With this distinction between the standard and the measure of the professional in mind, I suggest that there is much value in aspiring to meet the standards of professionalism in the missionary endeavor and that doing so will not limit the field but rather bolster it qualitatively. My purpose in the remainder of this essay is to offer some examples of ethical standards specific to the profession and to discuss how progress toward attaining to these standards might be encouraged within common structures already in place.
While we have already established that missions can function as a sort of meta-occupation or a wrapper for other skill sets and professions, we can equally affirm that mission is distinct from other professions in that it is a cross-cultural ministry. This mix of ministry within the context of another culture requires virtues specific to ministry and the additional ethical burden of acting them out in a way that is meaningful in a non-native cultural context. In an article responding to the major ethical problem of affluence in Western mission, Jonathan Bonk has suggested three core values required by the missionary vocation: incarnation, willingness to suffer and vulnerability. Incarnation is a theological term we use to describe God made flesh in Christ, but Bonk affirms that it is also a “missiological prescriptive” . For the missionary, this translates to releasing any status or privilege one may have acquired – in the same way that Jesus set aside his own heavenly status – and entering as fully as possible into the realities of those to whom we seek to minister. Some may assert that status and privilege must actually be left rather than simply released. But my own sense is that missionaries are called to hold everything – native culture and host culture – on an open palm. Missionaries exist in the space between cultures and this is the realm we are commissioned to navigate. I will never be an Estonian, regardless of how functional I become in the culture and how much I release of my American heritage and identity. It seems to me that the higher calling of incarnation is not giving up one thing to become another (for Christ was fully human and fully divine) but to release both sources of identity into the hands of God and to exist in the space between them.
This uncertain space between cultures creates a reality which is neither here nor there, fully recognizable to neither culture and therefore fully understandable to neither. It follows then that missionaries can expect to be misunderstood and to suffer considerable obscurity and pain. But focusing again on the example of Christ, Bonk affirms that this was in fact the same reality our Lord faced in his own ministry. In fact, this same middle ground between an earthly and a heavenly kingdom proved to be one of the sticking points that blinded the twelve disciples from fully understanding the nature of his ministry and certainly fed the disappointment of the masses who followed him in hopes of an earthly revolution.