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10 tips for healthy links between missionaries and their sending church

To follow on from the Deep Roots Podcast on world mission and the local church, here is a guest blog from Chris Howles, who with his wife Ros serves at the Uganda Martyrs Seminary Namugongo, with which Oak Hill has strong links. Here, from his own experience, he shares his personal ‘top ten tips’ for healthy links between missionaries and their sending church.

When visiting teams from Oak Hill College visit Uganda Martyrs Seminary Namugongo, Ros and I (Crosslinks mission partners of eleven years serving here in Uganda) spend an evening engaging with them on helpful practices in church-missionary relationships. We ourselves, and the majority of UK missionaries we know, enjoy positive and mutually-cherished relationships with partner churches and are deeply grateful for their love, generosity, support and care that so sustain and bless us out here. Here are ten thoughts based on how our partner churches have benefitted us over the years which we love to share with Oak Hill students for them to adapt and implement in their own future church mission partnerships:

  1. There are missionaries who partner with fifteen or more churches across the UK. When they return on home assignments it can be tiring and time consuming to travel around the country to refresh these relationships and report back. One reason why this happens is because churches admirably want to support many different partners and projects worldwide, but by doing so must inevitably divide finite mission budgets into smaller portions thus requiring those partners to seek relationships with a larger number of churches in order to meet their field budgets. Local churches which pursue a precisely targeted and long-term vision in supporting deeper relationships with fewer missionaries may lose a colourful missions notice board in their foyer but will be a greater blessing to those partnerships they retain.
  2. Missionaries love being told that they are prayed for! Many years ago, we were concerned about the health of a partnership with one church because we couldn’t get much communication from them. Months later we were informed by an elderly saint there that the congregation had been praying for us publicly every week! When you pray, tell the missionary that you did so and inform them how you prayed – what an encouragement that might be for a cross-cultural worker labouring in loneliness far away from the in-person relationships that used to sustain them week by week. 
  3. Although this depends somewhat on the precise context, churches generally speaking should consider mission partners not only as congregation members (so make sure to include them on church email lists etc.) but also as pastoral staff. When mission partners are sent out from local churches they inevitably represent that church in their host setting, so lovingly, patiently keep them pastored and accountable as you would any staff member. For example, their marriages might be as vulnerable (perhaps more so actually given their often-stressful contexts) as anyone else’s. Don’t assume that others such as mission agencies have this covered.
  4. It’s often whole missionary families who live and serve in cross-cultural mission - not just individuals! When Ros receives letters and emails directly to her it really is appreciated, by both her and me. Ros is a better cultural interpreter and language learner than I am and so we enjoy it when churches ask her tough questions about those topics in interviews too. Remember, your sent-out missionary family has two missionaries, not just one missionary and their spouse!
  5. Some people don’t write or email or call mission partners because they don't want to bother them, but most missionaries love to be ‘bothered’ in this way! One spiritual battle many cross-cultural workers face is the temptation to despair that their old friendships are slowly receding away and they are becoming isolated and abandoned. It’s rarely true, but ensure they know it isn’t. Asymmetrical relationships are common when missionaries are writing regular prayer letters such you know lots about them but they know little about you. Reply to prayer letters with updates and your own prayer requests. Mutuality is the name of the game.
  6. If you’d like mission partners to preach in your service then interrupt the regular sermon series to give them a free choice of passage. On my first home assignment I wrote six different sermons. On my most recent trip, I wrote one sermon and preached it in nine different places. That alone had a huge impact on the level of recuperation and refreshment we were able to enjoy.
  7. Many missionaries are extremely dependent on the kindness and hospitality of others during their home assignments, but most are embarrassed or ashamed to be so. It is humbling to be ‘home’ yet haplessly reliant on others. Have mercy on furloughing missionaries – they probably hate imposing on you for children’s toys, stationery, cold weather clothes, a car and some basic saucepans, but will always appreciate it when you make such things easy for them.
  8. Although church leaders shouldn’t abandon personal, direct, regular communication with mission partners, that work should often also be shared with someone (or some group) in the congregation who has more capacity to coordinate that relationship successfully. Such responsibilities might include collecting/distributing prayer points, sending kids birthday cards, and updating the missionaries with news from the congregation (every missionary has a story of returning to a visit a church and asking after someone who has died without them knowing). A clear point-of-contact known to everyone can help enormously to establish deep relationships with the missionaries across the whole congregation.
  9. The local church is God’s primary sending agent in mission and must remain central to every aspect of the missionaries support and strategy, but don’t underestimate the expertise that is required to sustain mission partners successfully. We have sent over 1,500 emails to Crosslinks staff since moving to Uganda in 2011. Many of those have been simple to deal with. Others have required significant proficiency in topics such as work permits, financial and tax issues, child protection in a non-Western setting, emergency evacuation, and so on. Crosslinks have a century of expertise dealing with such matters and this has been invaluable for us out here. Think carefully as a church before deciding mission societies are superfluous. Does your church have the capacity and expertise to respond (day and night!) to complex matters quickly, accurately and knowledgably? Some might. Many probably don’t.
  10. Take cross-cultural missions training seriously. We wouldn’t still be here (humanly speaking) without our four years of theology and missiology training at Oak Hill. Life and ministry here in Uganda is consistently, substantially different to in the UK. It is easy to assume that anyone who is effective in ministry in the UK will automatically be so in a cross-cultural setting, but alas, not always! The former is a minimum requirement for the latter, but not the only requirement. The UK has increasing options both in-person and online for pre-field and in-field cross-cultural missions training. Investing in this early and regularly will deepen and develop missionary effectiveness and bring glory to Christ as Lord and saviour!

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