Co-Workers with Front Row Seats

As a Mission Pastor, one of my primary passions is to care for our missionaries. This care sometimes comes in the form of making sure that their financial support is sent on time, but it usually takes the form of being present for them when they need someone to talk to. As often as I can, I try to do that in person—even when it means that I have to fly 28 hours to get there.

Last year, as our short-term team landed in rural Africa, our missionaries and their friends gathered on the runway to welcome our 10-passenger plane. As our plane’s propellers roared and we touched down, I pressed my nose against the glass to see these friends I hadn’t seen in a long time.

Seeing my eager face in the window, our missionary started to tear up. She told me later her first thought had been, “Finally, someone I can talk to!

My team had many specific project plans for the week, but I made sure that my plans mainly involved me being very available and present for as much time as possible. My job was to listen and pray.

Over the years I’ve been in this job, I’ve heard many painful stories—stories about broken relationships with sending churches; stories about betrayal by teammates; stories about disappointment in relationships that once seemed so promising. Let’s face it: missions work is hard. It will beat you to a pulp and kick you when you’re down.

How Did it Come to This?

Perhaps one of the hardest things I have had to process with missionaries is the question of whether they heard God in the first place. Oftentimes, I was the pastor that commissioned them a decade ago. At the time, the zeal, passion, and burden on their hearts were evident. They had some specific problem in some specific context they were going to spend a lifetime solving. Yet now they were asking, “Did God really call me into ministry here? Did I misunderstand that calling?” How did it come to this?

The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

Mark 6:30-31

Those of us who sign up for career ministry do so because we believe that we are answering a call from God. We throw ourselves deep into relationships, live life-on-life, and pour all of our energies into pointing others to Christ. And, most of the time, we bear much fruit: Lives are changed for the sake of the gospel, churches are planted, and many Bible studies are led.

In the above verses Jesus is well aware of his disciples’ two very crucial needs which they had been ignoring for the sake of ministry: the basic needs to eat, and to sleep. In the midst of endless ministry opportunities, their instructions were to get away from ministering to others and instead devote themselves to resting with Jesus. The story continues, “So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place.”

As I prayed with and listened to the missionary that met us on that village runway, I learned that life in the village had been terribly demanding and viciously political. In addition to her and her husband’s “normal” responsibilities of teaching class, growing food, and raising animals, they had been dragged into the politics of the village’s leadership that had one major group pitted against the other.

Meetings were being held late into the night (until 3 a.m.) and then, other meetings would start just two hours later. For months, there had been little time to rest or care for their own physical needs. The situation had demanded so much of their time and mediation for the better part of a year that they were feeling terribly imposed upon by the very people that they felt called to serve in the first place. They admitted with tears in their eyes that they had been considering another job—a “real” job, where you could just go to work and get paid for what you do.

I recommended some time away, perhaps time away at a retreat center, or a visit with family. Our church could help pay for that. For me, the simple solution of “eat and sleep” has often been the only answer needed. But in some situations, the prescription needs to go on for months.

Time Takes Time

A different church missionary came home after 6 years on the field with a broken spirit. At first, her eyes would stare lifelessly at me. She would talk and describe all she had been through with no inflection in her voice. She was so broken she couldn’t even feel the pain appropriate to her experiences. It pained me to see her that way.

Over 18 months, members of our church provided her with a place to stay, a car to drive and a cell phone to communicate with. I told her that her main responsibility was to tend to her own physical needs: to be with Jesus, and to eat, sleep, and exercise. To reinforce my recommendation, I got her an annual membership at some local gardens where she could walk and pray regularly. For this season, her main job was to rest.

After 6 months, her eyes had gained a new sparkle, and by the end of a year, she was filled with more life and passion than when she first went out on the mission field. God’s Spirit had healed her, but it had taken time.

Are you preparing for mission? Are you already in the final chapters of your missionary service? My advice for you is the same advice I give myself weekly: God’s instruction on Sabbath rest was not a suggestion. God mandated rest because God knows how quickly giving of ourselves can result in our complete depletion.

Are you preparing for mission? Are you already in the final chapters of your missionary service? My advice for you is the same advice I give myself weekly: God’s instruction on Sabbath rest was not a suggestion. God mandated rest because God knows how quickly giving of ourselves can result in our complete depletion.

I know… believe me, I know: It’s fun—addicting even—to see how effective we are in ministry. As numbers climb and fruit is produced, this addiction feeds itself. Honestly, without the Sabbath rest, it would be all too easy to believe the myth of our own importance and bow to the cult of self: “I am the necessary solution to this problem! Only I can fix this.” But, Jesus’ invitation interrupts this spinning vortex:

“Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

With regular rhythms of rest and being away with Jesus, the breakneck speed of life is interrupted and we are reminded that the mission is really the missio dei—God’s mission. We’re just co-workers, participants invited along for the journey and offered front row seats to enjoy a view of everything that God is already doing.

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