by Ben Barthelemy
We probably all remember that day. The one in which we stepped onto a plane to begin the journey to our ministry area. For some of us there was a feeling of great excitement, while others of us were feeling scared, sad, nervous, and perhaps a hundred other emotions, maybe all at once. And yet, all cross-cultural workers experience that day of departure, a day when everything suddenly gets very real.
To those who are still preparing to go, allow me to give one piece of unsolicited advice. You have probably gotten lots of it already. (Make sure you bring lots of chili powder, you can’t get it here. Don’t worry about packing winter clothes, it doesn’t get cold. Remember to get a bank that doesn’t have international service fees. Bring lots of Pepto Bismol, Turkish tummy is terrible!) So, to add to the cacophony of needed and not-so-needed tips, here is one more: go with the end in mind.
I dare say this isn’t typical advice for soon-to-depart missionaries, but the reality of the matter is this: you will not be there forever. Often, in our excitement to “do amazing things for God,” we don’t think long-term. In my own continent of service, Africa, there have been countless ministries started by cross-cultural workers, and there have been countless ministries which closed once the missionary left.
Generally, we Westerners are “doers.” It seems, for both good and ill, we have a “git-er-done” kind of mentality. We show up to various places around the world, we see a need, and we start doing something about it (often in a very clunky way, but that’s another story). And yet we don’t consider what will happen when we leave.
So often these ministries succeed for a long time because they are supported with Western money and Western skills. What happens when the worker leaves? Well, they take their financial connections and skills with them. The ministry may limp along for a time, but in many scenarios, the ending has already been written. When all is said and done, local people are left to pick up the pieces because there was no plan for the future. They may feel like the missionary/organization deserted them.
As we look across the landscape of global Christianity, trends indicate that the Church in the West is declining. Philip Jenkins, in his book The Next Christendom, makes the argument that the epicenter of Christianity is moving to the Global South. This brings with it both dangers and opportunities. We need to recognize that Western missionaries and finances are likely going to be on the decline. We can no longer just assume that these missionary ventures will be forever propped up by the next young couple our organization sends our way.
If you were to look closely, my guess is that trends in missions would indicate that missionaries are staying on the field for shorter amounts of time than in the past. In previous generations cross-cultural workers would spend their entire careers on the mission field, but in our current day people are much more transient and prone to try many different things throughout their career. Our missions strategies need to adapt accordingly. All of those in missionary work need to be asking the question, “What’s my exit strategy?”
Consider the apostle Paul. He traveled the ancient world preaching the Gospel and planting churches. In the churches he planted, he had a plan for their long-term sustainability. It was called “eldership.” These churches were led by local believers who were godly and capable. Now, I can already hear the excuses in my head: “But there are none of those.” If this is true, then it becomes our job to train them up. Isn’t that an integral part of discipleship?
Missionaries are often an independent and driven lot who can have more than a little “control freak” inside. We have to be willing to let others do things differently and perhaps even experience failure. Paul did send some scathing letters, but he also didn’t micromanage. He couldn’t have, because within a relatively short amount of time he was off to a new place of ministry.
This principle of going with the end in mind is not just for church planters, however; it applies across ministry contexts. Constantly be thinking about how you will hand off the ministry when your time is up. The last thing you want is for those remaining behind to be forced to scramble because you didn’t see the end coming.
So I encourage those of you already on the field to have or develop an exit strategy. Take intentional steps toward your plan, and inform both your leadership and your local partners of that plan. And for those who are about to depart, remember to go with the end in mind.
Ben is a sinner saved by grace. He is husband to Beth (a far more accomplished writer than himself), dad to four daughters, and partial owner of two cats. They live and work in South Africa where they are involved in theological education.