Beth Hanley was a typical young world-saver. She graduated from a great university, began her professional career with a non-profit fighting hunger and poverty, then served with the Peace Corps. When she completed her term, she enrolled in a graduate program for international relations.
But when Beth re-entered the job market at 29 years of age, she faced intense competition. Despite the collection of education and experience, she had trouble finding a good job. And this was prior to the recession when more non-profit positions were available than there are today.
Does your life or future look like Hanley’s? Do you want to work in international development? At age 29 are you going to still be struggling to find a meaningful job with decent pay? If you want to serve God through international development there are a lot of reasons you should consider serving with a missions organization.
Chances are, if you want to go into international development, you have a great heart and lots of great qualities, but have had little opportunity to develop necessary skills or test them. Most missions organizations offer opportunities for one to two years of service, exploring their mission as well as the type of work that they do. This is a good time to gain valuable experience while also seeing where you fit within the needs of international development.
NGO’s—both secular and faith-based—are typically understaffed, underfunded and everybody is overworked. When the time comes to hire a new candidate, they are looking for somebody who stands out. Experience will often trump education.
Serving with a missions organization can also help you know whether you need to make a further educational investment to be effective in your chosen area. If you do, you’ll likely be able to make better choices about what that education should be. This will help you save money and keep from getting hamstrung by unnecessary debt. Also, many missions organizations will allow for study leave. Some might even help in financing your education!
Pursuing your calling for international development with a missions organization comes with some challenges. Competition for international development careers is not as high within missions organizations, but standards are no lower. Despite the plethora of need, qualifications may even be stiffer for missions organizations, especially regarding spiritual maturity.
Missions organizations, though, can be more flexible for those gaining experience, and long-term missionary workers can serve as adequate mentors for those fresh to the work. Likewise, while opportunities for upward mobility in missions organizations (much like other NGO’s) are not likely, opportunities for close mentorship and skills development are high within a missions agency.
Many missions organizations will require you to raise at least a portion of your own salary. Raising up a support team, though potentially challenging, can be a great blessing spiritually. And practically speaking, funding from a personal support team can often be less capricious than funding from a typical NGO.
Contrary to common misconceptions, Evangelical missions efforts aren’t exclusively about evangelism and church planting. Many missions organizations are focused on reaching the whole person with opportunities for community development and holistic mission in partnership with more traditional evangelism and discipleship.
If you’re serious about holistic development, spiritual development has to be an integral part of your work. Love of neighbor is love of God and vice-versa. It is an easy trend to serve the physical needs of people without sharing faith, or likewise share faith without addressing peoples’ physical and emotional needs. But the marriage of active service with evangelism (holistic mission) is imperative in truly seeking international development for the Kingdom of God.
You do not need to work for a missions organization to be pursuing Kingdom justice and wholeness. And perhaps you’re called to Kingdom pursuits in a decidedly secular context. But do not underestimate the job-satisfaction that comes from being able to work in concert with your faith instead of despite it.
What You Can Do Now
Whether you are an undergraduate or graduate student, the time to investigate organizations is now, whether you have three years left or three months left until graduation. Look for needs in international development and plan your studies accordingly. Try to work or intern with an organization that you like and correspond with its missionaries. Take opportunities for short-term service.
Plan your educational steps carefully to keep clear of unnecessary debt. Education debt might be good, but no debt is the best debt, especially in a career that doesn’t pay.
Likewise, start to live now as you’ll need to live later. International development work typically has a base salary on par with that of a high school teacher in the area you are serving. Throw in enough funds for returning home to see family and some for an acceptable retirement and begin to envision your life accordingly.
Start now to develop your support network by educating friends and family about the path God may have you on. Wherever you go, it’s best to go with others, especially in the challenging arena of development and missions work.
Finding the Right Organization
If you decide to pursue international development with a missions organization, it’s important to find a good fit. As you look, consider the organization’s experience in holistic ministry. While many evangelical organizations recognize the need for holistic missions, they may not have long-term experience or well-qualified personnel. If you have expertise, you could provide valuable leadership in the mission. On the other hand, if you are just beginning, you may want to seek an organization that can provide you with mentorship.
Also, consider how the organization relates to local initiatives. Is the organization structured to allow its missionaries to serve local communities as they see fit while still representing the organization with integrity? Does the organization seek to learn from local people? How important are these characteristics to you?
You can ask these kinds of questions and others of a wide sampling of missions organizations in the Exhibit Hall at Urbana. Consider taking advantage of that gathering this December.
It seems odd to want to serve people and yet not be able to find a venue to do so. Yet this was the case for Beth Hanley and is the case for many in the international development industry. If you are pursuing international development based on Kingdom principles, seek out a missions organization. There will always be obstacles, but your chances for a fulfilling and faithful career are high.
Kevin Book-Satterlee is the Academic Coordinator for Spearhead, an immersive international missions program of the Latin America Mission. He has had short-term experiences in Britain, Sub-Saharan Africa and in Mexico. In learning from other missionaries, he’s seen God's passion for restoration and reconciliation and the importance of a holistic gospel and holistic work. He has worked to address domestic violence and education and currently helps short-term missionaries reach their cross-cultural community through service in their local church or social ministry.