Sharpening the Saw or the Axe

One of my key responsibilities as the head of SEND U (SEND International’s training department) is to champion lifelong learning within our organization.   One of the things we have been promoting, first of all with our team leaders, and now with the entire membership is the importance of every missionary drawing up their own  personal growth plan.   This growth plan (sometimes called an Individual Development Plan or IDP) would be put together every year (maybe in January after or as part of a day of prayer).   To help our members with writing this plan, a few of us have been working on a short road map or guide, including an self-assessment tool and a template for creating an individual growth plan.   This road map is still a work in progress but you can download the latest version here.   But I think that before we can expect our members to work on their growth plan, we probably need to answer a couple of questions.



Why are Individual Growth Plans important?

Our mission organization (SEND International) desires the personal and professional growth of every member of the mission. We believe that our members are our organization’s greatest resource, and therefore we want to maximize their effectiveness in accomplishing the overall mission of SEND and in bearing fruit in the individual ministries to which we have been called.

Furthermore, research shows us that mission agencies that encourage their members in their ongoing personal growth and development are going to have less attrition (resignations for preventable reasons).  In the Re-MAPII study (Retaining Missionaries: Agency Practices) in 2002, there was a strong correlation between organizations that scored high on retaining missionaries (low attrition) and organizations that provided their missionaries with opportunities for ongoing training of gifts and skills and actively encouraged ongoing language and culture training.  The Engage! research project by GMI on missionary retention built on Re-MAP and demonstrated that those who had resigned from missionary service were more than twice as likely to say that their agency did not encourage personal and professional development as those who were still serving on the field.   Based on their findings, the Engage! survey recommended that “all field staff should have ample opportunities to improve their skills and talents, and should be encouraged or required to have a personal development plan.” 

But IGPs are not only important for the sake of the organization.  We believe that our ongoing growth and development brings glory to God and cooperates with the ongoing transformative work of the Holy Spirit within us, making us into the image of the Son.   If our ministry gifts and abilities are God’s gift to us, then we must be good stewards of those gifts, and seek to develop those gifts to their greatest fruitfulness.   Paul tells Timothy, “Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you. Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress.” – 1 Timothy 4:14–15.


We also believe that people who are continually growing in their capacities, skills and maturity are people are more likely to be joyfully productive in the ministries and cultural contexts to which they have been called, and more prepared and willing to transition into new assignments and ministries that God may open up for them.

But why do I need to develop my own personal growth plan?  Can’t I just use a generic plan recommended by the mission?   

We want each member to be intentional about and take responsibility for their own personal growth. Just providing opportunities and ideas for ongoing learning is not enough. The pressure of ongoing ministry and family responsibilities will consistently crowd out our desires to grow and learn. Unless we make a plan for that learning to occur, set the time frame for when we plan to do that learning, and invite others to hold us accountable to that plan, our good intentions to grow will be trumped by the press of daily life and the expectations of others. We will be so busy “chopping wood” that we will have no time to “sharpen the axe.”

Ecclesiastes 10:10 (NIV) — If the ax is dull and its edge unsharpened, more strength is needed, but skill will bring success.

(I realize that Stephen Covey’s 7th Habit of Highly Effective People (Sharpen the Saw) is broader than just developing our abilities, and includes things like relaxation and listening to music.  But here I am using the analogy in a somewhat narrower understanding, focusing on those activities that will make the saw or the ax sharper, as in Ecclesiastes 10:10, rather than those activities that will give the woodsman renewed energy.  Both are important!)

picture from ehow.com

At the same time, we recognize that learning plans must be individualized and tailored to each person’s needs and learning style. For example, we could ask everyone in the whole mission to read the same three books this year. But this would ignore the reality that many do not learn best by reading a book. It would also ignore the reality that some will have already learned the principles in those books in the past and others will not yet be ready to properly digest the subject matter. One size does not fit all.

What learning activities should I put into my individual growth plan?

 If it is not wise to prescribe a standard curriculum for everyone, how is each person to choose what they should plan to learn for the coming year?  The IGP Roadmap seeks to give our members some ideas of different areas in which we might want to pursue learning. The “Missionary Growth Areas” on the fourth page lists 30 different growth areas in three different major categories. Some of our growth goals will be in the area of our ministry assignment, but not all of them.  It is important to look at learning holistically. Our calling encompasses all areas of our life, and so we should be considering all areas of our life as possible areas of growth.

Let me encourage you to be creative and utilize many different types of learning activities. Don’t limit yourself to formal educational courses. In fact, the majority of our learning activities should not be classroom-based.  The U.S. Department of Labor estimates 70 percent or more of work-related learning occurs outside formal training (Skillsoft white paper).  Think of people you might interview, books you want to read, places you might want to visit, sermons you want to listen to or mentors/coaches you want ask for help. Invite others, including your fellow missionaries and team leaders to suggest learning activities. Of course, we in SEND U are always glad to give suggestions and ideas for learning if you are stuck.

How much time should I devote to my own growth and development?

Learning and growing is never our sole responsibility. Our primary assignment remains our primary assignment. But we believe that stopping regularly to sharpen the saw will make us more effective in the long run. We would suggest that 10% of our time be devoted to our ongoing growth and development. That would be the equivalent of one morning a week.

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