Jamie the Very Worst Missionary has a knack for the brutally honest. Her recent post Deciphering Missions argues that a lack of accountability in missions results in some missionaries being able to sound spiritual while doing virtually nothing. In her experience,
Every innocuous coffee date with a friend [turned] into ‘discipleship time’. Hours spent circling Facebook were important to ‘support development’ and everyday interactions with grocery store clerks and bank tellers suddenly became meaningful when referred to as ‘intentional relationships’.
Now, this problem isn’t unique to missions — lots of vocational ministry is self-directed, with the potential to sound holy while slacking off. Nor is this a problem which is true of all missionaries or mission organisations (and Jamie’s writing into an American context where missions is something of an industry).
It’s a good thing to have greater transparency in missions and more involvement on the part of supporters. But what exactly is a missionary supposed to be held accountable to? Here are two complexities of missionary ‘work’ and some suggestions.
1. Functional service needs functional people
Oh, and the things your supporters do in their time off (like running, or taking classes, or hanging out with their kids) are things you get to claim, according to Missionary Code, as work.
Jamie’s absolutely right on one hand. Exercise, personal development and family life are all ‘work’ for us, and they’re all things that our organisation asks us about and checks up on. But that’s because there is no such thing as ‘time off’ for us. Please don’t worry about us – we’re fine! But we don’t eat, sleep, shop, speak, dress, wash, interact with one another, watch TV, cook, parent or exercise like we would in Australia. Even things we do to rest carry a sense of foreignness and extra stress. That’s part of what it means to live cross-culturally, especially in the early years. It means that burn-out is an ever-present danger for missionaries.
Yet, a missionary’s wellbeing goes hand in hand with their long-term stickability and effectiveness on location. That means that part of a missionary’s ‘work’ is to care for themselves. And supporters ought to hold missionaries accountable to that, not just as a way of loving them, but also because (under God) the long-term investment depends on the functionality of the missionary.
2. Relational ministry needs relational people
The problem with missionary work is that it’s about people, and people come in the package of a culture, a language and relationships. It’s not that different from any other ministry, except that in the case of missionary work, the culture is distant, the language foreign and relationships built differently. That means it takes time — lots of time — to get to a point of even basic functionality, and then it takes even more time to reach some sort of proficiency, and even longer to get down deep enough to have some idea that, maybe, you might be making a lasting impact.
Jamie has rightly highlighted the danger for missionaries to slack off; its counterpart is the tendency to jump in too early in an effort to be productive and do something concrete. Biding your time is an important discipline for missionaries, one that is counter-intuitive for activists who ‘want to make a difference’. Sometimes you can only serve a people when you know them, not just on the surface, but in deep ways that only come from being, listening and not-doing.
It’s one thing to want to serve people; it’s another entirely for them to invite you into their lives. It’s one thing to see yourself as a servant; it’s another to be known as one by others. While western culture is concerned with KPIs and being able to quantify our work, other cultures view this with suspicion, and put value on being, on time and on relationships. These might sound vague to western ears and there’s no way you can measure them, but they’re vital for understanding, friendship and community, all of which are essential for sustainable ministry.
Jamie’s call is not to neglect self-care, nor is it to privilege doing over being. She’s calling for transparency and clarity so that the right people do what they’re called to. Our organisation already has excellent structures in place for these, but if you’re interested in how to hold us accountable here are some suggestions of things to ask.
- What’s on your mind at the moment?
- What is energising you at the moment?
- What needs patience at the moment?
- What relationships are you working on?
- What changes have you noticed in yourself?
- What’s the next stage for you guys?
- What can I pray for?
And when we give you answers to these things, if we slip into ‘Missionary Code’ language, ask us for a practical or concrete example!
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.