A perfect illustration of “out of sight, out of mind” is that of the missionary serving overseas. We have heard this refrain many times in our conversations with missionaries in our church’s care ministry. The Cambridge Dictionary describes it this way: “not able to be seen, and so not thought about. Problems in remote places can be out of sight, out of mind for many people.”
Photo by IMB.org
Although connection may be one of their biggest desires, it is also one of their biggest challenges. A missionary’s support network usually consists of their family, friends, and church community. These are the people who know and love them and understand their purpose and work. They are key to their well-being on the field.
Paul expressed this same sentiment in his letter to the Philippians when he mentioned being “fully supplied” (Philippians 4:18 HCSB hereafter) and joy in his renewed care (Philippians 4:10). In this way, the dynamics of missionary work have remained the same over the centuries. So church, as much as it depends on us, as we send we must also support, and support means staying connected. Here are three key elements to consider in staying well connected to your missionaries.
Your missionary should hear from you on a regular basis. With today’s myriad of communication apps, this is easily done. There is no better encouragement (perhaps outside an actual visit) for a missionary than to receive consistent communication from their support network. Regular contact allows you to get to know your missionary really well, and it provides a level of personal security for them to be vulnerable and share needs.
Make it your goal to be so consistent in your communications that your missionary can echo the words of Paul: “I give thanks to my God for every remembrance of you, always praying with joy for all of you in my every prayer, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Philippians 1:3–5). That is the sign of an excellent partnership.
Paul had a reciprocal relationship with the Philippian church that he highly valued, made evident when he said, “because I have you in my heart, and you are all partners with me in grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and establishment of the gospel” (Philippians 1:7).
This kind of relationship between the church and their missionaries can be a challenge, but there are practical, effective ways to make it happen. The following ways are taken in part from Mind the Gaps: Engaging the Church in Missionary Care by David Wilson.
Church-wide prayer gatherings
With your missionary’s permission, include photos, profiles, copies of newsletters, and specific requests from your missionaries and their teams in the field.
Short-term mission trips
Go where your missionary is serving. “As you might imagine, this is where people really discover the real stories from the life of the missionaries and their ministries. When you’re eating, traveling and serving together, it is a great partnership and time of bonding” (Kindle loc. 1471–1474).
Care team field visits
These teams can be incorporated into short-term trips, or they can be separate ventures. “A field visit goes a long way to connect your hearts and build trusting relationships that show them how important they are to us. The visit opens up vistas into the challenges these tough soldiers are facing day to day for our Lord and we see it as critical to bridge the understanding and compassion gaps that can so easily exist with the miles, time, and differences in a foreign country” (Kindle loc. 1353–1354).
Have returned missionaries recognized in the worship services. In whatever way you can, make their presence known by putting together faces and names. This will bring them closer to the church community.
Care retreats and conferences
This is an excellent opportunity for your missionaries to return home for a time of connection with the congregation and for rest and restoration. Involve the church community in planning and providing for this special time.
Incorporate your small groups, Sunday school classes, youth groups, etc. Have them consider adopting a missionary. Their efforts do not have to be burdensome. Here are a few things any group can do.
Prayers: set aside time for praying for them and their needs each time you meet.
Photos: send one of your group.
Phone calls and packages: Know their birthdays and anniversaries, send Christmas cards and care packages. Read and reply to their newsletters. Let them know you have sincerely interacted with their lives through the experiences they’ve shared with you.
Preparations: if they are returning home for any reason, find out what they need. A welcome basket is always uplifting during this difficult transition period.
Participation: include them in your group time (Skype or in person).
Churches are usually well-equipped for meeting needs. Examples are access to counseling, housing, transportation, perhaps even a fitness facility. Appeal to the congregation for any professional skills missionaries may need like tax or legal advice.
Above all, caring through connection means a support network that is a safe place. This requires you to be careful. Many global workers serve in sensitive areas where communication may be monitored. When you have the opportunity, ask your workers the following:
What is their preferred method of communication?
What is the best time for communication with them?
What words should you use or not use so you do not inadvertently put them at risk?
Being a safe place also means a support network that is trustworthy, a place where your worker can be known and accepted. Look to Paul’s letter to the Galatians for how important it is for us to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:1–5). There should be a few people in the missionary’s circle of support who share a strong, trusting relationship with them. This is so that issues related to emotional and spiritual health can be discussed in confidence and additional help on a more professional level can be pursued if there is a need.
Finally, consider holding an information session for anyone who is part of the support network for your missionary community. Training is key for a good missionary care ministry. Use this time to cover the three Cs of caring through connection.
“I am sure of this, that he who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Shirley Ralston, MA Christian Education, Dallas Theological Seminary, is a founding member of the missionary care team at Houston’s First Baptist Church. She also serves on the pastor’s research team and teaches a Bible study to single young adults. Shirley and her husband, Jeff, now reside in Houston after several years living overseas. This article first appeared on the International Mission Board’s website, imb.org.)