Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 6, no. 1 (February 2015)

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Contemporary Practices of Missionary Care within Churches of Christ

Stephen Allison

The psycho-social, spiritual, educational, and physical care of missionaries was “professionalized” into a practice called missionary care or member care in the late 1970s.

One can find articles using this terminology published in evangelical religious literature such as Evangelical Quarterly and Christianity Today in the early 1980s. The religious organization that seems to have established the earliest norms and standards in this field was Wycliffe Bible Translators. Wycliffe actually hired staff members and called them “member care” professionals. Soon thereafter, other international missions organizations such as Youth with a Mission started hiring member care staff and consultants. While Churches of Christ had family ministers and staff members who were very involved in missions, there is no documentation of paid staff being assigned to missionary care responsibilities per se until after the turn of this century.

A group of member care/missionary care mental health professionals established an annual conference in Angola, Indiana, in 1980. This Mental Health and Missions conference (hosted by Mission Training International) now draws 200–300 mental health professionals who work part-time or full-time in the area of missionary care from all over the world. The closest approximation to this type of gathering within Churches of Christ is the biannual meeting of professionals and lay people involved in missionary care held at Missions Resource Network (MRN) in Ft. Worth, Texas. MRN is a para-professional religious organization established in 1998; according to their website (http://mrnet.org), their mission is to “help churches vision strategically, equip for missions, plant churches worldwide, and nurture missionaries.” MRN has two people on their staff working full-time (Dr. Dottie Schulz and Dr. Dale Hawley) and a third working part-time (Mark Brazle, a former missionary/minister) in the field of missionary care. Nowadays there are many missionary care professionals and lay people in churches across the country, but MRN and a similar ministry called Great Cities, based in Dallas, Texas, served as catalyst for very early training and practice of missionary care within Churches of Christ.

From the 1970s until the early 2000s, the home base for Churches of Christ interested in having psychological testing done for pre-screening of missionary candidates and/or for team-building purposes was at Abilene Christian University, through Dr. Clyde Austin’s work as the Robert and Mary Ann Hall Endowed Chair of Psychology and Intercultural Studies. Historically, Austin’s work focused on the assessment of missionary candidates and post-field work with repatriating missionaries struggling with reverse culture shock. In the past decade the work of the Chair has changed quite a bit and now revolves mainly around team-building, stress-management, and interpersonal communication skills building with missionaries and teams before they go to the mission field. A second level of work involves treatment and intervention of missionaries in crisis, ranging from conflict mediation to crisis trauma treatment. Finally, there is much more being done to educate missionaries and gather research data about their needs and the predictable stressors inherent in the stages of the missionary life cycle (pre-field, on-field, during furlough/stateside assignments, and upon repatriation).

Groups of former missionaries, laymen, and mental health counselors have developed very helpful programs for missionary care in larger congregations of Churches of Christ and at church-affiliated colleges across our nation in the past decade. For example, Oklahoma Christian University, under the leadership of Kent and Nancy Hartman, have organized a very popular support program for missionary kids (MKs) on their campus. The Hartmans, along with John and Beth Reese and Clay and Cherry Hart, formed a missionary care organization called InterMission that sponsors an annual missionary kid/third culture kid camp and does extensive training of churches and missionaries about missionary care issues.

The best news about missionary care in Churches of Christ in the past decade is that we are being more proactive. We have heard too many horror stories about the damage done to missionaries and missionary families who were not adequately cared for. Churches across the nation are being equipped by staff at Missions Resource Network almost every weekend; their focus is on raising up people in local churches with hearts and gifts for missionary care, equipping them with basic skills, and empowering churches to care for their own missionaries. There has been a dramatic de-professionalization of missionary care in the past five years in Churches of Christ in North America as the “priesthood of believers” has responded to the call to train and respond at the local congregational level to missionary needs. This allows those who have professional credentialing in this field to focus on multiplying their effectiveness by training others, doing more preventive and educational work, and reserving their clinical interventions for missionaries needing more serious care.

Much has been written about missionary/member care in the past twenty years. Listings of recommended books and white papers about specific topics are available on these websites: Missions Resource Network at http://mrnet.org, Mission Training International at http://mti.org and Dr. Ron Kotesky’s website http://missionarycare.com. God bless us all as we sharpen our skills and prepare our hearts and minds to do our best work to help missionaries minister longer, more effectively, and in healthier ways.

Stephen Allison, PhD, is Professor of Psychology and Robert & Mary Ann Hall Endowed Chair of Psychology & Intercultural Studies at Abilene Christian University. Dr. Allison can be reached at allisons@acu.edu.