The following is a paper I wrote for Pastoral Ethics in the Fall semester of 2005.
When I first entered the mission field after graduating from college, I did so as an intern. I was sent to serve alongside a small congregation in Estonia working to support the youth ministry. I had committed two years to this project and wanted to use this time to test whether ordained ministry was a calling or simply an interest. I had no intention of staying another three years, no expectation of developing a love for ministry and discipleship, not even the foggiest idea that I would meet my wife there and eventually return to commit myself long term to cross-cultural ministry in Estonia. In these early years, I was referred to at home and in Estonia as a “missionary”. This was undeniably my function, but I balked at the title aware of the high expectations and responsibilities bundled with it. If I was a missionary, it was entirely by accident and fulfilling the function alone was not enough to convince me that I met the standards involved in the title. At the end of five years in Estonia, I was assured that mine was indeed a call to ministry and specifically to the pastorate. My desire was to return to Estonia to develop a stronger sense of discipleship in the church and to find ways to support struggling rural churches. But to do so required that I accept the mantle of missionary and all of the spiritual and professional responsibilities it entails.
Professional ministry is a term that many evangelicals are struggling with and for very good reason. If by professional we mean to separate a specialized ministering class from an unspecialized laity class then I would be the first to decry the place of professionalism in the church. My use of the term “professional” has nothing to do with status or privilege and everything to do with a standard of conduct. My experience in Estonia, both in my own local context and observing other missionaries in their contexts has assured me that missionaries need to be accountable to some kind of ethical code. There is simply too much inherent danger in the profession not to invoke the loving bonds of reinforced integrity.
While much has been written on the Church’s missionary calling, the history of missions, approaches to cross-cultural ministry and theology of mission, much less has been written about the missionary as a professional bound by ethical standards. This seems especially striking given the amount of attention paid to articulating an ethics of the pastorate and the troubles which have arisen in this related field. This gap in literature is curious, but there may be several very understandable reasons for the relative silence.
Especially in the last century, missionaries were often understood as super-Christians. The very fact that they were leaving all security and fortune behind in order to disseminate the gospel in the wilds of the 10/40 window was clear evidence of a special calling on their lives coupled with an extraordinary willingness to obey and a formidable strength of character. Surely this was not a vocation for the timid or mild of manner. While the last few decades have seen missions become more accessible to ‘average Joe Christians’ through organizations such as YWAM, Campus Crusade for Christ and Operation Mobilization, the super-Christian stigma often remains in a diluted form. Those who leave on a mission are held up in a new shining status that may be based largely if not entirely on the simple fact that they are leaving on a mission. The question remains as to what extend this status is in fact matched with the internal realities of a missionary character. Thus, character may well be assumed: if Joe is acting as a missionary, then he must be endowed with missionary character. The same situation may be observed in the mission field. While not always true, missionaries often enjoy a certain heightened privilege. This privilege may be connected to the missionary’s skill set (perhaps the missionary is a trained physician or a lettered professor teaching in a local university) or simply to a sense of gratitude for the missionary’s presence and commitment. However, it may also be rooted in a similar elevation of the missionary ideal and have little to do with the actual character or quality of the individual. If the character of missionaries can be assumed, what need is there to focus in on missionary ethics?
Another possible reason for the lack of attention focused on a missionary ethic is the inherent multiplicity of roles and statuses accompanying the endeavor. The Smith family is serving in a Kenyan mission hospital founded 60 years ago by pioneering missionaries in the area. They are held in high esteem by the local community and enjoy a life of privilege whether they would choose such a life or not. Sue Johnson is an English teacher in rural China. Her ministry is highly secret and the going is slow. Although she is a lettered professor, her gender and unmarried status late in life confines her to relative obscurity in the local culture. Dan and Lauri Decker are retired farmers from Alberta. Dan has been installing water systems in Guatemala and training locals in sustainable agriculture techniques. He is supported through his home church in Edmonton. He has no theological or professional training but is loving and gentle and committed to the people he serves. 22 year old Abram Ackles is on a two year missions stint in Glasgow, Scotland where he works in a local pub and reaches out to young people in the slums in his free time. All of these are plausible examples of missionaries serving in a mission field. Given such a wide range of professional, semi-professional and non-professional possibilities, is it any wonder that professional ethical ‘codes’ are lacking in the field of missions? Furthermore, missionaries may (or may not) choose affiliation with at least as many organizations as there are denominations in the world. Some of these organizations are denominationally based while others are entirely independent. To what extend can a professional code of ethics be acceptable for all of these sending organizations? Just as missionaries find themselves existing in a sort of meta-culture somewhere in the ionosphere between mission field and country of origin, the missionary profession is a sort of meta-profession matching its specifics to the needs and opportunities contained in the host culture.
Another potential reason for the lack of attention paid to a missionary ethic is simply the distance between here and there. Do those at home actually know what happens on the mission field? How great is the distance between the highlights of a short term mission team’s supporting visit and the daily realities of life in a strange land? What is the distance between the five paragraphs of a quarterly newsletter and the immeasurably complex story that is unwinding in the field? What information makes it into these letters? What, if anything, is deliberately left out and why? Unfortunately, this physical and cultural distance may only be exacerbated by the celebrity status I’ve cited above. If missionaries sense that honest reporting might hinder their financial or moral support or even call their own effectiveness or privileged status into question, it might seem more reasonable to conceal information which might damage these privileges. Distance from accountability structures can be a way of insulating oneself from character critique and for some, creates an unrestricted and unaccountable laboratory situation.