Reflections and resources for lifelong learning for missionaries

Category: Disciple-making Page 1 of 17

receptivity
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Should we go to the most receptive?

As a young missionary candidate about 40 years ago, I considered various countries as possible destinations for my future ministry. One of the main criteria I used was receptivity. I wanted to go to a place where the church was growing rapidly. I was attracted to the harvest. In a harvest field, I reasoned, there would be a greater need for training of national workers, which was the area of missions I was most interested in. So, I chose the Philippines and the lowland work among Roman Catholics in particular.

Experiencing the harvest

Given that I was still in my early 20’s when I arrived in the Philippines, I realized that I first needed some experience and credibility before I could begin training others. My wife and I enjoyed ten years of wonderfully fruitful years in church planting and training in the Philippines. We were part of the harvest. The Filipino people are amazingly hospitable and very receptive to the Gospel. The evangelical churches were growing so quickly that within a few years, I realized that the percentage of evangelicals in this country was going to surpass the percentage of evangelicals in my home country of Canada. I also came to understand that the Filipino church in the lowlands soon might not need expatriate trainers like myself.

In this journey, I came to understand the urgency and importance of going to those that are least reached. But it also became apparent to me that those who were least-reached were also most often the people groups that were not as receptive to the Gospel, at least not initially. It would not be as rewarding or fulfilling to serve in the places where the harvest had not yet begun. Working in places where there is limited receptivity can be very wearying and discouraging. Although our next ten years of serving in Far East Russia were also fulfilling in many ways, I experienced discouragement and a loss of heart there that was quite different from what I experienced in the Philippines.

Photo by RUN 4 FFWPU from Pexels

Finishing Well: Cheering the Next Runner

What would you think of a relay runner who went to the locker room right after completing his or her lap? Perhaps you would think the runner had suffered an injury or had some other health concern. Aside from that, we would question their relationship with the rest of the team. A healthy relay team recognizes that success depends on the performance of each runner. Therefore, each member of the team who has completed their leg stays on the field and cheers on the remaining runners. They stay off the track and cheer from the sidelines.

In this series, we have been using the analogy of a relay race for finishing well in a ministry assignment. So, how do we cheer those who follow us as we complete our ministry assignment? How do we keep from getting in the way of their performance? Our relationship with those who follow us in ministry shapes our cheering for them as they run their lap.

Relationships Matter

Yes, it would be strange for a relay runner to go directly to the locker room. Similarly, it would be tragic for church planters to cut off the relationship with the local church leaders who succeed them in leading the new church. Tom Steffen wrote:

The seventh and final component is determining how church planters can maintain good relationships after the phase-out. They work themselves out of a job, but not out of a relationship. Continued fellowship includes prayer, visits, letters of challenge and encouragement, sending other people to visit, and cautious financial assistance.

Tom Steffen, Passing the Baton, p. 18.
baton transfer

Finishing Well: Transferring the Baton

We are finally getting to the finishing part in our series on finishing well in a ministry assignment. In a relay race, transferring the baton is crucial to finishing well. For example, the US 4 x 100 meter relay team was disqualified in the 1988 Olympics for a late handoff. In a similar way, how we transfer responsibility and leadership defines to a large extent whether we finish well in a ministry assignment.

The incoming runner has the primary responsibility for the transfer of the baton. Specifically, he/she places the baton so that the outgoing runner can grasp it most efficiently. In a church planting assignment, the missionary is directly involved in the training of emerging leaders. However, in administrative assignments, there is usually less involvement in selecting a successor. Nevertheless, one can leave behind a “Policy and Procedure Guide” or a step-by-step manual for the next person filling that role. So, what characterizes a good transfer when we finish our ministry assignment?

The Transfer is Intentional

Throughout his book, Passing the Baton: Church Planting that Empowers, Tom Steffen emphasizes “a comprehensive, phase-out church planting model” (p 7). From the very beginning, the church planting team intends to transfer responsibility and leadership. In other words, this transfer plan guides the whole process of church planting.

Likewise, in an administrative role, we recognize that others will follow us in the role. We are intentional in passing the baton to those who follow us. Successfully transferring responsibility may include cross-training others in the office prior to our departure. 1Cross-training is the practice of training your people to work in several different roles,2 or training them to do tasks that lie outside their normal responsibilities (from Cross-Training – Team Management Skills From MindTools.com). Furthermore, putting together an up-to-date procedural manual will contribute to a smooth transfer. Of course, we also need to spend adequate time in the transition zone. More about that later.

running well
Photo by Jenny Hill on Unsplash

Finishing Well: Running Your Leg of the Race

Let’s continue thinking about finishing well in a ministry assignment. In our last blog post, we talked about receiving the baton well. So now we are running our leg of the race. We are now fully engaged in our ministry assignment. Furthermore, we have a working knowledge of our host language and culture. Yes, we will want to continue to grow in these areas as we serve. But it is now our turn to run well with the baton we have been given.

How we run our leg of the race will significantly impact finishing well. Of course, we want our ministry to further the progress of the gospel. We want to make a contribution to the contextualization of the gospel in our host culture, building on the progress of those who served before us. In the New Testament, Paul and the author of Hebrews use the race analogy to describe ministry and the Christian life. At the end of Paul’s life, he writes, “I have finished the race” (2 Timothy 4:7). So, what gave him a sense of finishing well? I see four ways we can run like Paul to finish well.

We Run with a Clear Purpose

Paul’s life was guided by a clear purpose. We see this in passages such as Acts 20:24, 1 Corinthians 9:23, and Philippians 3:14. In Acts 20:24 he describes his life as “my course” (the same word translated in 2 Timothy 4:7 as “race”). Notably, Paul identifies his purpose as completing his God-given work of faithfully “testifying to the gospel of the grace of God.” This goal drives him forward.1 1 Cor 9:23, Phil 3:14 He is focused on the prize awaiting him at the finish line. Eckhard Schnabel writes in his commentary on Acts,

Firm grip on the Gospel
Photo by Zach Lucero on Unsplash

Finishing Well: Keeping a Firm Grip on the Gospel

In the first post in this series on finishing well, I compared a ministry assignment to a leg of a relay race. I also pointed to the baton as a distinguishing feature of a relay race. Furthermore, I identified the baton as the gospel in our ministry race. The gospel is the distinguishing feature of our ministry.1 While Tom Steffen does not identify the baton as the gospel in his book, Passing the Baton, he does devote a whole chapter to “Presenting an Accurate Gospel.” (p 127-141 in the 1993 version of the book.) As relay runners must keep a firm grip on the baton, so also church-planters must keep a firm grip on the gospel. This is no less true for administrative assignments in mission organizations.

What is the Gospel?

This may seem like an unnecessary question. Yet, when we read the definitions of the gospel from Christian websites, confusion is evident.2Greg Gilbert, What is the Gospel?, 2010. p 18-20. In a similar way, J. Mack Stiles warns of assuming and confusing the gospel and cultural Christianity.3 J. Mack Stiles, The Marks of the Messenger, IVP, 2010, p 37-47. It is critical to the race before us that we know what the gospel is.

The Gospel Holds the Bible Together

At the first conference of the Gospel Coalition in 2007, D. A. Carson made this observation in a message titled “What is the Gospel?”:

God's purposes
Photo by Adriana Velásquez

Keep God’s Purposes in Mind

Editor’s note: We are continuing our blog series on mentoring using the Mentoring Pillars written by the late Jim Feiker, a former member of SEND International. This sixth pillar tells mentors that they need to remember God’s purposes for the mentee and work toward those ends.

In the process of spiritual mentoring, seeing the beginning and also the end are both of significant importance. We need to see both the way things ought to be and the way things really are now. Clarity in both where people are right now in their spiritual journey, and in where God wants them ultimately to gives us a realistic, balanced perspective.

To see only the beginning brings tolerance and grace toward a person’s humanity, but does not provide any direction in where to go. On the other hand, to see only the end purpose gives us direction. However, it may impose too high of standard (given where a person is now). It will lead to legalism and a failure to accept their humanness.

The journey between these two critical points is the process we call biblical transformation. Unless we are in sync with a person’s design (Pillar #5) and with God’s eternal purposes, we will not develop a clear God-ward perspective in our mentoring.

The purposes of God have three different aspects:

  1. God’s ultimate purposes in the universe – where he is going with his people into eternity.
  2. The universal purposes or objectives God has for every believer.
  3. His unique purposes or calling that he has for each person individually.
ministry as relay race

Finishing Well: Ministry as a Relay Race

I have been doing a lot of thinking and reading about finishing well in the past several months. In part, this is because I turn 70 in November and will retire at the end of 2021. But I am also interested in this subject because SEND U has been asked to develop and find resources to help SEND missionaries finish well whether in a ministry assignment or at the end of a career. When reflecting on finishing well, I find it helpful to view ministry as a relay race. 1Tom Steffen’s book, Passing the Baton: Church Planting That Empowers also uses this analogy.

Over the next few months, I will be writing a series of blog posts on finishing well in ministry assignments as a leg in a relay race. In this series, I will be applying the analogy of a relay race to finishing well in a ministry assignment. Presently, I plan to write six more posts. This will be followed by a shorter series on finishing well at the end of a ministry career.

In this post, I want to sketch the analogy between ministry and a relay race.

Ministry as a Race

The apostle Paul describes his ministry as a race in a number of passages (Acts 20:24; 1 Corinthians 9:24-26; 2 Timothy 4:7). In the Acts and 2 Timothy passages, he uses the same word in the original language2 (the ESV translates it “course” in Acts and “race” in 2 Timothy). Interestingly, in both passages, he writes about finishing his course or race. In the former passage, he expresses his desire to finish his course and ministry well. In the latter, he expresses his confidence that he has finished his race well.

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