Beating the Drum for Missionary Care: An Interview with Neal Pirolo

by Craig Thompson on July 30, 2018

In her post “Closer to the Truth about Current Missionary Attrition: An Initial Analysis of Results,” Katie Rowe looks at the findings of a recent survey of missionaries, showing that respondents rated “lack of missionary care” as one of the most common reasons for leaving the field. One of those who commented on the post was Neal Pirolo, author of Serving as Senders—Today: How to Care for Your Missionaries as They Prepare to Go, Are on the Field and Return Home, and The Reentry Team: Caring for Your Returning Missionaries. The current edition of Serving as Senders—Today is a revision of the original, first published in 1991. Since then, it has been translated into 20 languages and has nearly a half million copies in print.

In reference to missionary/member care, Neal wrote, “I have been ‘beating this drum’ since 1976!” I contacted Neal to get his long-term perspective, and he graciously agreed to answer my questions (and along the way, with his wife’s help, remembered that the year was actually 1978).

Why was 1978 a starting point for you to begin your drumbeat for missionary care? 

Oftentimes, telling a story communicates better than “just the facts.” Let me tell a story:

I went to Brazil to administer the five schools Wycliffe/SIL was using at the time for missionary children. My wife was given the responsibility of overseeing the Group House in Cuiaba. We had a choice: move our family of six in with all the singles or move from house to house every three months as translators went to their villages and back. We moved in. We looked in the refrigerator. Every item had someone’s initials on it. We looked at each other. “This will not work,” our eyes said to each other. But how do you change a group of people so entrenched?

On the second evening, we were all in the kitchen trying to quickly clean up and get to a meeting. Someone pulled hard on the fridge door. It came off its hinge! It fell forward, dumping all the contents on the floor. After the clean-up, my wife said, “We will be doing things differently now.” We became a family.

To make a long story short, in those two and a half years, we lost all sense of personal ownership. Everything became ours. Even our bedroom became the crying room for several single women who were being teased beyond reason about getting married.

Well, in 1978, we came home. At the office, a working partner was using a new Bic extra-fine felt-tipped pen. (They had not been around when we went to Brazil.) I admired it. He let me try it. It made such a smooth and clear script. I liked it. The next day he brought one and gave it to me. He gave it to me! It was mine. I owned it! Every so often, I would stop writing and just look at that 79-cent Bic pen and realize that I owned it. It was mine! His first look at me was quizzical. Then he smiled an understanding smile. And we went back to work.

There is a chapter in The Reentry Team titled “Silly Little Things.” Silly little thing after silly little thing can create an apprehension in returning missionaries making them wonder “what next?” Bit by bit the reservoir of resistance to the uncertainty of these silly little things can become “the final straw.” Only those trained in missionary care will see the need to help them process even those silly little things.

After returning from ministry in Brazil. I was given the position of director of the San Diego School of Evangelism and missions pastor of the sponsoring church. SDSE was a ministry school with a very strong emphasis on cross-cultural outreach (missions). Even as the students made their application to the school, I encouraged them to develop a team of ten people who would be supportive of them, for they were entering this school with a life of ministry before them. Then, to those who wanted to minister cross-culturally, we gave further training in living and ministering in a second culture, with the support team becoming more fully developed around the areas of care Paul commended the Christians of Philippi for providing for him.

You’ve had 40-plus years of watching the missionary landscape and listening to missionary stories. From what you have seen and heard, how have the member-care needs of missionaries changed—and how have they stayed the same?

Missionary care is multi-leveled and diverse. In its fullest sense, it brings to play four levels of involvement: church care, partnership care, agency care, and crisis care. Each level is good at certain aspects of need and not so good at other aspects. But it is interesting that as the first three function at their strength, the fourth level is less needed. It is diverse in that each member of the family, as a unique individual, has different needs, and different needs at different times. It is quite intense. Thus, there’s the need for a cooperation between all parties, including the missionary, in providing missionary care.

The need for missionary care has not changed through the years. The enemy who raised havoc in Paul’s day is the same enemy who is waging war with the saints today. Through world travel and communication networks people may be more aware of the needs of missionaries. However, Paul, the Apostle, in writing a letter to the Philippian Christians, acknowledged their care for him in six areas: encouragement, prayer, logistics, communication, finance, and reentry. He opens the letter by calling them “partners in the Gospel”! And every missionary today needs “partners in the Gospel” to provide care in those six areas.

What has changed is a greater awareness of that personal/relational/partnership level. It is a group of people who have come together as a team and have taken “ownership” of the specific work of a specific missionary. With this level of commitment, they are more likely to see the mission through to its completion. They are as concerned as the missionary is about the outcome of their efforts. They see the missionary as their “field representative,” but they, in their respective roles, are equally vital to the end goal.

The prayer coordinator of one partnership team saw a photo of a young lady with her head on the shoulder of a missionary she and her team had sent out. When she saw it, she said, “I want to know if this young lady is distracting Byron from the work that we sent him to do!” That’s ownership. That’s commitment. That’s missionary care.

Partnering in that way takes trust. What can missionaries and senders do to develop that kind of relationship?

Here is the first part of Byron’s story:

Byron had just come back from a short-term ministry trip to China, and he believed God wanted him to return long term. Very quickly, because he had been active in his home church, the leadership confirmed his call. The missions pastor brought him that news with a copy of Serving as Senders—Today. “Byron,” Dan said, “read this book and begin developing your partnership team.” Byron’s reply? “I’m not gonna read dat book! I’ve got the Bible and that’s all I need!” Gently, but firmly Dan responded: “Byron, we can’t keep you from going to China, but if you want us to send you, you will read this book and develop your partnership team.” He began reading. One by one, he sought out and gained a commitment from a core leadership team. He began having meetings on the last Sunday of each month. No pressure. No commitment. But at each meeting, as Byron shared his enthusiasm and God-directed commitment to this ministry, more and more people prayed and decided it was something they wanted to be a part of. Byron was allowing them to “own” this ministry. As each made a commitment to provide care in one or another of the six areas, they related with the core leadership for that area. These commitments were not on a “management team” level. These people had prayed about their decision. A trust in the Lord and in each other was being developed. In nine months, Byron was ready to be sent by his home church. Though 14 years have passed, and many changes have taken place in his ministry (he did marry that young lady), many on that original team are still partnering with him.

Byron’s is a success story of beginning—and continuing—cross-cultural ministry with a partnership team. There are some missionaries, though, who’ve been on the field for several years and who find themselves, for whatever reason, without such support. Maybe they’re feeling distant from the people “back home.” What advice would you give them for taking steps to fill this need?

Craig, you are making this so easy for me! Another story:

Maria was sent out (more like . . . said “good-bye” to) by her church. They and she knew nothing about partnership teams. She struggled. (That’s an understatement!) She was observing another missionary family who was doing so well. One day, they invited her to a Bible study. Their missions pastor had prepared a study—just for them. He had flown to their city only for this reason: to share the Word with them and encourage them.

Maria was aghast! “How? Why? What?” she wondered. She drew up energy to ask them. In the conversation, she discovered how they had developed a partnership team. Their finances were in order; hers were almost nonexistent. They had an active prayer team; she doubted anyone remembered where she was. Their missions pastor had made a special trip to encourage them; she didn’t know if her church still had a missions pastor.

She came home. Yes, there was a missions pastor, but he was busy with 35 missionaries out around the world. Her name was on the list, but she had never received anything from the church, except one time: They had sent her a USA bank check. It had been returned for additional postage and sent again. In her country, she could not cash it.

Well, another one of the pastors heard her story and decided to do something. He arranged for her to share at all of the home fellowships to educate them about partnership teams. Then he sent a copy of Serving as Senders—Today to each of the 35 missionaries, with a note: “Read this book. If you would like me to help you develop a partnership team, pray, then send me the names of two or three you believe could become the core leader of your team.” For those who responded (When I heard this story, I couldn’t believe that some did not respond!), he went to the people named and asked them to prayerfully consider taking on this responsibility. From there, the core leader wrote to the missionary, obtained the names of their friends, and asked permission to write to them. A team was developed.

This way is a bit more difficult than if the missionary develops the team before going. For Maria, it worked by her taking the drastic step of coming home and God leading her to a pastor who would “carry the ball.” It would be even more difficult if there were no one in leadership to assist the missionary or for the missionary to manage it from the field. However, all missionaries have someone who has shown interest in their ministry who could help facilitate it from their home country. I cannot over emphasize, from my experience with missionaries who have a developed partnership team and those who don’t, it is clear: Whatever it takes, it is worth your effort to develop this level of missionary care.

This is not to negate the need for the other three levels of missionary care. There are functions that the agency can do well that the other three cannot, likewise, for those at the church and crisis levels of care. When each level functions well at what they are best equipped to do, a missionary is well cared for, to the glory of God!

Neal serves as founding director of Emmaus Road International, which provides many member-care resources through its websiteThey include Byron’s complete story, “I’m Not Gonna Read Dat Book!” and the audio of a talk Neal has given entitled, “Partners in the Gospel,” both at ERI’s Free Media Library.

You can purchase Serving as Senders—Today from ERI, with discounts for bulk orders. And to those missionaries now on the field wanting to set up a partnership team, Neal extends this offer: If you email him the names of two or three people you have prayed about who might be willing to take on the leadership of a team, he will send them a copy of Serving as Senders—Today, with a letter encouraging them to “step up to the plate” and assist you in developing your team. You can reach Neal at Neal_Pirolo@eri.org.

[photo: “Drum,” by André Prata, used under a Creative Commons license]

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About Craig Thompson

Craig and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to southwest Missouri. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures. Craig blogs at ClearingCustoms.net.

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