Missionary Professionalism?

Bonk’s final virtue is weakness which translates to vulnerability. This is the principle of the upside-down kingdom where the weak inherit the earth and all must enter as children. Bonk argues that Western culture is especially fixated with power and that we often retain, maintain or obtain power as a means to the end of ministry. This has been one of the more aggravating features of health-and-wealth ministries that I have watched operate in Estonia. I do not doubt their intentions or their devotion. But something about a missionary driving to his various appointments in a shiny new Lexus recalls more of rampant consumerism and power lust than of the ministries of Jesus’ one-staffed, one-cloaked disciples. To leave power aside means that missionaries must assume the status of vulnerability and even uncertainty. It means that we may in fact depend on those we are meant to serve for our life and well-being.

The importance of this vulnerability is developed in an article by Anthony Gittins called “Beyond Hospitality”. Gittins argues that, “unless the person who sometimes extends hospitality is also able sometimes to be a gracious recipient, and unless the one who receives the other as stranger is also able to become the stranger received by another, then, far from ‘relationships,’ we are merely creating unidirectional lines of power-flow, however unintended this may be.” Estonia provides a good example of this tendency. After Estonians reclaimed their independence from Soviet Russia, churches which had previously survived living from one day to the next were suddenly supported and funded by friendship churches in Australia, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Canada and the US. Missionaries thronged to this new mission field and poured resources and ministry ideas in with the best of intentions. Fifteen years later, we have realized that this early generosity not only created dependencies in some situations, it also objectified the relationship between ministry partners reducing it in some cases to a mere exchange of resources. In the West, we have often thought of missions in terms of a pipeline carrying water (basic necessities) from a land of plenty to places of want. The resources flow from rich to poor and the rich control the spigot. Perhaps a more ethical model – a model of mutuality – would be a fiber-optics cable. Communication travels both directions simultaneously and both sides are equipped with the capability to regulate the flow. Rather than a unidirectional power flow, true vulnerability sponsors a relationship of mutual exchange and sustenance.

Perhaps the virtues we have explored above can be summarized as an incarnational ethic. Indeed, it is the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the manner of his cross-cultural ministry on earth that provides a model for the specific challenge of missions. But emulating virtues is only part of the equation of a full ethic of professional mission. Missionaries must also maintain accountability relationships in order to ensure their own health, to provide an objective assessment of their actions and to protect those to whom they minister. I think is safe to say that Jesus alone – the only God-man – could claim the authority of the father as sufficient for his ministry. The rest of us remain human: simultaneously fallen and redeemed. Until we are fully-sanctified, it is advisable to place ourselves in appropriate accountability structures to mitigate our propensity to pursue selfish gain. Fortunately, the missionary profession is replete with avenues for accountability. During recruitment, sending organizations can look for the seeds of professionalism and missionary virtue in their candidates. New and experienced missionaries can be encouraged to pursue further training and ought to be supported if they move in the direction of ordination, both of which will engage the missionary in mental and spiritual accountability. Missions organizations can assign or provide access to an area director, a mentor or a spiritual director for ongoing accountability. Missionaries can be encouraged to take a furlough with significant time reserved and protected for rest and reflection. Many of these practices are already in place in some missions organizations. I see no reason why such practices should not become normative for the profession.

It is nearly impossible to imagine a codified and universally accepted missionary ethic. But this should by no means keep individual or related organizations from forming or adopting their own code. The missionary is in fact a professional and as such needs to function according to some set of ethical standards. Such standards are easily accessible to us in scripture and in the historic structures of the missional Church. Can it be that neglecting such a professional ethic might even constitute missional malpractice?

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