A Pastor's Dilemma

by FCS Ministries on

by Bob Lupton

Her title is missions pastor. Spiritual nurture is her assignment. Her specific job is to educate, motivate and mobilize church members to engage personally in mission. She weaves mission content into the Christian education curriculum and preaches it from the pulpit from time to time. She orchestrates the church’s mission conference, forms small group follow-up discussions, leads mission trips, and coordinates service projects. She develops relationships with missionaries and pastors in remote mission fields, screens local non-profit ministries as suitable sources for volunteer involvement, and coordinates outreach and service programs. Her success is measured by the number of church members that become personally engaged in mission, and by the fulfillment they experience participating in these efforts.  She fills an essential role in a growing, dynamic western church.

She knows what it takes to create meaningful service projects and mission trips for her members. Probably better than most. First and foremost, she knows, the experience must address a pressing need. It is not enough to simply do make-work. A worthwhile experience must accomplish real and lasting good. Maybe cleaning up a vacant city lot or painting a Honduran church might work for youth, but adults with a life’s worth of wisdom under their belt, need something of much greater significance. Like establishing a medical clinic for a disease-plagued region, or digging a well for a drought-stricken village.

Thus, the activities the missions pastor promotes must be life-changing, both for the people being served and the ones doing the serving. Of course, it is exceedingly rare for a one-day service project or a one week mission trip to deliver life-changing results, but volunteers must be made to understand that even their small investments will produce significant results. Painting a picture of the importance of service is an important part of the missions pastor’s duty.

This is not spin.  This is a conviction.  The missions pastor believes in her heart that one-day service projects and one-week mission trips really do make a difference. She believes that in the economy of God every act of kindness, no matter how small, has redemptive impact. Even when you cannot see the results. She teaches her parishioners this. And she is right, of course.  God’s economy is different from man’s economy. The widow’s mite is more valuable than the wealthy man’s gold. In the Kingdom, the sacrifice of a Saturday or a week of selfless service has untold value. It is the missions pastor’s job – her calling – to affirm the compassionate motivation and genuine goodness of her people.

But she is caught in a tension. A number of tensions really. One is numbers. Numbers are important – number of volunteers, number of projects, number of mission trips, number of food boxes distributed, number of ministries supported.  Numbers are one of the criteria upon which her performance is evaluated.

But quantity does not necessarily equal quality. A hoard of youth descending on an inner-city neighborhood for a clean-up day may not be as effective as a select group of high school students who tutor grade-schoolers for a semester. Both activities may be good but their impact is significantly different. Activities are not the same as outcomes. And, in many instances, smaller is better.

Another tension she lives in is competing agendas. Her charge is to “educate, motivate and mobilize church members to engage personally in mission.” This is not the same as elevating the poor out of poverty (which is what much service claims to be about). These two agendas – mobilizing members and elevating the poor – may converge in a well-conceived service project or mission trip. But the missions pastor’s first and foremost responsibility is the spiritual nurture of her people. Service is a means to an end. The temptation, the tendency, is to plan activities that suit the needs of the servers rather than address the deeper needs (and often more complex) of those being served. Thus, leading a week of summer vacation bible school in Guatemala is preferable to starting business enterprises that enable Guatemalan youth to emerge from poverty.  Sometimes good becomes the enemy of best.  The missions pastor must live in this tension.

Yet another tension is finances. Service is expensive – especially mission trips.  Parents are usually supportive when their teenagers express compassionate interest in others.  Money for mission adventures is relatively easy to raise.  But raising money is not the problem. Return on investment (ROI) is. The missions pastor knows that the costs are high compared to the actual work being done – very high.  She knows that there is no way to justify that kind of expenditure except as the cost of spiritual development for her own people. But that is not how the trip is being sold to missioners and their generous supporters. It is billed as “spreading the Gospel” or “loving the unloved” or “rescuing the perishing” – none of which is completely truthful.

Perhaps the most troubling tension, however, is perpetuating a dishonesty for the sake of protecting the feelings of some of her most loyal members. She knows that her integrity is compromised when she applauds the service of volunteers, knowing all the while that their work may actually be doing as much (or more) harm as good. She sees quite clearly that the poor who get clothes from the church’s clothes closet and food from the food pantry are habitual “repeat customers.”

She knows in her heart that unhealthy dependencies have developed, that some recipients are using these benevolences to support destructive lifestyles. And she has witnessed first-hand similar outcomes among the poor of remote villages her mission-trip recruits have visited – how well-intended benevolence has fostered a culture of beggary and weakened the capacity for self-sufficiency.

But how is she to convey this concern to the dedicated servants who give selflessly of their time collecting and sorting clothes, boxing donated food, and distributing “necessities of life” to “the least of these” as acts of compassion and obedience to their Lord? Or to those who have given up weeks of their time and raised thousands of dollars to serve the poor in foreign lands?  How can she tell them that their good and righteous efforts are doing harm? Does she continue to protect their feelings with half-truths or does she risk telling them the whole story?

A sensitive (and smart) missions pastor knows better than to launch a frontal assault. The damage could be far reaching, far beyond the wounded spirits of a few dedicated saints. She will find a more politically savvy means to enlighten her people. She will discuss the matter with her senior pastor and secure his support to initiate a discussion with her missions committee.

She will introduce them to a book that has recently been recommended to her– one that has been stirring up a lot of discussion in churches of their denomination (When Helping Hurts or Toxic Charity will do just fine). She tells her leaders that she wants their church to stay on the cutting edge of missions. She leads them through a book study that surfaces all the issues that she has been quietly struggling with.

As her missions committee begins to grapple with these realities, she suggests to the chairman that it might be instructive to conduct an evaluation of current practices to determine the effectiveness of their outreach. Meanwhile she explores best practices of other churches that offer creative alternatives to hurtful outcomes of traditional charity. As candid discussions lead to questions about change, she has models to introduce and site visits to suggest. She knows the process will take time. She does not try to rush it. But it will be her gentle, persistent nudges (and those of her more progressive leaders) that will ultimately convert their missions program from toxic to transformative.

Image credit: Brande Jackson