5 Ways to Communicate with Supporters About a Ministry Transition

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.

Read an Accidental Memoir Told in Newsletters (and a giveaway)

This month marks the 25th anniversary of writing newsletters. I know some reading this post have been writing newsletters for many more moons than I have, but I am still a bit surprised that I have 25 years under my belt.

Did the word “newsletters” have a Pavlovian response for you? If so, I bet you’re not salivating with excitement, instead you might have twinges of shame, anxiety, and/or dread. This should not be my friends. This should not be. But instead of adding to the shame that exists by saying, “I love newsletter writing and so should you. End of story.” I set out to find a way to help people fall in love with newsletter writing. Maybe for the first time. Maybe again. Maybe a little bit more for those who already enjoy writing newsletters.

Here is one of the fundamental problems: too often those in ministry don’t write newsletters, they write news reports. Now, someone else may feel passionate about reports, I don’t. A report accomplices something different than a letter. A report often shows progress. A report has to hustle for its worth. A report justifies what a person, product, or division has been doing. A report shares information.

A letter, on the other hand, fosters a relationship.

At its core, a newsletter should do just that: share the news of your life and ministry embedded in the relationship a letter offers. Sometimes the news is exciting, sometimes it is heartbreaking, sometimes—let’s be honest—it can be a bit dull (do I really need to know what you ate for lunch?). But every line written can be a thread weaving the heart of the writer to the heart of the reader, strengthening the tie.

Does this sound like the kind of letters you write? If not, don’t worry, help is on the way. For the past year I have been compiling the newsletters from my first nine year on the field and writing nine short articles for those who write newsletters. Last week Love, Amy: An Accidental Memoir Told in Newsletters from China was published.

Why should you buy this book or give it to someone you know who writes newsletters?

We need to know we are not alone. I did not compile these letters to say, “Look at how amazing I am.” Actually, there are parts I’d rather not share. As I compiled them I had to come to terms with First Year Amy. She says things that makes Current Amy cringe. I want to put my hand over her mouth and say, “When you know what you are talking about, then you may speak.”

But she has the right to be First Year Amy. She has the right not to know what she cannot know. She has the right to do the best she can when it comes to the culture, functioning on a team, and sharing her faith.

One area my editor and I wrestled with was how much to alter the letters. You will notice that my writing ability improves and I go through phases. For instance, the letters start off without titles and in year seven I became enamored with subtitles. I kept coming back to the heart of the project: not making me look better than I was, but showing you do not need to write perfect newsletters. You just need to keep showing up.

You can move at least one tick towards the “love” end of the “I love—hate writing newsletters” continuum. I am not deluding myself that this book will turn everyone into raving newsletter fans. I wish it could! I am, however, sure that by reading these letters you will move a little bit on the continuum. I wrote it specifically for you. Those who already love writing newsletters will enjoy it, but they don’t “need” it the way you do. You ministry and relationship with your supporters is with the time, money, and effort to read this book.

You will get ideas for your own newsletter writing. In the short articles at the end of each year you will find:

  • What Gets in the Way of Writing Newsletters
  • Ideas for Your Newsletters
  • How to Write Readable Newsletters with One Easy Tip 
  • Five Things Newsletter Writers Do Well by Davita Freeman
  • Five Things Newsletter Writers Do Well by Davita Freeman
  • Ideas for Supporters Reading Your Newsletters
  • Questions to Help You Develop a Theology of Newsletter Writing
  • The Joys of Newsletter Writing
  • Three Final Practical Tips for Your Newsletters

Reading the letters themselves will also spark ideas.

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Technology offers us many ways to connect with supporters. Secret Facebook groups, making a Facebook live video or an Instastory on Instagram, are great. But there is something special about a letter. A newsletter in which you share a story, an encounter you had, a cultural lesson you learned. A letter allows you to bring others along on the journey. It is long enough to say something of substance, but short enough that no one letter bears the weight of the relationship.

If you haven’t written a letter recently, write one this week. If you’re not sure where to start, let Love, Amy give you a few ideas.

Because I believe in paying it forward, I will give three copies of this book to someone you know. Leave a comment and enter to win a copy you can give to them.

What has been your newsletter writing experience? What stresses you? What have you grown to love about writing newsletters?

You know I wasn’t always a writer. In fact, I was a junior high math teacher, but writing newsletters turned me into a writer. It may just do the same for you!

Love,

Amy

P.S. Read the back story of Love, Amy here.

Dear Supporter, There’s So Much More I Wish I Could Tell You

Dear Supporter,

I wrote you a newsletter today.  I told you about the success in our ministry, about the lives being touched and the happy stories.  Everyone was smiling in all the pictures.  But there is so much more I wish I could tell you.

I wish I could tell you that lots of times I feel like a total failure.  I’ve asked you to pray for the Big Event, or the Camp Sign-Ups, or the Grand Opening.  You might not realize that afterwards, I don’t always tell you how it went.  That’s because sometimes, despite weeks of hard work and lots of prayer, the event is a total flop.  Five people show up.  Or no one.  And I can’t bring myself to tell you.

Then there’s the time when I realize that I’ve hurt a national friend.  Or a missionary colleague and I are having a huge conflict.   Or I’ve made a major cultural mistake.  Or I’m just not learning this language.  Or everything blows up in my face.  There are many, many times when I wonder why I’m here, or if I really am the right person for this job.  But I’m afraid to tell you, because then I think you will wonder why I’m here or if I am the right person for this job.

I wish I could tell you about my personal struggles.  Sometimes I feel like you make me out to be more spiritual than I am, but I wish you knew that becoming a missionary didn’t turn me into a saint.  In fact, sometimes I think it brings out the worst in me.  I wish I could tell you about the immobilizing depression or the fights with my spouse.  I wish I could tell you that my anxiety was so bad that I needed to travel to another country to see a professional counselor.  I wish I could tell you about that time my friend was robbed at gunpoint in his home, and I couldn’t sleep for weeks afterward.

I wish you knew that I hate it here sometimes, and there’s nothing more I want than to go home.  But I know I need to stay, so I don’t tell you because I’ve heard the stories of friends forced to go home because they confided in the wrong person.   I don’t tell you because I can’t imagine you would want to support such a flawed person.

I wish I could tell you about the perks.  We live in an exotic place, so sometimes that means that we take our kids snorkeling the way you would take your kids to the park.  Sometimes it means that our conferences or layovers take us to exciting places like Thailand or Johannesburg or Dubai.  Sometimes it means that lobster is cheap or the historic castle is just a day-trip away.

But I am afraid to tell you about these experiences, because I’m afraid you think missionaries are supposed to suffer.  After all, we often live in poor countries and we always subsist on your financial sacrifice.  I’m worried you will think we are being extravagant.  And I’ve heard stories of missionaries who have lost support because of their vacations.  I fear your judgment.

I wish I could tell you that I long for more connection with you.  The first couple years were great because we got lots of care packages and Christmas letters and everyone asked us how it was going.  But time goes on and people move on and we realize that we’re really not that exciting anymore.  It’s hard to come home and feel like we have to be pushy for opportunities to share.  It’s hard to feel like people are intimidated to talk to us because we are so different now.  Our newsletter program tells us that only 60% of our list open our email updates, which isn’t that surprising since we only get a handful of responses.

Part of that is okay because we don’t need care packages as much anymore, and you’ve made new friends and we have too.  But I wish you knew how much it means to me when you remember to ask about a detail I wrote about, or when you continue to send me your Christmas letter.  When we are together, it makes my day when you ask about my life in my other country—when you really look me in the eyes and want to know how it’s going.  Listening is the best gift you can give me.  And the scariest part of feeling disconnected is wondering if people are still praying for us.  So when you tell me that you are still praying for me, that makes all the difference.

I wish I could find a way to express how much you mean to me.  Despite how hard this life can be, I have the tremendous joy of doing God’s work in the place I am called.  And there is no way I could do it without your sacrifice.  I hope you know how important that is to me.  How important you are to me.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Your Missionary

Staying connected with your family and friends when you live overseas

I’d be willing to bet that most of you reading this post are in a long distance relationship of some sort or another. At some point in their careers, most development workers and missionaries find themselves living far away from friends and family. Some even find themselves enduring long stints apart from those they’re dating or married to. Learning how to live with some of your loved ones half a country (or a world) away is an essential skill for coping well with international living.

This post kicks off a three-part series on long distance relationships that will run in the next week on A Life Overseas.

Today we’ll look at staying connected with your family and friends when you live overseas. In my experience, this is usually foundational to thriving while living abroad. Especially early in their careers, missionaries and humanitarian workers can be much more intentional and energetic about forging new relationships with people in their host countries than they are about maintaining good relationships with those back home. I know some may disagree with me on this point, but I believe that doing this is a mistake. For many, allowing important relational networks back home to significantly degrade will, over time, compromise their health, happiness, and effectiveness in their work.

Monday’s post will focus on long distance romantic relationships, and I’ll tell you about a new website I’m launching that day called Modern Love Long Distance. This site will provide quality resources and tools for those in long distance relationships. I’ve been working on this behind the scenes for a year and I’m really excited to see this project go live!

Next Wednesday we’ll discuss helping children stay connected with family and friends back home while living abroad.

So without further ado, let’s get to it …

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Staying connected with your family and friends when you live overseas

When you live in a country other than the one you would have considered home throughout your childhood, chances are that part of you will always feel divided. No matter how eagerly you embrace learning about your new culture and forging new relationships, those new friends will probably never completely replace the friends and family you’ve left behind.

Nor should they. I don’t use the word should very often, but I’m about to now. As uncomfortable as it can be to straddle two worlds, missionaries and development workers should work to maintain important relationships “back home” even as they’re working to integrate into a “new home”.

This is perhaps easier said than done. It can be tough to stay meaningfully connected to family and friends back home when you’re living half a world away. There’s no doubt that Skype and other technological wonders have made things easier in recent years, but myriad tricky questions remain surrounding the issue of how to stay in touch with parents and siblings, and how to help children (if you have any) grow up feeling meaningfully connected to their relatives.

Questions like: What are my parents/relatives expectations and hopes about the frequency, type, and duration of contact we’ll have? What are mine? How can I help my children feel connected to my home culture and their overseas relatives? What friends am I hoping to stay in contact with? How? How can we share parts of our life on the field with those back home in ways that they’ll understand and appreciate? How can we demonstrate sincere interest in their lives when our daily realities often differ dramatically?

As I’ll share in more detail on Monday, I have a lot of experience trying to answer these questions. However, if you were hoping for a definitive how-to manual on this topic, I’m sorry. One thing that all that experience has taught me is that there is no one-size fits all on this topic. There is no one “right” set of answers. And what might work well for you in one phase of life may not work at all well five years later.

Figuring out how you want to (and can) stay connected with your family and friends long distance is a continual process of reflection, dialogue, and adjustment. It’s also, often, learning to live with the feeling that nothing you’re doing on this front is working perfectly.

With that disclaimer, here are some thoughts on ways to stay connected with family and friends.

1.     Realize and accept that many of your friends (and even your family) back home will not be proactive about staying in touch with you when you move overseas. Many people, especially those who haven’t lived overseas themselves, are not good at reaching out to distant friends. Some of your closest friends won’t email or call you regularly, read your blog, or keep up with all of your newsletters. Try not to take this too personally or get too hurt. Just accept that if you want to stay in contact with key family and friends you will have to initiate most of the contact and make the lion’s share of the effort to keep these relationships going.

2.     Help those back home “see” your life: When your friends and family back home talk about their lives, you’ll largely be able to imagine what they’re discussing. When you move overseas, your friends and family won’t have that luxury. Try to help them “see” your life by through photos, stories, and short videos. Consider starting a blog. This will allow people to dip into your story when they have time and energy and will save you from sending lots of individual “update” emails. If you’re worried about privacy you can always program your blog so that only approved viewers can log in. If you’re not a blogger, think about sending out a monthly newsletter to a mailing list of friends and family. (Hint, keep these newsletters to 1000 words or less and include one or two stories and some photos.)

3.     Talk: Emails, blogs, newsletters and the like are great, but actually talking to someone is important too. When it comes to family or others you want to stay closely connected to, you might find that it works to catch up via Skype or phone “when you have time”. If, however, you find that you never “have time” and months are slipping past between calls, think about how often you would ideally like to talk to various family members or important friends. Then try to work out a rough schedule. For example, you may want to plan to talk to your parents weekly or twice a month. As a side benefit, setting up a routine like this can also help manage your family’s expectations about how often and when you’ll get to talk. Finally, don’t forget to give close friends the occasional call. You might only talk once every four to six months, but those infrequent chats can go a long way towards maintaining your relationship in between visits.

4.     Visit: Nothing beats face-to-face time for building relationships. Travelling back and forth from many places in this world is still a time-consuming and expensive prospect. However, if you live overseas and relationships back home are important to you, budgeting time and money to go home regularly is a must (and frankly, I don’t think that “once every four years”, although regular, is often enough). Also, encourage family and friends to visit you if they can. You’ll be able to spend more relaxed quality time with them when you’re “at home” and in your own routine without all the distractions that come with vacations or home leave. They’ll also leave feeling much more connected to your life overseas.

I know I’ve just scratched the surface with this topic, but I don’t want to drown you with a 50-page post. Instead, I’d love to hear from you about this.

What do you do to stay connected with family and friends?
Get specific – we’d all love to learn from your tips, tricks, and stories.

Join us back here on Monday to learn more about Modern Love Long Distance and how it’ll serve the ever-growing number of us who spend significant time apart from their significant “other”.

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Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos

Blog: www.lisamckaywriting.com      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red