A heads up for those who work with missionaries

Missionaries are not known for being self-critical so here is a brief attempt at such. Perhaps it will help pastors and churches and missionary agencies give better care to them. It might also help missionaries look at themselves in the mirror.

1. Lots of missionaries work with minimal supervision either from their missionary group or home church. That means the missionary is often not used to dealing with an authority structure and being brought to account. When someone confronts him, about his work or his marriage or his personal life, he is genuinely...

offended, even shocked. Just because he has received training does not mean that his methods are beyond question. Just because he has left home and country and family does not mean that his motives are always pure.

2. Some missionaries are spiritually proud. He is used to being told that he’s a hero, since no one wants to live and work where he does. Slowly but surely, he can develop an exalted sense of his own spiritual maturity. It's often hard for him to say sorry. 

3. Lots of missionaries have never been part of a good, healthy church, either in his home country or on the field. Thus, he doesn't know how to deal with criticism, correction and rebuke. This applies over a whole spectrum of cases. Some missionaries are planting churches. He’s the boss. Some engage in other ministries attend ex-pat churches. No one is ever going to discipline you in one of those. If he attends an indigenous church, he is often regarded as one of the most mature members of the church. He’s untouchable. 

4. Some missionaries drift theologically. The Ecumenical movement (which has been a bee-hive of all kinds of infidelity for decades) came out of the missionary movement in the early 20th century. A missionary may have been orthodox when he began his work, but life changes you and your beliefs. The missionary often encounters poverty like he's never seen before and masses of unbelieving people who have never heard the gospel and who are very hard to reach with it. Sometimes his sympathy for the people he is trying to reach blinds him to the sins of the culture that need confrontation. Missionaries in the Muslim world can become anti-semites. 

5. Lots of missionaries are irritable and for lots of reasons. He lives with cross-cultural stress every day. Things that are done easily and quickly in his home country often take days and weeks and months. It may be that he is separated from his grown children who live back in his home country. You can’t hug your daughter on Skype. Frustration is often his normal emotional state. 

On the other hand, several missionaries I have known are among the finest Christians I have met. One single woman who labored for decades in North Africa comes quickly to mind. We also treasure our colleagues with Mission to the World. But these tendencies need to be kept in mind by churches that send out missionaries and those who receive them. I feel the pull of each of them. 

David Wegener

David is an ordained Teaching Elder (Pastor) in the Central Indiana Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America. He currently lives in Lusaka, Zambia with his wife, Terri, and serves as the dean of the Seminary at the African Christian University. He is a career missionary with Mission to The World in Zambia.


Some missionaries drift theologically because they are isolated and compromise in working with the only local churches on the field even when these churches are not holding the same standards. However a lot of times, the denomination drifts back home and when the missionary comes back after several terms of service on the field he is shocked by what he finds. He has been laboring where the rubber meets the road, dealing with the souls of men, and basics of the faith; while many of his fellow teaching elders back in his home country have gotten away from the daily labors of being shepherds, are getting on the latest cutting edge trend, pushing the theological boundaries and compromising with the culture. The missionary can fall to that, but often the missionary is already and always viewed as an outsider so he does not have the temptation to compromise so that he will be accepted by those around him.

As far as accountability, the way it is often done is not using the model of Scripture: but a secular business/episcopal top down model of control by the mission board higher-ups keeping a tight rein on the money. Every little thing has to be reported and approved. And those in authority over the missionary are not really the elders of the church but bureaucrats and staff members (often women) and those higher up in the chain of episcopal/corporate business command appointed finally from the top. Much of the oversight is from relying on "assessments" to weed out the bad guys ahead of time and relying on minute regulations and constraints on the missionary (and who he can work with etc.) to protect the mission agency from any negative consequences of a missionary's failure. So you do not have spiritual oversight of direct sending from churches (Antioch's elders sending out Paul and Barnabas) : all the local elders just assume the mission agency is doing the oversight and are afraid to take on that task directly. Now I want to qualify what oversight looks like: 1. the elders and not the mission agency deciding who is qualified, 2. the elders hearing reports in person from the missionary every few years or so when the missionary goes back on furlough, 3. letters from the missionary, and 4. teaching elders on the field joining together in fellowship for mutual accountability. Remember, if there are a group of teaching elders meeting together on the field, they should be trusted as if they were a provisional presbytery. 5. Finally, there are some extreme mission situations where there cannot be this group of missionaries meeting on the field, and there cannot be regular communication back to the church session or presbytery (e.g. in a dangerous or closed country). This should not deter churches from sending ordained elders as missionaries there. Ultimately we are all accountable to Christ. We cannot protect from all scandal and failure. Even local church pastors fall into scandal. So in that case, there should be a mechanism to recall the person and a path of church discipline when things come to light. But there should not be an overzealous attempt to control unto perfect smooth sailing or prevent anything from happening. Christ, who chose to have His church administered by men has then allowed for the fact that things will not be always administered perfectly. We should not then be more distrustful of missionaries on the field and more trusting of teaching elders laboring inside the bounds of our presbyteries. Rather, we should realize that when we are ordaining men to an office, we are entrusting them to that office whether on the field abroad or on the field at home.

Lots of agreement with you, Joel, but I sure don't feel the constraints like you mention, in my work with Mission to the World in Zambia.

I just spent much of the day yesterday talking with someone about one case of financial mismanagement after another. It makes me glad that I have to file reports with MTW and encouraged me to be even more detailed.

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