currently the national director. We are required to fill out quarterly reports that document the types of things we’ve been doing and what I’ve been focused on. On some occasions the reports have been very detailed, in other seasons they were more general. F.I. likewise required monthly documentation of donations spent, and maybe they still do. There are many organizations out there who are careful and hold to high standards.
Anyway, I remember conversing with the original director of C.I.C. at the time, Harold Collins and he told me “Steve, we had to come up with some kind of report for accountability because we had missionaries who were basically just living abroad on support and were not actually doing anything.“
I always assumed that nobody would waste their money supporting me if I wasn’t actually doing anything, but that’s just the fruit of how my mommy and daddy raised me. In fact, my main motive for writing newsletters for a number of years was a way of making sure people could know what I’ve been doing lately because of the fear that if my supporters didn’t know what I was doing they might stop supporting me. But apparently there are people who can get away with this for a long time.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Would you like to find out whoever you’re sacrificially supporting actually plays video games all day every day, or for other reasons of misused time does very little to advance the Gospel of the Kingdom?
Now, lest you think I’m being harsh, think of whatever missionary you’re supporting or that your church partners with, and trust me, they personally know of AT LEAST one Christian living abroad who is doing absolute zilch but has hoodwinked enough people in their sending country to finance them as a “missionary” in their host nation.
Sin Unbecoming of Christians, Let Alone Leaders
But let’s not just talk about laziness or lack of activity. As I’ve lived in Peru for nearly six years as a missionary myself, and having spent a full year-and-a-half in The Netherlands, I have met and come across several people whose behavior and lifestyles left me speechless as not only unbecoming of a Christian (*cough cough*, sin, *cough cough*), but absolutely unacceptable for leaders to live in. I’ve seen and heard stuff that if these individuals were in their home countries, I’m certain they’d be booted from the ministry or never have been installed as leaders in the first place.
Perhaps because they’re off in some other country halfway around the world, maybe in a third world nation where fewer pastors are educated or the bar of expectations is set much lower, few people back home are even aware it happens. Whether it be frequent and regular drunkenness or having a reputation among the locals of being physically violent (and having earned that reputation!), pregnancy out of wedlock, or the more subtle exaggerated claims in their newsletters and social media accounts.
I can’t keep track of how many times I’ve read newsletters or seen Facebook posts in the past with short-term teams or long-termers and I resisted the urge to comment on something I was physically present for as not having happened the way the writer portrayed it!
From time to time over the years I’ve been surprised to hear of some expats that they were Christian missionaries when I’d never guess it! And yet some missions board or local church saw NO problem sending such individual overseas. I don’t know how it happens, but it does.
Thankfully, other missionaries and high-profile bloggers have been speaking out publicly about this problem.
Sean DeMars, a Presbyterian missionary to Loreto, Peru wrote in his post Do You Know What Your Missionaries Actually Teach?
And here you are, Deacon of Missions, and you’ve just agreed to sponsor missionary “X.” Have you talked with him about where he stands doctrinally? Does he believe the prosperity gospel? Is he sympathetic to it? Is he able to rightly divide the word of truth? Is he one approved by a local church that really believes in 2 Timothy 2:15? This person is about to travel the world to make a disciple. Do you know if that’s going to be a good thing, or something to be mourned (Matt 23:15)?
This guy has a great slideshow presentation, a firm handshake, and he can hold the room like a professional. You decide to help him get to the jungles of Peru. As soon as his boots hit the ground he’s doing a whole bunch of stuff that will look great in his newsletters. Toys for the kids. A new short-term missions team is coming down every month. Buildings are being built, Bibles are being given away, and the slide show reel is growing every day.
Oh, by the way, he’s preaching a false gospel. He’s hurting people eternally. He’s doing all kinds of cool, fun, and really Christian stuff for the few hundred people living in this village. But he’s hurting them. In eternal perspective, he is guiding them along the path to nothing but pain and sadness. And he’s able to do it because you send him a big fat check every month. You’re responsible.
This isn’t hypothetical. I’ve seen it. In my short time here in the jungles of Peru, I have seen case after case of “Who told this guy he could be a missionary?” I’ve seen the people hurt. I’ve seen the churches hurt. I’ve seen the smiles turn to frowns and the tears of joy turn into tears of pain. I’ve had to rebuke and fight to crowd out the false gospel with the true and beautiful one. I never imagined that our team’s greatest struggle would be fighting to undo all the damage done by other missionaries.
Granted, Sean might have some differences with me if he were to read my healing or tongues books, and disagree with me on other finer points of doctrine, but I think overall we’re in more agreement than disagreement, especially on how not just anybody or everybody should be allowed to go on mission. There needs to be much stronger accountability. I’ve seen some of the same struggles he describes here.
Weeding Out The NonCalled (or is it UnCalled?)
Jamie the Very Worst Missionary hit the ball out of the park with her post from a few months ago, Choose Well, Invest Wisely (Reimagining Short-Term Missions) in which she says,
I haven’t quite figured out why we’re so afraid to tell people “no” when it comes to missions. We have no problem choosing our leaders and representatives in other areas of the Church, but in missions we’ll take pretty much anybody who can raise their own hand and their own support, pat them on the back, put them on a plane, and call them “Called”.
Isn’t that kind of… I don’t know… weird? …Seriously. Isn’t it?
I hate to break it to you, but it’s kind of the Church’s job to appoint and direct leaders and missionaries, like, it’s in the Bible.
The apostles chose.
The disciples chose.
And we choose all the time.
But… We already do this all the time. Most of us don’t go to churches who let anybody who feels like it get up and preach on Sunday morning. We don’t let the first guy to jump on stage with a tambourine lead us in worship. We don’t let every volunteer who walks through the door feeling “called” hold our babies on their lap, or – God forbid -count our money! We are constantly making decisions about who should do what within the framework of the church, but we balk at the idea of choosing our missionaries.
Jesus appointed those he sent. And I think maybe He did that on purpose.
The sad reality is that there is a “filter” (at least that’s what I’m calling it for now until I think of a better analogy) that works and sometimes doesn’t when it comes to who gets to go. What is the filter? Money, and who can do a better job raising it. It’s unfortunate, but it’s true.
Hear me out: I believe the local church is responsible for sending, and if they don’t properly vet those who want to go and have them meet key criteria, like did God really call you? Does your life produce fruit that we can point to HERE in your own local church and city? Then if responsible leadership find that the person purporting to be “called” can’t answer simple questions like these in a discernibly satisfactory manner, before answering what they will do abroad, then it’s the local church’s responsibility to suggest either further discipleship or in some cases outright discipline before the candidates are able to be re-evaluated at a further point down the road.
There are some missionaries who have never borne fruit in their home country. What makes us think they’ll be able to do it cross-culturally? But if you send people you can trust – people who are called with proven fruitfulness – then you don’t need to double-check their fruit as urgently as if you just indiscriminately let anybody go who feels called.
Therefore, the local church should NOT resist saying no to someone they don’t feel should go. Then, alongside the local church, mission organizations ideally should work alongside the local church and should also have mechanisms in place to prevent the “uncalled” from going.There are some missionaries who have never borne fruit in their home country. What makes us think they'll be able to do it cross-culturally? Click To Tweet
Sometimes The Filter Doesn’t Work
Back to this filter I mentioned.
Raising one’s own funds serves as a way of thinning the herd of people who are truly able to persevere and get fully-funded and on to the field. Having to raise one’s own support is a daunting task for most (says this missionary to Peru who lives bi-vocationally on support AND tent-making combined). I believe support-raising can weed out the serious and motivated from the ones for whom the mission is a pipe dream or just a romantic notion.
Likewise, competence doesn’t equal character, nor vice versa.
This isn’t a perfect filter or preventative measure either, as some people truly are called to go but might not ever get there because they are unable to raise their support, and give up before reaching 100% of their goal. While others have some kind of windfall of money — I know more than one person/family who was funded entirely for their first year or two using a workers’ compensation settlement or an inheritance — and they go because in a sense, what can stop them if they have the funds needed? The same goes for tent-making.
Likewise, just because you have a way of being self-sustaining (which I’m more for than I am against, says this freelance writer and web builder), doesn’t justify you being sent out there.
A few years ago I championed how wonderful it is if and when missionaries can be self-sufficient. But when I meet people who say to me “I don’t need a church to send me out, I can finance myself!“, unfortunately, more often than not, it has been those individuals in the long run who have produced red flags and bad fruit in their lack of accountability to anybody. And if I’m honest with myself, reflecting on this is what motivates me to write a post like this.
So, I’m getting both introspective about how I use my time and what spiritual fruit I’m producing, and processing that in this public challenge since many people don’t truly know some of the things that happen on the mission field.We need to work out some changes in the way we send, and the way we fund those sent. Click To Tweet
How Can We Be More Accountable?
I know this post is longer than most of my articles and I thank you for making it this far! We’re done talking about just the problem and now I hope to provide a few solutions.
Jamie, The Very Worst Missionary says it best in another one of her articles I’ve always appreciated, Deciphering Missions,
A lot of missionaries are self-motivated, innovative, disciplined, and hard-working – but, too many others are passing off purposeless days overseas as necessary and beneficial to the Kingdom of God. If you support a mission or missionaries, you have a right and a responsibility to know if they’re actually engaging with the community in ways that make sense and reflect a heart for God’s mission. You should know what they do, and why, and you should be able to get a pretty clear understanding of how they do it.
Not that these tips are all-inclusive but below are some tips for how to make sure you know what’s going on with your missionaries, and in some cases prevent the burnout and attacks of the enemy from successfully “eating the missionary’s lunch” on the field.
1) Before, they go, ask them serious questions
This is more for a missions board or board of deacons or any other type of leadership that may be responsible for sending out missionaries from your context.
This link from Training Leaders International has some good questions like the following:
- What is your understanding of the gospel message that is necessary for salvation?
- Describe your biblical foundation for missions.
- How have you prepared for this ministry that you are called to?
- If for some reason you are not able to go to the mission field, what kinds of jobs are you qualified to do here?
- What are your core theological values?
- Are you willing to spend the first year focused on language school?
If the would-be missionary sweats worse than President Obama does when a teleprompter malfunctions, then you might need to re-evaluate if this candidate should truly be sent out by your organization or church
2) If they are already on the field, ask them what they do on a regular basis
This one may seem obvious like “duh!” But seriously, actually go ahead and ask them. If the field worker has nothing to hide, they’ll be able to answer you. If they are struggling in some way they may feel like putting on a face and telling you everything is fine out of fear you might be looking for an excuse to stop supporting them, and they may resist. But if you have invested relational capital in them, they may (and should) feel free to share their struggles. From here you can pray with them and for them, as well as offer them other types of help.
Here’s a great list of ways you can pray for missionaries.
3) Ask those they serve with/under
I’m not trying to use only my ministry in Oikos here as the template all must follow, but I admit it is my point of reference. Lili and I are blessed to not be lone mavericks down here doing our own thing. We are a part of a community of gringos and local Peruvians. In fact only one marriage in our leadership ISN’T an intercultural one. We meet weekly as a leadership team, and all of us are in some form of accountability partnerships, and it’s hard to become or feel isolated.
One great way to get a perspective on how the missionary is doing or what they’re doing, is to ask someone who is close to them on the field or if they are under some kind of leadership in an organization, just what THEY think of the person in question and the ministry they are doing.
- Are they producing fruit?
- Are they busy with things that don’t produce eternal fruit?
- Do they have a good testimony among the locals?
I once heard of a man who came down here to Peru to visit a missionary his home church supported, and he asked a few of the missionary’s neighbors if they knew who he was. I don’t necessarily know if asking the people who live near you is always warranted, like if you live in a closed country and your Gospel mission’s discreetness is a life and death issue, but still, if you can ask people in the host country, you can learn a lot!
4) If you don’t have the relationship with them to ask directly, build it or at least offer to
While a missionary can’t have a relationship of intimate accountability with all of his supporters, especially if they have many, someone has to hold us accountable for the details of our lives and our work.
That being said, different missionaries work differently, and different mission organizations have different protocols. We keep in habit of Skyping with as many of our partners as possible on a regular basis, as well as writing back and forth between the ones who find such communication mutually beneficial.
When we have developed new ministry partners in the last year who discovered us through our podcast or this blog, we’ve sought to build a long-distance relationship with them as well. My wife Lili and I welcome and encourage relationship with us when people we previously didn’t know well start to support us or send us special gifts. As such, we now feel much better positioned to not be isolated or feeling too lonely down here.
Which leads me to something else I saw in the comments section of Jamie’s blog: a missionary who confessed the reason she and her husband came off the field from Asia after a number of years was not that their ministry was bad, or that they were in sin or even that they lacked finances. Instead, they were lonely, discouraged and worn out and didn’t feel they had any relational capital coming from back home, just financial backing.
Large missions organizations can’t and shouldn’t necessarily be responsible to provide this. But you, the friend, the partner should. E-mail your missionary. For example, Lili and I love it when people respond to our newsletters and tell us what is going on with them in their lives.Have you emailed or Skyped or Zoomed with your missionary lately? Click To Tweet
Write an e-mail asking if you could Skype or video chat with your missionary sometime soon. I know from experience this goes a long way!
5) Don’t assume you’re just one of many people supporting your missionary
You may feel you’re just one of many people, and someone else surely has spoken to or will be dealing with the missionary or praying with them or forming accountability. But you may be surprised when you find out that it’s not the case. In fact, even if you sponsor a missionary with an amount of support that you feel is small, don’t let that deter you.
As I mentioned in my often-misunderstood blog post, Are Short-Term Missions a Waste of Money, sometimes relational capital is much more important than financial support. I send “partner reports” to people who’ve never sent us a dime but who wage war on their knees for us in prayer.
If appropriate, don’t hesitate to invest some relational investment in your missionary. Your probing questions might be the answer to their prayers against an attack from the enemy or personal struggle they’re seeking victory in. I’ve opened my inbox many a time over the years after a tearful prayer session of frustration or discouragement only to find a TIMELY word of encouragement that just happened to be what I needed at that very moment.
Listen to that still small voice that tells you to write or contact the missionary with something you might feel is not that big of a deal. Trust me!
6) Give them space to share failures, disappointments and struggles
One of the unintended outcomes of the missionary call is that in many ways we’ve elevated the missionary to superstar status and hold them (generally speaking) to such high standards. It’s for this reason many things can happen, the least of which is they feel they have nobody to share struggles with because they’re supposed to “have it all together”. After all, they’re a missionary! Or the fear that if supporters and partners back home see them with all their warts, they’ll stop financing them and the ministry may have to be terminated if it is not funded.
Another very real temptation missionaries face is to exaggerate reports or keep trying to impress you from afar so that their financial support doesn’t dry up. It’s for this reason some missionaries have claimed more healings, conversions, church plants and other testimonies than have truly happened. I know of a case where the same church has been “planted” repeatedly!
What other tips or insights do you have?
This post became much longer than I intended it to, but I didn’t want to split these ideas up into a series. I feel there are many solutions we can offer for accountability and preventing the “uncalled” from going, and the called from failing.
Leave your thoughts below or share this on social media to get the conversation going. If you use one of the social media comment forms below, please tag me by name so I will be notified there was a comment. I would love to learn more ways we can deal with the things brought up in today’s post.
Blessings and fire on your head!