Reflections and resources for lifelong learning for missionaries

Category: Leadership Page 1 of 7

making decisions
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Making better decisions

At the end of January earlier this year, my wife and I as well as my colleagues in Ukraine had to make some important decisions. Were we going to stay in Ukraine? Our embassies were warning us about an impending invasion from Russia and encouraging us to leave. If we stayed, what would be sufficient reason to leave in the future? If we left, where would we travel to? Bertha and I had tickets to leave Ukraine on February 20 for some training we had planned many months ago. Should we wait until then or change our travel plans so as to leave earlier?

Missionaries make life-altering decisions

Cross-cultural workers like ourselves have made many life-changing decisions over the course of our missionary career. Our initial decision to join a mission organization had significant and long-lasting consequences for ourselves, our families and our sending church.

The decision we made to transfer from the Philippines to Russia in 1998 was just as major a decision. My wife and I struggled for a couple of years trying to discern whether we should leave the Philippines, when would be the right time to do so, and where we would move to. The decision we finally made meant we were going to have to learn a very different language and culture. Our children’s future education was going to be impacted in a big way since we would not have a MK school in Far East Russia.

Our decision almost 10 years later to accept the invitation to head up our mission’s training department and move to Ukraine had similar far-reaching consequences.

Now we are faced with the decision of where our future ministry will be based, in light of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

organizational involvement
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Resilience: What part does the organization play?

We have been discussing the need for resilience among cross-cultural workers. In the last post, we talked about how God develops resilience through suffering. But what is the mission organization’s responsibility in supporting their workers in these times of crisis and stress? How does the organization determine its level of involvement in caring for its missionaries?

These questions are not easily answered. Cross-cultural workers vary widely in their desire for and expectations of organizational involvement. Some only want their organization to provide receipts to their donors and make sure the missionary receives the support on a regular basis. Others want a full range of services, including health insurance, training, pastoral care, leadership, and supervision, conferences and retreats, risk assessments and security training, and IT support.

SEND International is one mission that has sought to better determine what level of organizational involvement it should provide for its members’ well-being. Here is the story of what one region in SEND has done to find answers to these questions.

A survey of field missionaries

In 2019 SEND International established a workgroup to study the feasibility of designing and implementing a regional “hub” structure for the Eurasia region. SEND had already worked in this part of the world for a couple of decades, but we wanted to strengthen the services we provided to our missionaries serving there. One of the mandates of the workgroup was to protect what works well in Eurasia (strengths) while improving what is not working well (gaps). To learn more about the strengths and gaps of our organization in this region, the workgroup created a questionnaire and a list of possible interviewees.

effective organizational cultures
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What makes an organizational culture effective?

Cross-cultural workers spend a lot of time thinking about, discussing, and examining cultures. Ethnography is a foundational skill for missionaries. But I have found that we are much less adept at understanding and describing organizational cultures, even the cultures of the organizations in which we serve. What does an effective organizational culture look like? What kind of organizational culture would lead to greater fruitfulness and well-being of our members? Even more mysterious is how leaders can nurture the organizational culture they would like to prevail. Or can we even change or develop our organizational culture?

I have just finished “The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups” by Daniel Coyle. I believe that this book begins to answer some of these questions, at least for me. Coyle set out to discover the reasons why some groups, teams, or organizations accomplish far more than what we would expect of them if we only looked at the sum total of the individual talents of their members. His research has resulted in an excellent and fascinating book about group culture. Coyle believes that these cultures don’t just “happen” but are intentionally created by learning and practicing a specific set of skills.

In his book, the author describes 3 essential “skills” of highly effective groups:

effective organizational culture
  1. Build safety
  2. Share vulnerability
  3. Establish purpose

Coyle devotes a section of his book to describing each skill. Each section includes multiple stories about great teams and organizations. Then it concludes with a set of suggested action steps for developing that skill.

Build safety

The first skill is all about the value of belonging. As cross-cultural workers, we are very familiar with the feeling of not belonging. Thus, we are often not able to contribute fully to the discussions and decisions in the cultures and communities in which we live. We long to belong, to be accepted, to be valued for our contribution. Even as we recognize that we will always be outsiders, we want to become “acceptable outsiders.”1 See Joann Pittman’s article “Learning to Be an Acceptable Outsider” for a better understanding of this term. We want to feel that it is not only safe to live in these communities but also safe to contribute meaningfully to its well-being.

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.

coaching or mentoring
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Do I need a mentor or a coach?

In the last while, I have been thinking about how to strengthen our mentoring within SEND. In a recent analysis of leadership development within our organization, I noted that we needed more intentional mentoring of developing leaders by our current leaders. This is a gap in our current leadership development. Thinking about how to fill that gap has naturally led me to try to define mentoring. How is mentoring different from coaching? SEND U has already sought to create a coaching culture within the mission. More than 200 people in SEND have received some type of training in coaching. So, do we need both mentors and coaches?

Defining coaching and mentoring

A significant difficulty in answering this question is that the definition of coaching varies so much. For example, Lois Zachary and Lory Fischler in their mentoring fable, “Starting Strong” say,

Coaching is more instructive, but mentoring is more of a relationship. It’s not about me telling you what to do and you doing it.

Lois Zachary & Lory Fischler, Starting Strong: A Mentoring FAble, p.21.
combo teams
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Combo Teams

A number of years ago in this blog, I wrote about three different types of teams that we find in our mission organization.1I am indebted to Liz Givens who first identified these three different types of teams in SEND. Basketball teams are made up of multiple team members, working together closely and interacting frequently with each other about their various ministries. Track teams have a common purpose and team members support one another, but each person on the team works independently. X-Teams (expedition teams) are small teams found where a single expatriate missionary (or missionary couple) and a national Christian worker (pastor, missionary, or a lay Christian) partner together closely in ministry.

A fourth type – combo teams

But after discussing these different types with our teams around the world, I began to realize that there was yet a fourth type that was becoming increasingly popular. We are calling it a combo team. This type of team is not a single team, but a collection of multiple X-teams. In this scenario, missionaries serve on two teams simultaneously.

The ministry team is an X-team

The missionary serves with a national worker or a few national workers. This serves as their ministry team. The X-team is committed to a common purpose and provides direction and companionship in church planting and ministry. Normally, in these combo teams, the missionary is not the team leader of the X-team but serves under the leadership of a national pastor.

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