Tuesday, April 7, 2009

JT on Short Term Mission Assignments

JT is an Australian who has served as a pastor and theological teacher. She is now spending much of the year freelancing as a seminary teacher. J is recently back in Oz from assignments in many countries. The following is a reflection on her travels so far this year:

Mission or Tourism?
A web magazine article a few months ago provocatively asked if short mission trips were really just tourism opportunities. It turned out to be a promotion for a useful training video for church mission trips, but given my life at the moment is a series of short “mission trips”, it got my attention. Are teaching contributions of a week or two or a semester such as Theologians Without Borders makes possible of value to the recipients? (There is no doubt about their value to the givers.)


Long-Termers
On a recent short visit to XYZ I was caught up in fighting and it was noticeable that while the NGO staffs had been flown out of the area on the advice of the UN, the long term missionaries had stayed at their posts. They were a small but noticeable part of a dramatic prayer meeting called by the combined local churches to beseech God about the deteriorating situation. Their solidarity and steadfastness spoke volumes. It emphasised the importance of incarnational service offered by those who like their Master “pitch their tents” in the two thirds world.


Short-Termers
I however was a short-termer, and more than anxious to get on the first plane leaving when the airport re-opened. I was a liability rather than an asset, and besides, I had appointments elsewhere! Yet in this calendar year as I re-visit the conferences and theological colleges where I taught last year, I have had confirmed again how much isolated Christians appreciate appropriate short term contributions. I and others like me represent the outside world with all our contacts and prayer partners and resources - an expression of the fellowship we have in Christ. Even when I have suggested that the cost of my fares might be better spent in the local community, those issuing the invitation have affirmed how important it is to them to be connected to the wider world and feel part of the greater communion of saints.

Returning to Deepen Friendship & Knowledge
Going back a second and third time to the same college or group of people helps to compensate to some degree for my lack of knowledge of local culture and issues, and means they and I know what to expect of each other. It makes the experience is so much deeper and less like a tourist junket. And short targeted contributions certainly tackle the aid dependency that is stifling initiative in many of the more disrupted societies and churches.

Offering Specialized Input
Would it be better for my husband and me to spend the last 20 years of our lives implanted in a community and becoming part of it? That has great advantages and would be right for some folk. However, we have come to see that for us, the skills we have to offer are at a different level – more specialised and perhaps therefore more transferrable. Though in teaching pastoral theology (my specialty) I am acutely aware of the need for cultural sensitivity, I also have the experience of many years in pastoral ministry, living in many different countries and crossing many boundaries. (Wisdom is hopefully one of the compensations for being old!)


Mission, Travel and Pilgrimage
And we believe that God uses all that we are and have been in this work, including our love of travel. Writing in Scripture Union’s Encounter With God notes on Hebrews 11 recently, Whitney Kuniholm warned: ‘Sometimes we may think that living by faith is some kind of Star Trek adventure where we “boldly go where no man has gone before”. Perhaps. But more likely it means that we do what God says, one step at a time.’ But one step at a time is quite an adventure for us at the moment, and when I get over the stomach bug I’ve picked up in STU, I’ll be ready for the next assignment!

Grateful thanks to J for this reflection on the value of short-term assignments. J and I will be interested to receive your comments, supportive or otherwise.

Dr. Geoff Pound
Coordinator, Theologians Without Borders.