This question might seem to many of us to have a perfectly clear answer, but it is evident from the number of mission workers who are (or feel) unsupported, particularly by their home church, that there is a significant problem.
Paradoxically, the problem often results from the success of local mission. Many churches are active in their surrounding communities with a whole range of outreach and care programmes about which they are so enthusiastic that they genuinely can’t see why people would want to go off and ‘do their own thing’ while there is so much work to do here.
Add to that situation the success in recent years of getting people to understand that we are all mission workers, that everyone in the church has a part to play in reaching out to their family, friends and workmates, and you create a context in which overseas mission workers are not different or special (which is true), they’re just doing the same work as everyone else, but in a different context. My friend Terry was quite rightly aggrieved when his church got him up the front to pray for him when he went off to do short-term mission in Thailand, but completely ignored him when he got a job at a spare-parts shop which he saw as an opportunity to reach out to non-Christians.
Terry saw no difference between his two missional roles, and if that is true, there is no need for different support levels. But the difference in context is crucial: the overseas workers have deliberately moved away from their normal support mechanisms (church, friends, family and familiar culture) into a role which may be emotionally, spiritually and physically challenging, and which probably does not attract a salary. So they have increased need for support, but less access to it. This is a recipe for disaster.
To understand how need for support increases, let’s look at a scale of cross-cultural mission which clearly demonstrates why certain roles require more support. It recognises that all Christians are called to mission, but shows how the context can vary.
1) Christian has normal job in home town and uses existing family and workplace connections missionally
2) Christian deliberately selects a job in a company with little Christian representation, OR moves into a different part of town with a view to being an active witness
3) Christian moves to a completely different part of their home country, OR deliberately changes career in order to be an active witness
4) Christian moves abroad to be an active witness.
It can be seen that in each progressive stage of mission the Christian is intentionally moving away from his/her natural comfort zone and support network, and therefore requires people to support them in the struggles their new home and/or vocation presents. Becoming an overseas mission worker not only means setting up a new home in an alien culture and often using a foreign language, but doing all that together with learning a new vocation and being far away from the comforts of friends, family and familiar surroundings. They may be experiencing significant stress when they are farthest away from those able to alleviate it. That is why they need more support. Failure to deliver it can lead to stress, burnout and attrition.
Churches, family and friends need to provide this support in the following ways:
Emotional – caring about the loneliness and isolation of living in a foreign country and taking active steps to help mitigate it and provide comfort
Spiritual – supporting mission workers in prayer, and particularly being aware that they may lack access to books, teaching and worship in their own language
Financial – mission workers may not only be forgoing a salary, they may have increased financial needs which they need help with
Practical – leaving elderly parents behind, renting out property and managing their practical affairs are all simple tasks mission workers need help with.
By ensuring good quality support for overseas mission workers, we are investing in the effectiveness and longevity of their mission. With our coordinated and focussed help, they will achieve more and be less liable to burnout, which in the long-term is also making life easier for those church leaders who would otherwise have to pick up the pieces.