People Over Policy: A Call For Better Member Care

by Elizabeth Vahey Smith

Member Care is being done well in many places. I know many wonderful member care providers in supportive agencies. I also know many wonderful independent member care providers.

But sometimes member care goes badly, and member care policies are partly to blame. Member care policies are an organization’s plan for the best way to handle a given situation. They’re created with good intentions, and they’re important to have in place. They don’t, however, always support a family’s unique needs. 

For example, a policy might say something like: “If Member Care personnel hear about these kinds of situations, they’ll report back to leadership.” But a worker may view the experience like this:

“I had no idea there was a list of things that wouldn’t be confidential.”
“I wouldn’t have told them if I knew it would get back to senior leadership.”
“I thought I was sharing with my friend. Not Member Care.”

A policy might say, “The Key Leader will determine if that person can receive adequate care on the field or if they need to return home for care,” while a worker might say:

“We’d had run-ins before. He didn’t like me and wasn’t interested in understanding.”
“They didn’t take the time to investigate in-country options.”
“They didn’t understand that our support system was in-country, not ‘back at home.’”

Another policy might say, “In the event that one spouse needs to return from the field, the whole family will accompany him.” Unfortunately, these can become a family’s experience:

“He was abusive and then my kids were ripped out of their home to live in limbo in their passport country.”
“The kids were finally doing well here.”
“They didn’t consider that we didn’t have the funds for life stateside.”

How Organizations Run

Missionary organizations were designed to complete a mission. They have a goal – church planting, bible translation, community development – and they bring together people, finances, and resources to make that happen.

In the past 40 years or so, some orgs realized that people kept quitting, which was counterproductive to their mission. The financial and time investment to get them trained and sent, the knowledge they acquired while there (which resides in the workers’ heads only), the networks they were building – all of that is lost.

So missionary organizations did some investigating and discovered that one of the reasons people were quitting was because they weren’t feeling adequately cared for. Thus Member Care was created.

Member Care is largely modeled after Human Resources. We had to start from somewhere, so we started from the corporate world and set out to improve the system. Unfortunately, HR had made the mistake of treating humans like a high-maintenance commodity that the company needs to keep in stock, which doesn’t necessarily translate well to missions.

So while missionary organizations aspired to care for people holistically, they often kept HR’s reporting structure. When member care is done this way, it tends to prioritize the needs of the mission over the needs of the individual.

This means that member care isn’t just checking into your work performance and your workplace conflicts; it’s also checking into your home life, your personal life, and your spiritual life. And sometimes information that seems like it could be a threat to the mission of the organization gets whisked back to senior leadership, which can have devastating effects downstream. 

Originally mission organizations filled member care roles with people they already had on staff. This made sense; member care was a new sector, and sending agencies simply had to find people who could take on more responsibilities. 

So in the beginning Member Care positions sometimes got filled by people who had a heart to care for others but who didn’t always receive adequate training. They wanted to help but may not have known how to be emotionally safe for others. They wanted everyone to thrive but sometimes seemed judgmental when someone wasn’t thriving. They were ready to help, but they needed better training.

Doing Better Member Care

Organizations want their workers to feel well cared-for, and field workers should feel like they and their member care providers are on the same team. Here are four ideas for making that happen.

1. Raise the standard for member care personnel. 

Member Care needs to be valued enough that organizations recruit to fill those roles specifically and directly. Reference checks need to include not just the candidate’s managers but also those who have worked under the candidate or who have been cared for by the candidate. Even internal hiring needs to require some sort of referral from people who can say, “I was vulnerable, and they were safe.” That is the hallmark of quality member care.

2. Welcome member care to the table.  

The questions of what to report, when to report, and to whom, are much more easily addressed when the member care team is led by someone experienced in excellent member care. This means that if your highly trained member care personnel feel they need additional support to address a situation, they can bring it to their Member Care Director who has the authority to address that situation in a trauma-informed way.

3. Become trauma informed. 

Sometimes the people who are handling difficult situations don’t understand how to be emotionally safe spaces for people in crisis — which means that organizational responses can sometimes be more traumatic than the initial event. Ideally all member care personnel need to be trauma-informed. This may include directors, logistics personnel, and especially senior leadership. Invest in quality training.

4. Be mindful of policies. 

No policy is perfect, so there needs to be an appeal system: a way people can present extenuating circumstances to ask for adjustments in the policy. Everyone in the org needs to know the ins and outs of all the policies, as well as how to make an appeal.

Importantly, if certain topics are not going to be kept confidential by member care providers, missionaries need to be informed of those. Otherwise, following policy will feel like a breach of confidence.

Member Care is still young in comparison to missions work at large. There is so much learning and refining that we can do to raise the bar on how we care for missionaries and their families. These small pivots are well worth the effort. Member Care should not contribute to trauma, but instead contribute to teams who truly feel uplifted by the support of their organization so that they can advance the mission of God in the world.

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash


Elizabeth Vahey Smith is a TCK mom who spent 5 years in Papua New Guinea as a missionary. Now her family explores the globe full-time as worldschoolers. Elizabeth works remotely as the COO for TCK Training, traveling often for work and always for pleasure. She is the author of The Practice of Processing: Exploring Your Emotions to Chart an Intentional Course. Follow her travels on Instagram @elizabeth.vaheysmith and @neverendingfieldtrip. Learn more about research-based preventive care for TCKs @tcktraining.

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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