February 26, 2024

A legitimate question

When I first began leading our Member Orientation Program more than 10 years ago, I seldom, if ever, had to defend its legitimacy. All new missionaries assumed that they would need to go through the pre-field training program before leaving for their place of assignment. In fact, one of our greatest struggles was to convince new missionaries and their coaches that they should wait to enroll in Member Orientation until they had raised more of their support. The primary question was “When?”. When do I get to go to MOP? As we began conducting the training in the Philippines as well as in Michigan, a secondary question then became “Where?”. Where will I complete this training?

But in more recent years, the questions have been different. Now we are dealing with the question of “Why?”. Why do I need to go through this particular pre-field training program? It is a legitimate question.

A desire for customization

On the one hand, it reflects a desire for greater flexibility and customization of the pre-field training process. We live in a world where we can customize our sandwich and coffee. Amazon allows us to choose not only the type but the color of our earbuds. People naturally resist the assumption that one size fits all. Why do I need to travel to Michigan (or the Philippines) when my church or another organization I know also offers training for missionaries? Do I need to go through the entire pre-field training program? Could you allow me to choose the modules I think are most important for me. Maybe I don’t even need to go through a pre-field training program. Maybe I could just learn what I need to know along the way, from other missionaries, and online through Google searches.

A desire to avoid duplication

On the other hand, the “Why?” question reflects the desire to avoid duplication of previous training. Some of our new missionaries have earned academic degrees or at least credits in missiological studies. Others have had extensive experience in various types of short-term or long-term cross-cultural ministry. Those who are coming to our mission organization from one of our partner mission agencies have often gone through a significant period of training with the partner mission prior to joining SEND. Why do these people still need additional training from SEND?

Three types of pre-field training

Our mission agency requires that all those who join the organization must go through a program of pre-field training led by our International Office. But although most people value the importance of training, some push back against this requirement. As I have heard these questions and pleas for exemptions, I have realized that new missionaries are not recognizing that there are three distinct types of pre-field training. These three types reflect three different training objectives. All three types of training are incorporated into our SEND Member Orientation Program. They are interwoven throughout the program. So at first glance at the program, it is not easy to distinguish between the different types.1 For those wanting a closer look at how we have grouped the training modules into these 3 types, see this page on the SEND U wiki.

Cross-cultural Training

The first type of pre-field training that we provide is training for cross-cultural ministry. This includes helping people make the transition to living cross-culturally as well as providing some initial ministry skill training in ethnography. Our program primarily focuses on that which is first needed when one arrives in their place of service. We want them to land well. We want to set them up for success in learning the language and culture. The training equips them to develop life-giving relationships within their host culture and ministry team. These relationships will then set the stage for an effective, long-term, fruitful ministry.

Just-in-time learning

Our program is not a fully developed church planting school and this is by design. We believe in the value of just-in-time training. Adults learn best when they can immediately apply what they are learning and if the learning addresses the challenges and problems they face right now. Because likely it will still be a few years before new missionaries will begin in full-time church planting, the program only introduces them to ministry strategies, skills, and tools. Additional ministry training will be provided on the field after the completion of language and culture studies. In fact, ministry skill training will continue throughout their ministry career.

Just-in-case learning

The opposite of just-in-time learning is just-in-case learning. It is not reasonable or possible to provide all training just prior to the application. So most formal educational programs are actually just-in-case learning, providing information that hopefully the learners will use one day. Just-in-case learning, by its very nature, needs to be broad in scope and more theoretical than practical. There is value in such learning. Some of our Member Orientation Program is actually just-in-case learning, particularly the training in safety and security. But this type of learning is often not well-retained, and needs to be reviewed later when the principles are actually going to be applied in specific ministry contexts.

Why is cross-cultural training needed for cross-cultural missionaries? I will just direct you to Global Frontier Missions’ YouTube video.

This type of training is relatively easy to out-source. Other organizations do provide this type and do it well. I have occasionally been asked to evaluate other organization’s pre-field training programs, and I have often been impressed with the quality and relevance of their program.

The same pre-field training as your mentors experienced

But there is a benefit to receiving this ministry training from senior missionaries in one’s own mission organization. If the pre-field training one receives is similar to that which one’s mission leaders and coaches have received, it is much easier to review, ask questions about and apply the learning later in one’s ministry career.  Both the new missionaries and their mentors have a shared vocabulary and pool of information. We can talk about elephant and rabbit churches and the relative strengths and weaknesses of each. We can discuss whether our new team should be a track team, a basketball team or a combo team. These analogies make sense when everyone has gone through the same training.

Spiritual formation

Another major emphasis or type of training in our pre-field program is spiritual formation. We seek to strengthen the participant’s commitment to the regular practice of nurturing one’s relationship with God and living as a disciple of Jesus. We want them to be able to feed themselves spiritually, even when they are far from their home church and small group. This objective is accomplished first by reviewing a few key spiritual principles and disciplines. Among other topics, we talk about Bible journaling, intercessory prayer, listening to God and developing a beloved charter. Then we give the participants an extended time to practice these disciplines. We spend time worshipping together and listening to one another’s testimonies. A half-day is set aside to spend alone with God. We discuss our personal struggles in staying consistent in our own daily “Quiet Time”. We debrief their experience on their Day Alone with God.

Reinforcing what they already know

This type of training is primarily designed to reinforce what they have learned in their previous journey as a disciple of Jesus. We fully expect that much of what they hear during these spiritual formation sessions is not new. So why do we believe that it is necessary to include this type of training in our Member Orientation Program? Because we believe that unless missionaries are able to feed themselves spiritually once they are on the mission field, they will not survive the stress of cross-cultural life and the attacks of the evil one. Their effectiveness and their resilience is dependent upon the health of their connection to the Vine (John 15). By giving some of our time in pre-field training to this crucial topic, we seek to emphasize its critical importance.

We also want to give our trainees the opportunity to nurture their own souls while going through the process of learning. Maybe we should see the spiritual formation sessions not so much as another type of training. Rather we could say it provides the spiritual resources required to absorb and apply the other types of learning in the program.

Member orientation

The third type of training that makes up our Member Orientation Program is simply orientation to membership in SEND International. This is kind of obvious, but often overlooked. Member orientation cannot be out-sourced. This can only be done by the organization that is accepting the new member. Other organizations might do a great job of providing cross-cultural training. Churches hopefully are developing the missionary candidate’s life with God. But only SEND can train people in the culture, values and ministry philosophy of SEND International.

We want the trainees to get to know SEND well. We want them to own our organizational values and commit themselves to our mission statement. So in our pre-field training, the new missionaries review SEND’s values and mission statement with the International Director. Then in small groups we discuss how they see themselves contributing to these organizational commitments.

Learning the SEND way

Part of member orientation is also learning about SEND’s particular approach to church planting, disciple-making, teaming, and holistic ministry. While we do not believe that we have a corner on God’s truth in these areas, we have chosen to follow some proven principles and strategies in these areas. Understanding the “SEND way” is an important part of becoming comfortable with SEND and feeling that one belongs here.

Building relationships of trust

But member orientation goes beyond buying into our mission and values and understanding the ministry strategies we employ. We want these new missionaries to build relationships of trust with SEND leaders and other SEND members. One of our desired outcomes for our pre-field training is that the trainees will get to know SEND leaders, training staff and other SEND members. Inevitably, one day they will encounter problems on the field or maybe even with their team. We want them to feel confident that they can approach SEND leaders and trainers to ask for help. They will only do so if they know us and trust us.

At the conclusion of every pre-field training, we ask our trainees whether they were able to fully accomplish these learning outcomes. It was very gratifying to me to see that in our last pre-field training, these two objectives received the highest scores:

  1. During MOP, I reviewed SEND’s values and mission statement and renewed my commitment to live in alignment with these values and SEND’s mission in my life and ministry as a missionary.
  2. During MOP, I got to know, pray with and discuss important ministry and life questions with SEND leaders, SEND U staff and other new SEND appointees.

Both of these outcomes received average scores of 96% or higher! These two learning outcomes are clearly related to this third member orientation component of our training.

Threshold moments

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post about the importance of threshold moments. Threshold moments are our first experiences in a new group. They are more important than any other in helping new people decide whether they are going to connect and stay with this new group. I believe that our organization’s pre-field orientation programs are such threshold moments. Our pre-field training consists of not only classroom teaching, but also a variety of cross-cultural experiences and interactive exercises. These shared experiences help to bond relationships and foster a long-term commitment to the organization and its members.

This is a major reason why I believe that at least part of the pre-field training program needs to be in-person. Yes, during COVID-19, we experimented with providing all our pre-field training through online means. We used a combination of video conference calls and asynchronous online courses. But the ability to build relationships of trust with new missionaries is much easier when we can meet face-to-face. When we get to know and play with their children, eat meals together, and worship together, we build relationships on a different level than just colleagues. An in-person training event allows us to play together, and laugh and cry together as we open our hearts to one another.

Why? Because …

So why does a new missionary with SEND need to go through SEND’s Member Orientation Program? We want them to go through our cross-cultural training, because we want to make sure that our new members are well equipped for their cross-cultural transition. It is much easier to follow-up and coach them in that transition, if they go through training we designed. We want them to go through spiritual formation, because we believe that this is so critical that it cannot be over emphasized. And we want them to complete our member orientation, because it just cannot be done by another organization. We love our organization and want others to appreciate it as we do. Only those who thoroughly understand SEND’s mission, values, ministry philosophy and culture can pass it on to the next generation of members.

1 thought on “Why do missionaries need pre-field training?

  1. Good explanation. Several comments
    1. The business world has switched to calling orientation “onboarding”. It is helping the new employees learn quickly the essentials of their “work” while making fewer errors. Think you explanation leans itself to such an approach. And it does away with a static title with multiple meanings. Agree with the different types. Glad to see the growth of SEND in this area. Thanks.
    2. Much of orientation is really learning for living – or nonformal. I just wonder how much of the session are lectures and how much experiential? The level of learning tasks sets the long-term application (Bloom’s Taxonomy). The learning methods also makes it cognitive or life related, an important distinction from academic training. It is important to learn how to respond to learning “opportunities rather” having the “right”, preset answers.
    3. The continuing of ongoing onboarding is the key. It is easy to respond in the original session in theory, but a different set of skills to respond when experienced in real life and real stress. Something like the Entry Posture Model needs to be practiced in both settings.
    4. I didn’t read anything about resilience in the discussion. I think it is essential to on onboarding. I don’t think resilience is a spiritual gift or a personality trait. It is a learned set of perspectives and skills for the crucible of a tough and rewarding intercultural life under Christ as His beloved. Our sense of being beloved by God is more essential than theological understanding (and I am a “thinker”, cognitive type). And it empowers flexibility to learn with the local people about God how works in their cultural settings. Feeding oneself spiritually is very important, feeding yourself collaboratively with the local leaders/believers is critical to long term wholistic health. And very eye opening and rewarding.
    Enough. Good post. Blessings, Ken

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