The mission field is indeed dangerous. My own experience has proven to me that dangers abound as much inside as the do in my environment. Estonia is an increasingly modern country. No headhunters. No child sacrifice. No jungles infested with man eating beasts and poisonous snakes. But for me it was a dangerous place because my status as a missionary constantly posed a challenge to my character as a Christian. The outer reality threatened the inner reality. This is the very situation which arises especially in the professions and necessitates a code of ethics which will reinforce right conduct. Consider the similarities between the common traits of missionary status I’ve mentioned above and those traits which have been shown to occur frequently in cases of clergy sexual misconduct. Trull and Carter cite David Brubaker’s list: “social isolation, blurred boundaries, the paradoxical feelings of perfectionism and inadequacy, the “no talk” rule which distorts communication, and unequal power.” These realities – familiar to missionaries as well as clergy – are not an equation for ethical failure, but they create a context of external pressure which allows for falls from a greater height.
But to what extent or in what sense ought the missionary to be considered a professional? Trull and Carter summarize the various descriptions of a profession in the following characteristics: a profession involves specialized training, a sense of calling to serve the public, self-regulation including a code of ethics, and autonomy. If this is the measure of a missionary, many who have maintained successful ministries without formal training or education might seem to come up wanting. But this would be a conflation of a measure with a goal. Professionalism includes both a standard for which to strive and a measure of quality. Identifying missions as a profession gives the missionary a professional standard to shoot for and an accountability structure to be measured by.
It is possible then to see these aspects of professionalism both as a measuring stick with which to judge missionaries and as vocational goals toward which every missionary ought to strive. Missionaries will be trained to various extents. The more their training becomes an intrinsic part of their function on the field, the more they grow into the standard of their profession. Every missionary experiences some form of a call to serve. This may begin as an interest or simply an opportunity (as it did in my own case) but as the missionary develops as a professional, this sense of calling will build and sharpen. Missionaries tend to be very autonomous people. If any of the aspects of a profession would be a prerequisite for all missionaries, autonomy would be a strong candidate. Missionaries are required by the very nature of their work to function well on their own, adapting to whatever circumstances may arise. However, this autonomy does not and must not involve a complete divorce from ethical standards or accountability structures. Indeed, for the missionary to truly grow into the profession, he or she must develop a strong sense of and allegiance to a code of ethical conduct which will reinforce his or her right conduct in the field.