The Great Commission is the Lord’s calling for every follower of Jesus and each local church. It’s for everybody. Being foolish about the Great Commission isn’t part of that calling.
I’ve been a mission-minded pastor for a long time. Beyond mailing a check, I’ve always been careful to build relationships with missionaries. Churches need to be accountable to their missionaries. A late support check can mean no food for a missionary family.
Missionaries need accountability, too. They aren’t freelance ministers. They are covenantal partners with the local sending and supporting church. I’ve been living as a missionary this year in Haiti and have learned firsthand the other side of this story. Here are four ways local leaders can increase accountability and avoid some common related pitfalls.
1. Hold missionaries accountable. I’m amazed at how rogue some missionaries are. I know of a missionary that had sent out vague newsletters for years. The sending church became concerned. They sent a surprise delegation. They found the missionary lounging on the beach with no evidence of progress. This is uncommon but does happen sometimes—in fact, more than I’d like to think.
Since every church has limited resources, we should hold missionaries accountable. We should expect updates. We should check on the missionaries’ progress and on their well-being. Sometimes missionaries fall into unhealthy patterns of fundraising and financial accountability because of personal crisis or spiritual distress.
Even if they’ve struggled to bear fruit, missionaries should be able to produce some evidence of their labor. Churches should know of successes and failures, and pray specifically for their missionaries. The missionary covenant is a two-way street. When a church fails to care for and check on their missionary, the church gives them tacit permission to fall into a lack of spiritual health. Our care for missionaries should extend beyond mere financial support and include accountability.
2. Be discerning. Charisma and charm are commonplace among missionary and other church leaders. Good leaders are persuasive. Local churches should make sure there is substance behind the charm. Some local church leaders are simply too gullible, or unwilling to ask about inconsistencies in a missionary’s testimony. Ignorance may be bliss, but it’s not good stewardship.
I’m not saying you have to be cynical or untrusting. I am saying that discerning people don’t settle for the facts too easily. In Haiti, for example, things like prices, dates, deadlines, political circumstances and much more can change rapidly. However, if a missionary’s story is always changing (and it always involves money) you may be dealing with a missionary who has fallen into worldly patterns of financial abuse.
“Like the glaze covering an earthen vessel are fervent lips with an evil heart” (Proverbs 26:23 ESV). Be kind—but be wise. Be discerning for the spiritual health of your church and the missionary and for the reputation of the Gospel.
3. Don’t underestimate the deceit of the human heart. You think, “Come on, my missionary feeds hungry people, she would never take advantage of starving people.” Guess again. There are a lot of people getting rich by keeping people poor. Sadly, a few of them are Christian missionaries. Don’t underestimate how easily some people fall victim to temptation. Even missionaries are prone to temptation to worldly patterns of fundraising and using funds.
4. Don’t assume that all missionaries are spiritual rock stars. This is the real kicker for me. Not all missionaries are experienced church leaders or even long-time Christians. Some of them are sincere but immature. It’s not uncommon to see a brand new Christian go on a short term trip, have an emotional experience, then move to a place like Haiti to keep that high going. Still others have been on the mission field a long time without much spiritual formation. Missionaries have the same need to grow in Christ as local leaders.
Often we hear of missionary exploits and allow our emotions to take over. We want to help. We appreciate their efforts. We engage our wallets and not our brains.
In summary, we need a shift in our thinking about missionaries. We need more covenantal relationships with sending and supporting churches and less check-mailing without covenant. Be discerning. Be wise. Hold missionaries accountable through regular contact and praying for them. Enter into covenantal relationships. Don’t just mail checks. It will be healthier for them, for the churches that support them and the indigenous people to whom they seek to minister.