Yesterday, after a coaching call with a young church planter in the South Pacific contemplating life back in the States, I posed the following question on social media: “Why will elders trust 25-35-year-old people to plant and lead churches all over the globe, but won’t trust them to lead a ministry in the U.S.?”
I am constantly amazed at how willing elders can be to entrust naïve young couples with little life experience and less ministry experience with the entire responsibility to relocate to another country and culture, where they don’t even know the language, and expect them to plant and lead a church with no on-field supervision.
Yet these same elders then micromanage their own ministers in their local church and treat them like they don’t have good sense, even when they are older and more experienced, and are surrounded by helpers and direct oversight. It’s truly stunning if you think about it. While it was a hipshot question, it generated some interesting reactions and got me to thinking about church systems more deeply.
One female missionary replied, “Because international ministry is considered ‘second string’ at best!”
I hear the regrettable pain of neglect and perceived disrespect so common in the experience of missionaries behind that answer, but it doesn’t add up for me. Don’t we typically trust our first string more? Isn’t that why they are first string? Nice try, but I’m not buying that answer regardless of what it says about the emotional experiences of international workers.
Another fellow commented, “In missions they are ‘young and courageous’; stateside they are ‘young and immature.’ ”
I think there is some truth here. It is common for missionaries to benefit from a halo effect which can protect them from close scrutiny by their overseeing churches. Who wants to be seen poking holes in the character of people willing to leave home, family, culture, comfort and language to convert those who have never heard of Jesus? OK, there are a few, but not many. While this doesn’t necessarily translate to deep care and support, it does mean young cross-cultural workers often are given more benefit of the doubt.
Here is my quick diagnosis of what is behind the dichotomy. Let me first say I don’t buy any explanation which engages in broad-brush elder bashing. Elders, or deacons in some polities, are not bad people or unfair by nature. Rather, the issues are systemic in nature. Let elders trade places with missionaries/ministers and the result would likely be the same.
Absence Makes the Heart Grow Negligent
Elders see what their local ministers do and don’t do. They can see ill-advised strategies developing and want to prevent the likely crash. They hear the grumbles of the unhappy firsthand. That is just not the case with international workers. They labor far from view and beyond direct control of their overseeing eldership. Most, if not all, of the information that makes it back to their overseeing church is in their control.
Elders can go weeks or months without ever thinking about their missionaries. They are not in a position to advise, second guess or say, “I told you so,” because the information they get is typically filtered through a spin machine and well after the fact. Even when elders visit missionaries on the field, they can’t usually speak the language and don’t have enough relationship with the people on the ground to get unvarnished opinions.
Missionaries may hate the sense of abandonment and lack of regular encouragement from the overseeing congregations, but they also enjoy a freedom for operations and from criticism that domestic workers can only dream of having.