While living overseas I had the opportunity to disciple a couple of young men toward becoming pastors. One day, in place of our typical discussions, we decided to walk to the fields nearby to talk with local shepherds. We planned on simply asking them questions about shepherding sheep to see if any of it paralleled pastoring people. To our surprise, it immediately became an unforgettable experience.
One shepherd began by nodding toward his flock and saying seemingly random words.
After a while we realized he was actually telling us the name of every sheep one by one. Though there were dozens of them—dirty, munching, mindless sheep—the shepherd not only knew them all by name, he knew them well enough to name them according their unique personalities. That day, the young candidates walked away with a tremendous lesson in pastoring: shepherds know their sheep.
When it comes to shepherding missionaries, pastors must strive to know them well. After all, it will have to be the kind of relationship that stretches across time zones and sky miles. Staying connected will take time and intentionality.
There are numerous well-known stereotypes of missionaries, but in reality, no two are alike. They cannot be pastored solely according to processes and policies. Missionaries are people. As such, they need to be pursued and known, not exalted as if they belong to a special class of super-Christians.
“If you assume anything about missionaries, assume they need you to care for their souls.”
To pastor them is to shepherd a flock in perpetual crisis. Yes, they often live in dangerous places. And yes, they often get sick. But transitioning to another culture and learning a new language adds pressures that create a state of constant tension.
It’s painful living far away from family, friends, and sending church—especially for families with children. If you assume anything about missionaries, assume they need you to care for their souls.
The Biblical Example
Thankfully, Scripture is packed with help for this task, though perhaps not where you would expect. I would argue that the most comprehensive example of missionary care in the Bible is the way God the Father cared for God the Son. Let me explain.
Third John 5–8 reads,
Beloved, it is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers, strangers as they are, who testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God. For they have gone out for the sake of the name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. Therefore we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth (ESV).
Here the apostle John was commending Gaius for his hospitality to itinerate evangelists or missionaries. Take note of the sentence, “You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God” (v. 6, emphasis added).
The commendation of caring “well” for these workers was defined by sending them in the same way Gaius might send God himself. In what manner would we, in theory, send God himself? Five words come to mind: roll out the red carpet.
Perhaps a better, more concrete way to answer the above question, however, would be to look to Scripture once more and see the manner in which God the Father sent and cared for God the Son on his missionary journey to earth. Consider several of the Father’s actions:
- The Father sent the Spirit to the Son.
- The Father sent angels to minister to the Son.
- The Father spoke verbal affirmation and encouragement to the Son.
- The Father supplied co-laborers for the Son.
- The Father compelled the Son to retreat and rest.
- The Father let the Son grow in wisdom and stature.
- The Father used Scripture to strengthen the Son.
- The Father communicated with the Son.
- The Father loved the Son.
- The Father allowed the Son to suffer.
- The Father had a plan for the Son.
- The Father was ready to rescue the Son if he called.
- The Father welcomed the Son home with honor.
Although not all these actions are prescriptive of pastors’ care for missionaries, they are motivating and catalytic. Truly, this is sending in a manner worthy of God himself. And this is the kind of missionary care that John commended to us.
Shepherding care needs to start long before the missionary’s departure. It buds in the context of the local church as missionary candidates grow in their relationship with God and others. In other words, it depends on a culture of discipleship.
“Shepherding care starts and depends on a culture of discipleship in the sending church as missionary candidates grow in their relationship with God and others.”
Three keys aspects of this are community, vulnerability, and plurality. Missionary candidates must be growing deeply in gospel relationships (i.e. community) with other church members and leaders. That means they are being vulnerable (open and honest) about both the good and the bad in their lives, and others are doing the same with them.
Rather than seeking the appearance of competency (as all Christians—especially missionaries—are tempted to do), they are becoming more and more aware of their need for Christ and his church. Along the way, this lays the foundation for a plurality of church members and leaders who can genuinely affirm, send, and continue to care for them.
Pastors should also make a connection with member care leaders at the missionary’s partner organization. This means getting to know them by name, exchanging contact information, making them aware of the desire to continue pastoring the missionary, and talking through what it might look like to work together.
One of the most helpful ways to maintain a healthy pastoral relationship is simply by communicating consistently. For many locations in the world, it’s easy to stay in touch through texting and setting up video calls. Communication should be genuine and casual, but also intentional. It may be good to have some specific questions in mind. Consider the following categories:
- emotional health
- physical health
- soul health
- ministry engagement
- cultural bonding
- language acquisition
- team and community
- relationship with missions agency
- quality of care from the sending church
Finally, consider adding some books to your reading list. I recommend Neal Pirolo’s short text, Serving as Senders, or Kelly O’Donnell’s more extensive work, Missionary Care. Educating yourself on the realities of missionary life will not only grow your empathy but encourage and challenge you personally as well.
Know most of all, however, that in a pastoral relationship with missionaries, you are the key resource. Be yourself. Be available. Be real. Give them the privilege of knowing you along with your joys and struggles. It just might become one of your greatest delights in being a shepherd.
Zach Bradley is a former IMB missionary and current lead pastor at Antioch Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He is also the director of content strategy at The Upstream Collective, authored The Sending Church Defined, and blogs at brokenmissiology.com. You can find him on Twitter @bradleyrbell.