The Need for a New Missions Paradigm

September 29, 2015

new missions paradigmChristianity Today recently posted a groundbreaking article by Amy Peterson called  Farewell to the Missionary Hero, and there are a few reasons why I feel it is extremely timely and essential to the movement I’m trying to build around a new missions paradigm.

I’ve been noticing a trend lately in modern missions that excites me, a trend rising up out of the desire for the authentic, un-romanticized accounts of missionary life. This trend is a gathering hunger for a shift in the way we think of and do missions.

This new missions paradigm is a hunger for a breakdown of the harmful stereotypes of the missionary, a hunger for a healthier way to spread the love of Jesus and change lives, and not be destroyed in the process.

It’s a conversation I’ve been trying to organically grow a for a while with blog posts around the realities of missionary burnoutshort term missions, and missionary preparation.

The old paradigm of missionary story-telling was the David Livingston way of presenting the self as the sacrificial “hero,” who only tells the stories of the thousands saved, the triumphs achieved, the safari’s taken into the Amazonian jungle that lend a golden light to the already radiating halo around a missionary’s head. We still continue to idolize missionaries like Heidi Baker as super human or super spiritual, when in fact she is a human being with real needs just like the rest of us.

But this old paradigm is dangerous and we need a new missions paradigm shift to happen quickly.

The church needs to change it’s view of missions or we are in danger of sending people out grossly unprepared and chastising them when they “fail” or trail back in need of bandages.

Missionaries are not necessarily born dysfunctional, they can become that way through lack of care and support because missions is incredibly hard. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Here’s what a new missions paradigm would look like:

Get rid of the unrealistic expectations

One of the most damaging issues leading to missionary burnout is inflated and unrealistic expectations of what life will be like on the ground and expectations missionaries have of themselves. The research from Expectations and Burnout claims that much of the trauma missionaries experience is the disconnection between what they thought life would be like, how they viewed themselves, and what actually ends up happening on the field.

Heroic jaunts into the jungle to unreached tribes are fewer and farther between. A more apt representation would be less glamorous trips to the local market to try and negotiate for your supper, or a hot and dusty afternoon spent at your computer trying to write a newsletter with 20% of your battery life left because the power is out again. That chasm between what you thought life would be like and what it actually is, leads to disassociation and despair. I myself experienced this.

I thought I had to hide my feelings of being overwhelmed and my disappointed at the differences of real missionary life, so that the churches and the supporters in America would continue to be a part of my ministry. What I really wanted to say was, “Hey I spent eight hours in a government office today trying to not get kicked out of the country and nope, no one got saved.” But I thought I needed to represent the super hero version of myself and tell the “happy stories,” and this led to self criticism, feelings of failure, and fragmentation.

Failures need to be excavated not swept under the rug

One of the hardest things about living on the mission field for six years, was the fact that I didn’t feel like I could be honest. I was so afraid of what people would think and that supporters would stop giving, that it was difficult to just say, “Hey, we tried this, and it didn’t work out, but we learned from it, and here’s why we’re doing things differently now.”

The reality is failures are an integral part of success and learning from them is how we create lasting and beautiful change.

We need to give people the freedom to fail and celebrate the humility it takes to admit it and pivot.

Living in a different culture and understanding it takes time and not every program no matter how elaborately conceived will end up working in a particular culture with foreign mindsets. It takes a lot of give and take, adjustments, and falling down to get back up again to create something that is effectively changing lives. Pivoting is a sign of a great leader, because it takes humility to say you were wrong and to try it a different way. We need to give our missionary leaders the freedom to make mistakes, share them, and get back up again, knowing we support them. Our obsession with only the “success stories” will be our downfall. It will cause us to be out of integrity with ourselves and that is a slippery slope towards moral failure.

We need to tell the truth

We need to tell our stories, the real ones, the true ones, the stories of heartache and disillusionment because that’s how they get outside of us and don’t poison us.

We expel our stories in exhales of honest surrender and somehow it helps us heal.

Otherwise, we become isolated and continue to spiral down into despair. When we don’t feel like there is anyone we can tell our truth to, tell our story to, we lose heart. That doesn’t mean we only tell sad stories instead of testimonies. A culture of testimonies is pivotal to our survival on the mission field. We must celebrate the tiny victories, but we must hold the tension to not inflate stories for the newsletters. We need safe people we can say to, “Hey I loved this girl for seven years and she still stole from me,” or “I wasn’t able to rescue that one out of prostitution, she made different choices,” or “All I managed to do today was sit in bed and cry into the swath of mosquito netting.” When we tell the truth, it gives others permission to do the same and we realize we are not alone.

Telling the truth disrupts isolation, it ushers us into a community of other like minded souls who are hungry to be near someone who is safe and authentic.

We don’t have all the answers and we don’t need to

I know, shocking right? But as Americans imbibing a new culture we often think our solutions to “fix” the people and their problems are the correct ones. It takes a lot of time to learn what will really work to change lives in your particular culture, but time listening means there aren’t a lot of “action stories” to write home about. But I’d rather be a slow learner, than quick to the draw, end and up hurting the very culture I came to serve. Rather then succumbing to the pressure of a sending church to have all the right answers, or rather than churches expecting this, we need to understand it takes time to become culturally relevant and change in people’s lives is often slow, unsexy work.

Calling shouldn’t be more important than The Caller

In talking to missionaries, one of the big themes that continues to cause stumbling is falling into the attractive trap to let your calling define your identity. You’re the “Celebrated hero,” the “Sacrificial martyr,” the “Five minute Sunday sermon person,” the “Crusader of justice,” the “Sex-trafficking savior,” the one everybody looks up to without really knowing. And you like it, because it makes you feel valuable, seen, needed. But being a missionary isn’t about all that. It’s about being a partner with God to love people, about being an extension of Jesus, about being in a love affair with Him. The work should always take a backseat to your primary relationship with God and the Holy Spirit. But that’s not always the example we’ve been given to follow.

God doesn’t need martyrs

Coming into the knowledge of God as a good Father has probably been one of the most profoundly impacting revelations of my life. Knowing that changes everything. He doesn’t need my sacrifice, he doesn’t need me to kill myself to make Him happy. He doesn’t need me to save the world. It’s His joy to co-labor with me. It’s His joy to partner with me so I can pursue my passions and at the same time bring glory to His name. But as a daughter, the only thing required of me is to worship Him forever. But what happens as we fall more in love with God, is we fall more in love with people and the desire to see them walking in freedom grows. But the work doesn’t depend on us, the work depends on God’s spirit. Our job is to be little love bubbles that burst when other people rub up against us. Ok, that sounded way more hippie than I meant for it to.

We need saving before we can save others

I’m like a broken record around this mantra, but one of the key differences between missionaries of old and new ones rising up, are that we see a need for emotional health and we aren’t willing to compromise our health because we realize without wholeness, we will be of no use to anyone.

It’s imperative that missionaries and churches protect the physical, emotional, and spiritual health of those going out, that they don’t unwittingly send the message that the missionary is worth less than the mission.

If you need help, a list of resources is here. 

We need to forgive each other

The reality is if you’re a missionary you’ve probably been wounded by the way the church or sending organization has failed to look after your hearts. If you’re a church or sending organization you might be resentful of the less than fruitful efforts of some missionaries, or angry because they didn’t take your advice. But all this time, what we really needed was brave and open communication. We needed compassion and understanding. We needed to talk about our needs and express them instead of being passive aggressive when someone didn’t read our mind. I know how hard that is. It takes great vulnerability to talk about your needs, to admit weakness, to say you need help or you don’t understand why something went wrong. But without brave communication misunderstanding and bitterness creep into relationships and destroy them. Let’s be different. Let’s be intentional and proactive, let’s be forgiving and kind, and open hearted.

My hope it to see a new breed of missionaries and churches rising up, forgiving each other, and starting a afresh with new eyes to respond to ancient problems.

My hope is that you use this to begin a conversation with other missionaries, churches, leaders to say that we’re not satisfied with the way things have been done and instead of complaining, we’re going to be brave and begin a revolution.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on what a new missions paradigm would look like for you?

  • Dave Lewis

    I applaud your courage and your insight, Sarita. I, too, have been trying to organically grow a conversation around this topic. The fact that 12,000 missionaries quit every year should tell us that something is wrong with our paradigm. Missionary care will never gain the traction that it needs until the underlying paradigm is altered.

    • Thanks for commenting Dave! It’s so good to hear there are others thinking similar things. I do a lot of research on this topic. I’d love to know where you got the 12,000 stat. That might be useful for a future blog. But I totally agree. Something needs to change and I think it begins with better preparation and then better missionary care. Now we just need to find a way to join together! How can we connect more? Have you subscribed to my blog? Do you have one?

      • Dave Lewis

        I am trying to put my hands on the 12,000 stat. I came across it back in 2001, and I believe it was in conjunction with a book I was reading at the time called Too Valuable to Lose. One quote from page 13 of that book states that “1 career missionary in 20 leaves the mission field to return home every year…If we estimate the current long-term, international, cross-cultural missionary force at 150,000–a very conservative number [indeed!]–an annual loss…would be 7650 missionaries leaving the field each year.” So that may be a better figure to use for the moment since I can document it readily.

        Networking, synergy, working together–I’m all for it! I do subscribe to your blog. Mine can be found at http://www.paracletos.org/blog

    • ChristenB

      I think you are spot on Dave. Just to add to the conversation… I think that a lot of dysfunctional people go into missions (and ministry)… I’m not saying that any of us are disqualified because of our issues as I certainly have many that I share about on our blog http://www.christenandtony.com, but I do think that there needs to be more done to recruit healthy people and send people well. I remember Pastor Greg Waybright at Lake Ave. Church saying repeatedly: “We need to send our best and our brightest.” There are too many agencies that make it so easy to get on the field, provide zero accountability or structure, and then scratch their heads when it all falls apart. If people aren’t healthy in their work, ministry, and family relationships in their home context then how will they do with a team in a much more stressful environment? Let’s prepare and send well… just like the quality of a marriage and family therapist can be seen in how many pre-marital couples end up not getting married due to good counseling, let’s have the deeper conversations on the front end where people may say: “oh, i guess this isn’t a good fit for me… and that’s okay.”

      • Dave Lewis

        I agree, Christen. Sometimes the best way to avoid missionary attrition is to not let people go out who are not really called/equipped.

        • Really good point Dave! Have you seen good models of “Screening” in the schools you’ve been a part of? Would love for you to share more!

          • Dave Lewis

            I am aware of, but have not participated in, various screening programs. Many of them involve psych evals, which may be helpful, but they are not adequate in themselves to uncover everything. I believe pre-field training must involve mentoring on a personal level. There should be someone in the prospective missionary’s life that knows them at a deep level who can counsel them and coach them moving forward.

      • Hey Christen, I think that’s a really good point. It’s both a two prong approach that’s needed—realistic preparation that mitigates the risk to inflate one’s expectations, along with proper screening of people who have trauma already in their lives, and really good member care once on the field–monthly skype calls with a counselor, etc. I talk about that in one of my other articles here: http://www.saritahartz.com/what-i-wish-id-known-about-missionary-burnout/

        Dr. Robert Grant also speaks a lot about how some people are drawn to the “martyrdom” of missionary life because of past trauma and how we need to address that as well. So yes, I think all of that needs to be a part of the kinds of prevention and care modules we are building. Thanks for your input! Have you seen any good schools doing this?

  • Kaben Kramer

    Sarita, keep going! We gather around the cross because we have the vulnerability to acknowledge our sin and need of Rescue, and it seems that if we can do that, then hopefully we can come to each other (under the grace of the cross) and be real and vulnerable about failure, fatigue, and frustration. Thank you for being a voice for [what should be] the simple things of the Household of God.

    • Thank you so much Kaben! Vulnerability is so key to seeing people come into healing, including ourselves. So glad you guys are on the same team! Would love to connect more over the work you are doing!

  • Tim Wright

    Hi Sarita, Great article. I am a missionary and I work with men in missions who are sexually addicted and have SSA. For too long we pretend that we are super this or that. What I am, is a wounded healer who encourages mission orgs to create cultures where being real is foundational for a healthy missions community.

    • Tim I love this and I love your work. It’s so important to the body of Christ! How do you cultivate realness in missions communities? I’m so curious to learn more!

  • Tim Wright

    Hi,

    I am with a great mission agency, OM. I am in England and we had a young guy said he wanted to join our team but only if we had someone who would work with him on his sexual addiction. I said I would and he was with for two years. He made really good progress, he joined another Christian ministry and has made more progress. We create culture by being real and sharing our own sexual brokenness, which I have done. When people find a safe person they come out of the wood work if they are ready, some people go in and out but we are there when they are ready. each one of us is powerful and we create the environment on many teams throughout OM to be real and transparent. We have an excellent team of people fro many cultures located all over the world who are highly committed to helping become become who our Father says they are. Blessings. Tim

    • Thanks for sharing Tim! Transparency is so important!

  • ChristenB

    Just to add to the conversation… I think that a lot of dysfunctional people go into missions (and ministry)… I’m not saying that any of us are disqualified because of our issues as I certainly have many that I share about on our blog http://www.christenandtony.com, but I do think that there needs to be more done to recruit healthy people and send people well. I remember Pastor Greg Waybright at Lake Ave. Church saying repeatedly: “We need to send our best and our brightest.” There are too many agencies that make it so easy to get on the field and then scratch their heads when it all falls apart. If people aren’t healthy in their work, ministry, and family relationships in their home context then how will they do with a team in a much more stressful environment? Let’s prepare and send well… just like the quality of a marriage and family therapist can be seen in how many pre-marital couples end up not getting married due to good counseling, let’s have the deeper conversations on the front end where people may say: “oh, i guess this isn’t a good fit for me… and that’s okay.”

  • Barbosa Oliveira

    Hi Sarita… I got to read your article through another missionary friend facebook page. Great insights. I am a missionary in Africa, for the last 26 years, and believe that you are right on in many aspects. I am glad your raised some of these issues and I am already sending this link to lots of missionary minded friends as well as churches. There is a great need to raise the conversation “on the market place.” Sadly, it seems that the most unforgiving people are the ones who many times are surrounding missionaries (sometimes it is the kind of “one strike out.” In many ways your voice comes loud and clear on the whole issue of “Missionary Care”, which so many organisations out there are guilty of only telling stories but not really caring for the soldiers on the front battle’s trench. The organization I work with is doing a great job in this regard but there is more to be done. Thank you for putting the “real” issues of the humanity of missionaries out there … unveiling the “martyrdom” reality and the “rosy picture” of the real battle in front of all of us. Keep writing my sister … definitely HE has gifted you with this great talent. Blessings! Peace!

    • Thanks Barbosa! I really appreciate your comments. I agree we need more missionary prep and care. In what ways do you feel your organization did this well and what ways would you challenge them? Thanks for sharing it. We want to get the word out there 😉

  • Don Mingo

    Sarita,

    This is a great blog! After twenty-two years of missionary work and ministry in South Africa I was finished. We called it burnout. Without any assistance we reentered the States as I started pastoring. My “burnout” did not improve. Finally, a pastor friend insisted I enter counseling. His chuch paid for my theraphy. I was diagnosed with PTSD after years of suffering.

    Today, I am learning to manage my PTSD. We are in a new ministry with BBFI our previous missions agency, in a first ever step for this organization. My wife and I serve as missionaries caring for missionaries. As we raise support for our new ministry, we are getting the word out that we must better care for our missionaries. Instead of passing by our wounded missionaries laying in a spiritual emotional mental ditches, we must offer purposeful rehabilitative care.

    Our gift and ministry is missionary coaching helping missionaries survive and thrive to serve longer and stronger in their lives and ministries.

    I don’t know if it’s permissable to share our website: http://www.Re-Vitalize.org

    Thanks for your heart, vision, and ministry. And, thanks for this blog!

    Trusting Forward,

    Dr. Don Mingo
    Missionaries Caring for Missionaries

    • Hi Don, thank you so much for sharing so vulnerably. I really appreciate your willingness to share of your own struggles. Yes, it’s funny, my next article is going to be on recovering from trauma, but I mention PTSD and how many missionaries coming off the field are actually suffering from PTSD, but are never properly diagnosed or treated because people don’t always understand or qualify their experiences as traumatic, but many of them were. I’m so glad you raised this point. My long term dream and heart is to provide quality preparation, on the field, and after care for missionaries so they can have the support system they need to do missions in a healthy way without sacrificing their bodies, spirits, or hearts. I would love to check out your org and see if there are ways we can partner :) Please email me at saritahartz@gmail.com. Blessings to you!

      • Don Mingo

        Sariata,

        Email on the way!

        Trusting Forward,

        Don Mingo

  • “We expel our stories in exhales of honest surrender and somehow it helps us heal.”

    Sharing the same on my blog because the truth is important and supporting churches are hungry to connect in real ways with Ms on the field. And as I share my story, I hear “I’ve never heard/seen this side of missions before!” And I wonder, are we the only ones who feel this way? But I know we are not. I believe that God wants to use our stories to further His kingdom in real ways and part of that for me, is sharing the real and the ugly side of being will to be the feet on the ground. The very DIRTY feet on the ground. The real side of what most support teams don’t see and using it to connect, inform, help and inspire. I love missionary care and have a heart to help those coming behind us… as well as help those already here who are longing for real and healing. Thanks for your post!

  • Ed Sherman

    Hi Sarita- Thanks for the blog. I really appreciated most of it- the necessity for openness and integrity in what we do; the true, deep struggles we go through. I’ve been in missions with YWAM for 36 years, and identify with so much. I was a bit distracted from the beginning though, and throughout, by the what seemed to be the belittling of the great men and women who have gone before us in missions. The implication of making the comparison of bringing them up as a counter-example to openness and integrity, is that it implies they were not. As I’ve studied their lives I see lives of integrity, and struggle, honesty. What I’ve seen more (and it goes for me too) is how others view them, and me sometimes.

    There is a danger that when we promote something “new” (as in “new missions paradigm”) we fail to see the value of those who went before. I felt that your blog fell demonstrated that in part, and in doing so didn’t communicate as effectively as it could have.

    • Sarita Hartz

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Ed. I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to be belittling, but rather to learn from some of the pitfalls of missionaries before to create a better strategy moving forward. It’s not that missionaries of old haven’t done a lot of things right, but I just feel that we can continue to grow and do missions better, including learning from my own mistakes I made early on.