Pastors who become missionaries

I just spent a couple hours with a missionary who, like me, served for many years as a pastor. It dawned on me that God often births in the heart of pastors the desire to move into the mission world.

city burbsMany pastors stay in the pastorate while serving actively and regularly in overseas ministry. They will travel once or twice a year to do training, visit missionaries, or even start ministries in partnership with national believers. When I was pastoring, I participated in trips to Native American reservations in Arizona, and went with one of our missionaries to a remote tribe in Mexico where he had been working on a translation of the gospel of Luke. I always returned with a fresh view of the congregation I was shepherding.

At times God leads a pastor to leave the shepherding role and launch out on mission, fueled by an apostolic passion to bring the kingdom to new areas. There are many ways that the pastorate helps prepare one for doing so. In my case, I felt my experience as a pastor for eight years was a good foundation for providing training for East African pastors. Since returning to the States, I have become acquainted with an excellent organization called Global Training Network, which consists primarily of experienced pastors who now travel to different countries to offer Biblical and practical training.

Making the change from the pastorate to mission work has its challenges. Perhaps the one I felt most keenly at first was role deprivation. As a pastor I was the center of the congregation (well, other than Jesus). Decisions, ideas, even criticism all came my way!  When I moved into missions, it required that I start from scratch and learn about culture and language. Learning a new language means feeling inept and childish. It is humbling. You have to do it out of obedience to God and love for the people you have come to serve.

villageBut on the positive side, having one or more congregations that love you as their pastor becomes a solid foundation for prayer and financial support. It was easier for me to resign from the congregation I loved because I was answering a call to a different kind of ministry rather than leaving them for another church. Many of my church members are still partners in my mission work now.

If you are a pastor who wonders if God wants to use you in missions (or if you are a church member who wants to offer your pastor for an exotic post far away!), here are a few suggestions:

  1. If you are married, it is essential that your spouse shares the mission journey with you. Discuss and pray together about how God may be leading. In my case, our two daughters were three and five years old when my wife and I began praying about a transition, so clearly the change was going to impact my wife in a big way. To her credit, she came to Kenya with me having never traveled further than Tijuana.
  2. Consider the kind of ministry you could see yourself doing. Prayerfully discern how God has wired you. Are you a teacher, or administrator. Are you a writer, or hands-on discipler. Begin praying about organizations that might be a good fit for you. Chances are you will find yourself fitting in with an organization you already know about. But there is also a chance that God will ask you to do something you would never have dreamed.
  3. Make an honest assessment of your aptitude as an individual and as a family. In my case, I did not feel the best place for us would be in an extremely remote village, nor in a restricted access country. I felt we would be better where there was a local school, medical help, and colleagues we could team up with. A genuine call of God will not split a family apart. If God has not outfitted your family for the rigors of mission, you need to find ways to participate individually while keeping your home base in the pastorate.
  4. Further assess the degree to which you are able to say goodbye to the lifestyle you have now. All disciples are called to deny self for Christ, and missions offers the opportunity to do so many times over. There are a lot of goodbyes in mission work, not just when you first leave. You will make friends in your host country, some of whom will leave, and some of whom you will leave behind. God gives grace for these departures, but they are tough. Your kids will be enriched by the life, but they will have to say goodbye to their friends at regular intervals.
  5. Are you a learner? This is difficult after many years of being a leader and teacher. But to be an effective missionary who connects with the people of your host nation you must take the role of the servant. I have seen some pastors-turned-missionaries who should have stayed home, because they came with a haughty attitude. Do you love cultures, appreciate different foods and smells? Can you live in housing that is unusual to you? In other words, do you see this as adventure?

I leave you with this. All the epistles of Paul were missionary letters, so the connection between pastoring and missions is the DNA embedded in the New Testament. So prayerfully consider how (not if) God wants you to be involved. If you know what Near Frontiers is about, you know that there is plenty of mission to do right here in our country. The diaspora makes it natural, and in my view imperative, that pastors be mission-minded and mission-engaged. But we need workers who will pray about pulling up stakes and moving to unresourced areas. Let’s get out there!

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