What responsibility do mission field leaders have in finding suitable ministry assignments and opportunities for other missionaries? In the last few weeks, this question has been asked in a number of different contexts. These missionaries needing a ministry placement could either be missionaries on the leader’s own team, or new missionaries who are finishing language school or missionaries returning to the field after a period of home service or “furlough”. Sometimes missionaries returning to their home countries after completing their overseas assignment are open to a continuing ministry with the mission if a suitable assignment could be found. Who bears the responsibility for identifying potential ministry placements?
To some, this may seem to be a strange question. There are so many acute needs on the mission field. Aren’t mission organizations always looking for more missionaries? Why is there ever a need to “find” a ministry assignment for a missionary? Isn’t the bigger problem knowing how to say ‘no’ to the myriad of opportunities and needs?
While this may be true for some, most missionaries are looking to join a ministry team, one in which they can make a valuable contribution to a larger purpose, without requiring them to be the primary initiator or visionary for that ministry task. But not every available missionary will fit on every team with personnel needs. One needs to carefully consider the vision, gifts and personalities of the existing team and potential team members to determine whether this will be a good fit.
Generally, in our organization, it is expected that mission leaders, particularly the area director, will help new missionaries find a ministry team and a ministry assignment that suits their gifts, calling and language abilities. But how about experienced missionaries, who are already in their second or third term? Are they not capable of finding their own assignments? Don’t they know best what they are looking for, and who would be compatible team mates? Do mission leaders need to expend time and energy to try to find a team or ministry that fits these people? Should mission leaders ever create a new ministry assignment if there are no obvious fits on the existing ministry teams?
I believe that every missionary would prefer to be invited to join a ministry team, rather than needing to ask whether they can join that team. Most missionaries feel uncomfortable promoting themselves, or advertising their gifts and experience to a potential ministry leader. Maybe we should not be hesitant to do so, since self-promotion would be expected if we were to apply for a job back in our home countries. But when I look at Paul’s missionary teams, I see that the ministry team members that joined Paul’s missionary team or Jesus’ ministry team were invited to join that team by the team leader (Silas, Timothy, Titus, the 12 apostles) or were sent to that particular team by their home church (Epaphroditus). New potential team members did not “volunteer” to accompany Paul, or at least we have no record of them doing so. Even Paul’s first ministry assignments were all at the invitation of Barnabas (Acts 9:27, 11:25) or by direction of the Holy Spirit through his home church (Acts 13:2-3).
So I believe that mission leaders do need to make an effort to find assignments for other missionaries. But we do not do so by ourselves. Ephesians 2:10 says that God has prepared good works in advance for His children to do. If He has called our missionary colleagues to serve in this location, He also has an assignment and a team ready for them. We are tasked with discovering or uncovering what assignment God has already prepared for them, and we then have the privilege of extending to them an invitation to serve, an invitation that ultimately comes from God Himself. The opportunity won’t necessarily fall into our laps. We need to be asking questions of national pastors and ministry team leaders to discover what God is doing, and how our missionary colleagues might fit in that picture. We may need to be exploring options outside the box of what our mission has traditionally been doing. We may need to investigate assigning personnel to teams led by mission leaders from another organization.
Over the 25 years that I have been a missionary, I have often had the joy of helping fellow missionaries find a potential place of ministry. In some of these cases, I was serving as their team leader. In other cases, I was just a fellow missionary who “happened” by God’s grace to talk to a national pastor or missionary who was interested in inviting an expatriate missionary to join his ministry team. What a privilege to connect gifted servants of God with a ministry and team that not only could “use” them, but was truly in need of the gifts and experience that they brought to the team.