Sometimes it seems as if most of my conversations with other missionaries are about teaming. To some extent that might be because I am facilitating two training courses for team leaders right now, and am preparing again to teach on teaming in our upcoming pre-field training. But the conversations go beyond interactions with my students. Missionaries tell me about their frustrations and joys with their previous and current teams. They share their dreams and desires for future teams. They compare their teams with teams of which they have heard in our areas. Particularly for our first-term missionaries, the quality of the teaming experience seems to be a major criterion for deciding where they will serve and whether they will continue to serve in a particular location.

As mission leaders, we can easily come to the conclusion that forming and nurturing healthy teams should be one of our top priorities to attract new workers and help current workers to flourish. There is no question that there is much that we can learn and improve in our mission teams. I am passionate about strengthening our mission teams and training team leaders.

Emphasizing teaming too much is unhealthy

But we also need to recognize that too much emphasis on teaming can be unhealthy. Dick Brogden in his Global Trends presentation at a recent Leadership Connexion workshop noted that teams can become the new missionary compounds.

Today we see far fewer missionary compounds, but just a few decades ago, they were very common. Our mission had a compound in Metro Manila and I visited it often back in the 1980’s. Typically, they were walled-off plots of land where missionaries lived, set up their offices, guesthouses, and schools, stored their possessions, and in general, created a “haven of civilization” for the foreigners in a strange, disorderly and often threatening environment. There were many good reasons for building a mission compound — security, convenience, companionship, and spiritual support were all facilitated by it. But they did tend to isolate the missionary from the culture and world around them. Their existence encouraged the missionaries to look first to their fellow missionaries (their neighbors on the compound) to meet their spiritual, emotional and practical needs.

Becoming a compound

How does a mission team become a compound? A team can create the same false expectation that it can and will meet all the needs of the new worker.

Back in 2005, the Evangelical Missions Quarterly published one of their most controversial articles, at least in my thinking. In “Building Teams, Building Walls,” Damaris Zehner, a former missionary in Central Asia talks about this danger of expecting one’s team to meet all one’s needs.

The modern mission compound is the team. Most sending agencies insist that their workers form teams. When the team arrives or forms on the field, its members expect their needs to be met by each other. When they’re homesick or stressed; when they need to borrow money or find someone to housesit or babysit; when they plan, pray and hold one another accountable, they rely on their team members.

What’s wrong with that? That’s what a team is supposed to be like. Books on teams emphasize that workers need the support and accountability of like-minded people. Without these, experts say, workers would leave the field burnt out and hurt. Of course, the same experts also tell us that the greatest cause of attrition is friction with fellow missionaries. These two facts coexist, but somehow we overlook the irony: you need a team to survive on the field, and you’ll leave the field because of your team.

Three ways

How is a team like a compound? First, it is a tiny foreign culture in the midst of the mission field. Even when team members come from various countries, they are still most united by being different from “them”—the people on the outside.

Second, most of the mission worker’s life is “within” the team, and his or her contact with local people is more like a foray into unfamiliar— if not hostile—territory. Even when team meetings are minimal or team members work in different places, the team is still the hub of accountability. Unfortunately, few teams have minimal meetings, and few workers work entirely apart from their fellows.

Third, the team, like the compound, sends the message: “Within our walls we have friendship, conversation, accountability, mutual help and understanding. We don’t need you.” If we don’t need local people, our relationship with them can never be on equal terms. Yes, we need their food, their language skills and their permission to stay in their country, but we don’t need them as unique individuals. Thus, all our outreach may seem patronizing.

Not all teams

I read this criticism of mission teams and I want to immediately protest. A team doesn’t have to be exclusively made up of foreigners from my culture. If fact, most of our ministry teams include national believers. My best teaming experience was on a church planting team in the Philippines made up of Filipinos, Americans, Germans and yes, a few Canadians as well. A team can help motivate a new team member to engage the culture around them. The example and challenge of my teammates encouraged me to take more initiative to develop more relationships with local people, rather than hiding in my office working on my computer.

The purpose of teams

But yes, it is possible that a mission team can isolate a missionary from the very people he or she was called to reach. Missionaries can make the mistake of thinking that their deep desire for belonging and community can be fully or even largely met only by their fellow expatriate workers. In so doing, we have confused the purpose of the team. The purpose of the team is not to meet our needs for friendship, community, and support but to help us be more effective in ministry. As our organization’s international manual states,

The primary purpose of the team should be to strengthen the ministry of establishing churches.

SEND International manual, p. 22 of the 2019 version

Expatriate support communities

Unfortunately, in mission circles, we often use the term “team” but what we are really referring to is “our expatriate community made of those who belong to my mission organization.” I think it is very unfortunate that we have confused these terms, using a term that was primarily focused on our work and infusing it with a meaning that primarily focuses on our need for companionship.

While we are very thankful for the friends we have in the expatriate community, we need to recognize that if we spend much of our social time with these foreigners, these friendships will distract us from deep friendships with the people to whom we want to be the presence of Jesus and with whom we want to share the message of Jesus. These expatriate friends can hinder us in our language learning and culture adaptation.

Choosing the hard road

Yes, it is much easier to spend time socially with those who speak our language and share our culture rather than to invite a family or single from the local community to join us for a meal. But our calling to live incarnationally means that teaming, at least the teaming that is in actuality just our expatriate support community, must sometimes be sacrificed.

As Dick Brogden says,

Teams are not to be idolized. …Let’s create the expectation that locals can (and will) meet our needs. … Remember that we signed up for “hard.” We signed up for tired, weary, lonely, unappreciated, unpraised, and misunderstood. Sometimes you just push through.