All my friends are dead.
Don’t worry, it’s just the title of a book—a spoofy children’s book for adults. There’s a drawing of a bewildered dinosaur on the front next to the bold font, “All my friends are dead.” In the book’s own words, it’s “a delightful primer on the inevitable,” like the sock whose partner has gone missing or the tree whose friends have all become paper. My wife and I saw the book one day and laughed out loud as we flipped through it.
Then we almost cried.
As a missions pastor, I can identify with the gulping, perplexed posture of the last lone dinosaur. Much of my time is spent with people who are inevitably going to leave me. Earlier this year, I led our church’s commissioning of a young missionary—a guy I had deeply invested in for the past year and a half.
“As a missions pastor, much of my time is spent with people who are inevitably going to leave me.”
I can still remember the first time we met and he told me he wanted to be a missionary. We soon afterward traveled on a short-term mission trip together to Europe, where he really proved himself. He had meals in my home and I think became my daughter’s first crush. We walked through hefty mission applications together, as well as the process of deciding where in the world to go serve.
Most significant to me, we met regularly for six months, exploring his deepest struggles and applying the gospel to them. He grew. I grew. At our very last meeting together, he confessed to me, “More than ever before, I realize how weak I am and how much I need Jesus.” Then I knew he was ready to go.
Am I Being Selfish?
All this came not long after saying a bitter goodbye to a family who had been some of my family’s closest friends. We had journeyed even further with them, present for all the evolutions in their calling from youth ministry to one of the toughest unreached peoples in the world.
We led them on a trip to the Middle East, then on another trip to Africa. We helped them navigate “the toilet bowl,” my tongue-in-cheek term for the emotional swirl and identity flush of pre-field preparations. We helped them sell their last possessions at a yard sale.
Then they were gone.
Now I’m like the proud, pitiful father dropping off his youngest at college orientation. I know they’ll be terrific sent ones. I know they’ll come back changed. And I know they’ll struggle at times. When I really think about it, I feel lots of conflicting emotions. Delighted. Sad. Nervous. Eager. Lonely.
Honestly, a lot of how I feel is selfish. I feel sorry for myself for being left behind. I feel jealous that I don’t get to go. I feel insignificant because I’ll only influence them from a distance. I feel insecure because I probably could have better prepared them.
I feel anxious that their “performance” will be a reflection on my leadership. I wonder if I should have been more relationally distant, less emotionally involved. It would certainly have made it easier for me and my family.
The Gospel for the Missions Pastor
And there’s my pedestaled pastor’s heart on full display. In his book The Pastor’s Justification, Jared Wilson writes that for such ornery ones as me,
There is something both lay elders and career elders have in common, something I’ve seen in the thirty-year senior pastor of a southern megachurch as well as the bivocational shepherd of a little, rural New England parish, the laid-back fauxhawked church planter and the fancy mousse-haired charismatic, and in nearly every pastor in between: a profound sense of insecurity for which the only antidote is the gospel.
I am finding, once again, that the things I teach to missionary candidates are what I need too: that my worth to God is not based on my effectiveness in his mission; that on my best day I’m still desperately needy for Jesus and his grace; that my suffering and sacrifices don’t make me better than other Christians; that God doesn’t just want to work through me but also in me; that I am known and loved by God and that’s my greatest boast.
“I am finding, once again, that the things I teach to missionary candidates are what I need too.”
I know these chafing goodbyes are meant to lead my heart toward a better country, where God “…will dwell with [us], and [we] will be his people, and God himself will be with [us] as [our] God. He will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:3–4 ESV).
That is good news for the missions pastor. Even if all our friends are gone.
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 @ZachsBradley.