Since the first century, the church has partnered with men and women as they spread the good news of the kingdom. The scriptural imperative of missionary activity is obvious. But what is the heart of God regarding the role of the church in relation to those sent? This paper will reflect theologically on missionary care—namely, self-care and the church’s responsibility for missionaries—through a portrayal of the patterns of Jesus and the early church.
Missionaries face a paradox of expectations from the sending church and those serving as sponsors of their work. There is a broad spectrum of care available to them. I’ve had the pleasure for the past twenty-seven years of working as a therapist and consultant with those called to minister to the church, both domestically and on the foreign mission field. The church’s high expectations for these workers are often coupled with little grace for their needs and struggles. Ruth Tucker states that the church’s theology of missionary care has often limited its role to sending and praying. She offers the oft-cited biblical rationale based on a statement of Paul in 2 Corinthians. As Paul spoke of the suffering he experienced on his journeys, he said, “But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers” (2 Cor 1:9–11). Tucker mentions that this scripture has been used to the detriment of missionaries for years. The church viewed anything beyond sending and praying as a distraction from the sacrificial role required of those on the field. Like Paul, missionaries were being refined by the fire that was the mission context. It was the lot of those choosing to serve as an instrument of God.
Although sending and praying are essential roles of the church, beyond these activities more investment in caring for missionaries is theologically necessary. The level of care missionaries receive does have a significant impact on the mission effort. This article will offer a reflection on the theology of missionary care. In the words of Powell and Bower, theology is defined as “an expression of our encounter with God in the realities of life.” In the realities of mission work, we will look at the church and the individual as they partner with each other and with God in the spreading of the word. The missionary must be responsible for self-care, and the church has a responsibility for creating a true partnership by engagement through mutual responsibility.
A primary aspect of missionary care and an important responsibility of the missionary is self-care—the ability both to be aware of and to address one’s own emotional, physical, and spiritual state. The mission field is wrought with challenges and struggles. There is no disagreement on that point. What can be at issue is the necessity that the worker cares for himself or herself and the level of effort that is given to that care. Churches and missionaries often hold the unconscious perspective that self-care is selfish and in some way takes effort away from the work of God. The typical scenario is one in which a missionary fulfills numerous roles—church planter, preacher, elder, janitor, worship leader, youth leader—as well as attending to the needs of their family as they adjust to and live in another culture. They push themselves beyond their physical, emotional, and spiritual limits and eventually crash. This philosophy of missions was more ingrained in the past, but is still prevalent today. Anything related to God’s work is placed as the highest priority. This takes a toll on both the individual and the family. One family on a team in an Asian country put the rest of the team to shame as they rarely paused to take a break. They had an open door policy and were available to the church 24/7. Conflict erupted on the team as this family chided other team families for the time they were not available. The other families felt torn between their need for rest and the guilt they felt in response to the chiding. But they were right in taking time for themselves. People are not intended to live without rest and rejuvenation. In order to maintain one’s focus on the Savior and the mission in the face of the struggles, the missionary must look to his or her own needs. In the abovementioned case, after a few years, the wife of the over-engaged couple developed a severe case of depression, and they had to leave the field.
This example is not unique. It occurs the world over—the overwork, the guilt, and the conflict. There is always a need to address, always a ministry opportunity. How does one find a balance? Jesus offers the best example of a balanced life. He unapologetically went away for time alone with God, as is clear in Luke’s account of the choosing of the apostles:
One day soon afterward Jesus went up on a mountain to pray, and he prayed to God all night. At daybreak he called together all of his disciples and chose twelve of them to be apostles. Here are their names: Simon (whom he named Peter), Andrew (Peter’s brother), James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James (son of Alphaeus), Simon (who was called the zealot), Judas (son of James), Judas Iscariot (who later betrayed him). When they came down from the mountain, the disciples stood with Jesus on a large, level area, surrounded by many of his followers and by the crowds. There were people from all over Judea and from Jerusalem and from as far north as the seacoasts of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those troubled by evil spirits were healed. Everyone tried to touch him, because healing power went out from him, and he healed everyone. (Luke 6:12–19; nlt)
Reflecting on this passage, Henri Nouwen accentuates the pattern of Jesus moving from solitude to community to ministry. This pattern is portrayed in all of the Gospels. Jesus withdrew from the crowds and ministry and spent time in solitude with God. Nouwen states that this time in solitude made the ministry of Jesus possible. It helped him remember that his identity was based on his relationship with God and on God’s love for him. It is the way Jesus was able to maintain a steady focus on his purpose. With this foundation in place, Jesus then moved to community. After a night in prayer, Jesus went to his disciples and chose twelve apostles. He was able to move into community and remain centered. Because his identity was firmly based in God’s love, he was not tossed to and fro by the approval and whims of those around him. He did not need their approval! And finally, the community together went out and ministered. It is so often the case that those of us in ministry have this pattern backwards. We have a great idea for ministry and go full steam ahead with our talents and abilities. When we get tired or things go awry, we call in others to help, and at this point, we turn to God and pray. Jesus shows us the right order. This is the pattern for those of us called to a life of service to God. Luke 5:16 states that Jesus often went to a lonely place to pray. Jesus, God the Son, took time to rest and be with God. If it was necessary for the Christ, it is logical that those of us intent on continuing the work of Jesus would be even more dependent on this time with God.
I was recently talking with a missionary couple that had just returned from a week’s break. The wife shared that a few days into the break, her husband had collapsed and sobbed for several hours. Her theory was that he broke down during this time of rest because he finally found time for this luxury. He listened as she spoke and somberly agreed. He said for the past year, he repeatedly reached the end of himself and then kept plowing forward. He was weary beyond weary—at the end of himself. We talked about the need for regular time alone with God and he agreed with tears in his eyes. We have finite resources, but God does not! God has given each of us twenty-four hours in a day, and for some reason we believe it necessary to take on the weight of God’s role of saving the world. There is so much that needs to be done. Yet as a good friend has said to me repeatedly, “Jackie, you are not the savior of the world!” It is imperative that we say no both to others and to ourselves. The needs are neverending and the poor will always be with us (Mark 14:7). God does not expect the missionary to carry the weight of the work on his or her own shoulders. God invites us to let him shoulder the responsibility and, in his faithfulness, will help us as we seek to find balance in this manner. The more time that is spent alone with God, the more our identity rests in that relationship and the understanding that God loves us. We begin to view life with more clarity and balance. One analogy for this is walking in a river. As long as we continue to move, the mud in the water is stirred up and we can’t see. But when we stop, the silt settles and the water becomes clear. Priorities shift and fall into place, and we are better able to choose how best to serve. As we are more and more defined by God’s love, our choices are centered on what moves us toward loving God, others, and ourselves.
The Role of the Church
A secondary aspect of missionary care is the role of the sending organization—the church—in the life of the missionary and in their ministry. What does Scripture say about this role? What is required beyond the responsibility of sending and praying as stated by Paul in 2 Corinthians? We first look at Jesus and the example he gives and then move to the early church’s example of mutual responsibility.
Jesus spent his three years of ministry with two foci—first, loving the world through his personal teaching, healing, and relationships and second, equipping and caring for those he was sending out. John Mark Hicks suggests that the church was created to carry on the work of Jesus in this world—to be God’s healing love in this world and to encourage and equip others to do the same. It is one of the grand acts of the biblical story. The church participates in the work of our Lord by carrying the gospel to others and by being in partnership with those who carry the good news to others beyond its reach. Missionaries are co-workers in kingdom work. Unfortunately, this is not always the church’s view. At times the church views missionaries as employees to be sent out to do the work. At other times, the church sees its on-going role as minimal, such as sending a check once a month. Jesus portrays a much stronger partnership when he sends his disciples. In the sending out of the seventy-two disciples, his investment in their work is apparent. He instructs them on how to behave and minister and then sends them out with specific instructions. They then return to him rejoicing and he rejoices with them (Luke 10:1–24). His relationship with them was ongoing. He did not leave them on their own. That is the example for the church when a fellow believer decides to answer God’s call to carry the gospel to other lands. This is an opportunity that not every believer can take. It allows those of us in the church to assist and rejoice in the opportunity for the full-time focus on kingdom work. Our part is to sustain this co-worker in their efforts.
Another example is the manner in which Jesus invested himself in the growth and ministry of his disciples. As the disciples worked alongside Jesus, he continually taught, encouraged, and fine-tuned their understanding. He did not invite them into ministry and then leave them. We see in the Gospels the growth that occurred in the spirits and ministry of the disciples as they spent time with Jesus. We see them ministering in the early days of Jesus’ ministry, because he invited them to participate when they were not yet mature in their faith. He then saw to their growth as they walked with him. He did not move on to the next disciples but allowed them to remain with him. We, the church, see in this investment an example for the equipping of servants of the gospel. We help them work at the beginning of their ministry and continue in relationship with them in order to help them survive and thrive in their work. We invest as partners in the ministry that they do.
The early church also offers a model of partnership with those sent out. The church had a joint investment in the gospel being shared. In those early days, when the apostles were continuing Christ’s work on earth, the church oversaw the efforts and sent out people chosen specifically for leadership in other places. We see an emotional investment in the spreading of the gospel in other cities and countries. The church experienced both concern and joy for the various aspects of the work.
Peter came before the church in Jerusalem to explain his activities with the Gentiles in Caesarea. The church was concerned about the seeming departure from the intent of Christ, but after listening to his report, “they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life’ ” (Acts 11:18). They viewed the work of Peter in concert with their own work and rejoiced at its expansion. A later instance is when Paul and Barnabas were met with the question of whether or not the Gentiles should be circumcised:
The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles…It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.” (Acts 15:6–20)
Again, this event portrays the investment that the church in Jerusalem had in the work of Paul and Barnabas. They viewed it as effort owned by all Christians. Throughout Acts and the Epistles, we see examples of the church sending, encouraging, exhorting, correcting, and caring for both the missionaries and the churches that began in different locations. Powell and Bower describe the development of a pattern from apostle-centered ministry to ministry focused on the mutual relationship of believers and to the ministry of pastor-teachers and cross-cultural workers. He makes a case for missionary care based on this developmental process. He portrays the language changing from that of teaching, preaching, and exhorting in Acts to that of encouraging, comforting, strengthening, edifying, and confronting—a shift to the mutual responsibility of believers.
How wonderful to imagine the church unified in spreading the gospel to the entire world, a church in which individual members are aware that we each are different parts of the body—encouraging and helping each other to carry out our unique roles for the advancement of the kingdom. If I am not able or equipped to take the good news to another country, I relish the opportunity to do everything I can to make the mission work of another successful. I embrace this chance to encourage another to be Christ incarnate among those with whom I will not come in contact.
We are partners in kingdom work. My role may be to care for myself and my family, so that we can be the best possible instruments of God on the field. Or my role may be to do what I can to ensure that another has what they need to serve God where I cannot. This is the body of the God that I serve. This is truly “an expression of our encounter with God in the realities of life.”
Jackie Halstead is the Director of Education, Programs, and Connections at Scarritt Bennett Center, a retreat and conference center in Nashville, Tennessee (http://scarrittbennett.org). She is an adjunct professor of Spiritual Formation and Marriage and Family Therapy at Lipscomb University. She taught and chaired the department of MFT at ACU and then served at Lipscomb as Director of the Institute for Christian Spirituality and on the Bible faculty. She has been a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist for the past twenty-seven years, specializing in clergy and their families. Dr. Halstead speaks frequently on the topics of contemplative prayer, spiritual formation, and mental health at the national and international levels.
Hicks, John Mark. Enter the Water. Come to the Table: Baptism and Lord’s Supper in the Bible’s Story of New Creation. Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2014.
Taylor, Glenn C. “A Theological Perspective on Missionary Care,” in Enhancing Missionary Vitality: Mental Health Professions Serving Global Missions, edited by John R. Powell and Joyce M. Bowers, 55–62. Palmer Lake, CO: Mission Training International, 1999. .
Tucker, Ruth, and Leslie Andrews. “Historical Notes on Missionary Care.” In Missionary Care: Counting the Cost for World Evangelization, ed. Kelly O’Donnell, 24–36. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1992.
1 Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, unless noted otherwise.
2 Ruth Tucker and Leslie Andrews, “Historical Notes on Missionary Care,” in Missionary Care: Counting the Cost for World Evangelization, ed. Kelly O’Donnell (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1992), 25.
3 Glenn C. Taylor, “A Theological Perspective on Missionary Care,” in Enhancing Missionary Vitality: Mental Health Professions Serving Global Missions, ed. John R. Powell and Joyce M. Bowers (Palmer Lake, CO: Mission Training International, 1999), .
4 Henri Nouwen, “Moving from Solitude to Community,” Leadership: A Practical Journal for Church Leaders 16, no. 2 (Spring 1995): .
6 John Mark Hicks, Enter the Water, Come to the Table: Baptism and Lord’s Supper in the Bible’s Story of New Creation (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2014), Introduction.