I remember facing our first ministry transition and Googling, “How do I tell donors that we’re changing ministries?”
We hadn’t served in our first overseas assignment for very long. There was a lot of uncertainty surrounding our very unexpected change in plans and country of service.
I hardly knew how to process the unforeseen change myself, let alone how to concisely communicate it to our donors. I felt like we had failed them. I was anxious and needed guidance with this intimidating task.
The blank screen that met me told me that no one talks about this.
Maybe that’s because people don’t go to the field expecting a change in their ministry. I certainly didn’t learn about the situation in training – or how to communicate about it.
But it’s more common than you might think. If you plan to serve overseas long term, it is likely that you will face adaptation in your ministry or furlough plans at some point. We expect global life to be fraught with transition, and we know how to pack a bag to exactly 49.5 pounds, but we are usually left feeling vulnerable and ill-prepared to communicate the delicate matter of ministry transition.
If you are in this boat, I’m sorry. I’ve been there. I know the baggy-eyed exhaustion you are facing after a season of debating and seeking God on what to do. I also know the sleepless nights of wondering how your supporters will receive the news.
On the other end, after multiple transitions over the last decade, I also know the staying power of the people on our support team. Their dedication to God’s heart for the nations shouldn’t surprise me anymore, but I guess I never take it for granted.
No matter the ministry transition, you’re probably living in some discomfort and uncertainty. You might have an idea of future ministry plans, but many things are still unclear.
The very public nature of mission work with its fundraising and partnership development exacerbates an already delicate season. You not only have to navigate your own pain and incertitude, you have to promptly, concisely, and clearly communicate your shift to your ministry partners.
Transition is also a time ripe for misunderstanding, which can damage relationships. Uncertainty can be crippling and may leave you unable to communicate with crucial ministry partners, even if you have stewarded these relationships well for many years.
The goal here is to preserve your valuable partner relationships even when it feels daunting. These people are FOR you. There are things you can communicate, even if you’re still living with some uncertainty. As you do so, you will move from a place of ambiguity and non-communication to a place of greater clarity and new confidence.
In the midst of an unclear season, I offer five tools that you can apply when you communicate about your ministry transition.
1. Share what you are praying and learning.
What have you prayed through this transition? What have you learned about God, his heart for people, and the sacrifice he modeled?
When our family made one significant ministry transition, we prayed for God to open our eyes to where he was at work and how we could join him there. We learned that it was extremely important to us to partner with the national church, and we wanted to do this on a deeper level in our next assignment. We shared this with our partners and used it as a guide for discerning where to plug in. Your partners will cherish knowing how and what you have prayed through.
2. Communicate threads of continuity.
People respond well to threads of continuity during transition. What will stay consistent? There is an overarching and unchanging aspect to conducting ministry that remains the same no matter where you are and no matter what you are doing.
What was the original vision, or part of the vision, that launched your family into missions and still propels you today? This is the “why” that transcends your specific job descriptions or geographic assignment. You may need to step back from your specific ministry roles to look at the bigger and more timeless picture of your role in spreading the gospel message, however and wherever you do that.
When we transitioned out of one ministry to another several years ago, we faced a lot of change, including our job descriptions and country assignment. However, we leaned on two significant threads of continuity that we could communicate to our donors. Our long-term passions and skill sets included skills training, education, and discipleship. These ministry aspects are part of who Sam and Anna Danforth are and how we do ministry. They are the “why” beyond our specific job descriptions or location.
Your threads of continuity carry a sense of timelessness that aligns with God’s call to make disciples of all nations and utilize your skill sets. Even though everything around you is changing, this isn’t a total shift in your identity or your approach to missions. It is an affirmation of the timeless call to make Christ known among the nations and of your role in that call.
3. Avoid getting bogged down in details about the past.
Your story is important, and transparency builds trust. But too many details can be confusing and may actually detract from your message. You are moving forward. Communicate what comes next.
You may be dealing with difficult immigration officials or toxic team dynamics that are a major contributing factor in your need for a change. Focus on what is changing in the ministry or your situation, not all the details that led up to your transition.
For example, “We were unable to secure our visas last week as we hoped and will have to return to the United States until further notice.” Share your next step instead of a very long explanation of every detail that went wrong at the immigration office.
Instead of communicating the need for distance from your team, you can share, “We will be meeting with our teammates for vision casting quarterly instead of monthly.” If you are dealing with a private or sensitive medical issue, try, “One of our family members is experiencing some health issues that need to be addressed with a trip back home. This is a difficult time for us, and we ask that you enable us to protect our family privacy during this vulnerable time.”
You can always go back and share more when you are out of the thick of the mess. Remember that anything you share may be shared publicly or forwarded to anyone. Starting with less gives you a chance to deal with your own pain and lack of clarity first.
Do not promise that more details will come. Simply state your current situation or what is coming next. Allow yourself to choose whether you can or should go into more detail later on.
4. You have agency. Own your choice where you can.
If any part of your transition was your choice, own it. Embrace your role as a decision-maker. Avoid blame. This may not always be possible, but where it is, it moves you from a place of helplessness and reactivity to a place of confidence and proactivity in following God’s guidance.
If your sending organization has made a major shift in their vision or policies and you can no longer stay in ministry with them, avoid blame. Instead, talk about how your future sending organization provides the vision or opportunities you need to carry out the mission that God has placed on your heart.
Avoiding blame is especially important when family members are concerned. If one person in your family is dealing with a major issue or health problem that forces a change in ministry, avoid focusing on that family member.
Instead, communicate your decision to pursue family health. For example, “After _____ years on the field, we have determined with our member care team that we need to return to the U.S. for a season to pursue care and resources that are not available in our host country.” Or, “Our family will be moving from our rural station to the capital city so that we can still serve in this cross-cultural context while accessing the resources that our family needs at this time.”
5. Avoid overly detailed promises about future plans.
What is the main thrust of your next assignment? You may feel a deep sense of responsibility to communicate a clear and detailed plan for future ministry. However, your future ministry may not shape up exactly as you plan. It is ok to share general plans for future ministry and how God is leading you to fulfill those plans without making specific promises of future outcomes. Prepare your heart and the hearts of your partners for open-mindedness on how God may shape your future ministry. It might turn out differently than you expect.
For example, instead of sharing, “We will raise up Thai leaders who will show the Jesus film in rural villages,” try saying, “We will work with local people to share the Jesus film in their own communities.” It is possible that the leaders God brings to you will be of other ethnic groups or that they will share the Jesus film in urban areas too, not just in rural villages.
Instead of saying, “I will be working in a soup kitchen three days a week, tutoring high school students two days a week, and teaching Sunday School once a week,” try, “My ministry will include working in a soup kitchen, tutoring students, and teaching Sunday School.” Your time allotment may have to adapt and change according to community needs once you get there.
Avoiding overly detailed language may seem unimportant now, but it could save you heartache and miscommunication in the future. Partners typically latch on to the first news they hear during transition, and it can be difficult to communicate a different plan later on.
For example, when we were starting up a new auto repair ministry, we bounced around the name “Titus Garage” as an idea. The name actually became “Titus Auto Centre.” But years later, even after hundreds of social media posts and dozens of newsletters using the correct name, partners still called it “Titus Garage” because that is what they first heard. You can avoid confusion by refraining from details now.
Unexpected change in ministry is both inevitable and unsettling. These five tools serve as a starting point to help you clearly communicate your timeless call to serve Christ while maintaining your valuable sending relationships, even when you’re not sure what to say. Because nobody needs to stare at a blank screen when there are people on the other side who care about you.