by John Aitken
John is a former director of Echoes International and continues to support mission in an advisory role.
‘Missionary service is costly; it has always been so!’ These words were etched into my teenage consciousness watching the mission video celebrating Echoes of Service’s 100 years of missionary support. Fifty years later, I not only remember the voice of the Echoes editor and the force of his words but have seen real situations which affirm that mission service sometimes results in casualties.
Since the day the Lord commissioned His disciples and spoke of risk in service1 there has been missionary attrition. Alongside His continuing presence, the Lord Jesus was realistic with His disciples about the dangers they would face.
Paul summarises his challenges in service,2 listing imprisonment, opposition, spiritual attack, danger, physical weakness and a lack of material necessities. However, in this he was not alone; God was with him. His survival was aided through the practical, moral and spiritual support of believers at Ephesus and Philippi and individuals, Epaphroditus, Onesimus and others, who sacrificially supported him, prayed for him and encouraged him in his work.
Member Care is Essential
Pastoral and spiritual care is essential in the missionary enterprise. Sometimes called ‘member care’ it is the combined emotional, moral and spiritual support of a missionary given by their sending church, family, friends and the mission service group they may be associated with, such as Echoes International. Good member care contributes to overall missionary success. A lack of such care can leave a mission partner isolated and exposed as they face issues which may adversely affect them and their work.
The aim of member care is to come alongside the missionary and their immediate family, giving support and encouragement in ministry. The goal is that they not only survive but are sustained and refreshed in their work, whatever that may look like. It is an aid to longevity in service and helps avoid attrition.
Member care can help prevent a revolving door of missionaries stepping away from mission. In a study3 some years ago it was noted that 71% of people left the field for preventable reasons. Good, planned member care plus early help could have reduced this figure. The results of poor member care can be catastrophic, leading to burnout, family tension, a breakdown in relations with colleagues, isolation, unrealistic demands on others, personal frustration and spiritual dryness – all of which affect the work. Some may leave the field for a short period or in a worst-case scenario people permanently exit missionary service.
Member Care & the Commending Church
In the model of mission we espouse, the commending church has the primary responsibility for member care. This includes preparing the individual or couple for service, which requires a realistic understanding of the context in which they will live, supporting them when they are on the field through prayer and regular communication and dealing with needs as they arise. Regular, ongoing pastoral care from a mission partner’s local church produces a healthy, rewarding two-way relationship and a good basis for open, honest discussion should that be required. Welcoming them home should include an intentional detailed face-to-face review of their ministry. Echoes International can provide some helpful guidance for elders in how to conduct such a debrief.
For some mission partners the relationship with the commending church can be lost through the decline or closure of the fellowship, poor communication between church and missionary, the changing theological position of the church or mission partner or a change in personnel in the commending church. Such ‘orphan’ missionaries need to find another fellowship to be their commending church. Across the four home nations there are fellowships doing an excellent job in the pastoral care of missionaries. These assemblies would be happy to share their good practice with others.4
Member Care & Echoes International
For Echoes of Service and now Echoes International, member care has always been of high value. Until 2020, good member care was carried out by Echoes directors and trustees, through regular communication, providing advice when requested, debriefing of mission partners when at home, field visits and partnering with commending fellowships.
In 2018, we realised that Missionary Service Canada (MSC) a sister assembly organisation, used mission partners in member care. Echoes International adopted a variation of the MSC model in September 2020 appointing Mike and Alison Packer (France), as part-time member care facilitators; the aim being to increase intentional informal contact with mission partners and provide a listening ear as required.
Through their work Mike and Alison:
keep in touch through regular emails, WhatsApp and text messages
assist mission partners with advice as they approach periods of transition, such as a change of ministry
connect mission partners with resources on a range of issues including children’s educational needs or how to care for ageing parents
visit mission partners in different countries talking, praying and spending quality time with them
introduced quarterly Zoom prayer groups for mission partners from different areas of the world who join for fellowship and encouragement through praying with each other, which has been appreciated – there are over 95 mission partners in 11 prayer groups.
Mike and Alison’s experience in mission, their spiritual maturity and interpersonal skills have made them ideal for this role. A less formal way of relating and a focused role enables them to be more accessible to mission partners. The heart of member care at Echoes International is to walk alongside those who serve. Mission partners and commending churches have said that knowing there is a team at Echoes behind them brings reassurance. The challenge always is to be available without being intrusive. The expansion of the member care team has brought appreciation from mission partners serving around the world.
With the extra help and the greater use of Zoom, Echoes International now has a three-year debrief programme for all mission partners. Online training on issues which affect mission partners will be delivered during 2023.
Member Care & Personal Responsibility
As well as the support of the commending church and the input from Echoes International, mission partners have a personal responsibility for self-care. The pressure of the crowds and the relentlessness of the work caused the Lord to encourage His disciples to find time for quiet and rest.5 Despite Christ’s recognition of this, missionaries often fail to take care of themselves. Driven personalities, the perceived demands of the work, a particular theology of discipleship, a desire to be faithful to supporters and the need around them mean that they can take on too much. They don’t rest as they should. Some never have an annual holiday. Missionaries must make the effort to help their churches understand the real needs on the field. When a mission partner needs support, they have to be open and honest about what they are facing and reach out to get the help they need. Access to a person who is a trusted friend, elder or colleague to unburden to is invaluable.
Missionary work is costly, so too is member care. It takes time, effort, thoughtfulness and prayer. Remember mission partners as they care for themselves. When you can, urge those serving to take time out and regularly find a place for quiet, rest and spiritual refreshment. Pray that they will maintain their prayer life, personal devotional life and develop good relationships with colleagues. If your assembly has the capacity to take on the commendation of a mission partner when their original assembly closes, do contact the Echoes International office and make your desire known. This is an ongoing need.