March 2021 | Volume 16 | Issue 3 | by Ellen Livingood
Caring for National Partners
How Western churches can help them flourish
A missionary vividly recalls a conversation he had with a wonderful national pastor. This man led what was at that time the only evangelical church in a radically Islamic city of almost two million people. The missionary knew that Satanists regularly prayed against this pastor and his ministry. He also struggled with health issues and other problems. Curious about his spiritual support, the missionary asked him, “So who prays for you?”
The pastor paused and finally responded, “There was a lady who came through here about 12 years ago, and she said she would be praying for me.”
The missionary continues, “I was appalled. I knew that there were expat workers in his church who likely had 50 or 100 people praying for them each week. Yet in the past dozen years, only one visitor had expressed their commitment to pray for this man and his labors in a very difficult place, and he had no idea whether or not she ever followed through on her promise. It broke my heart. Caring for national workers may involve more than prayer, but it shouldn’t, it can’t, involve less than that!”
The Apostle Paul pleaded in Romans 15:30, “strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf.” Partnership at its deepest level is “striving together,” and that powerful, striving-together prayer requires a relationship that grows in the soil of deep trust and humility. It is the beginning point of compassionate, personalized, reenergizing pastoral care for anyone serving in a demanding ministry leadership role.
Caring for national workers may involve more than prayer, but it shouldn’t, it can’t, involve less than that!
EVERYONE NEEDS CARE
In recent years, Western churches have become increasingly aware of how much their missionaries need their care. This new understanding has led to more sensitive care delivered via visits, in-depth home assignment interaction, and Zoom calls. Churches are learning to listen to the heart needs of their missionaries and to respond with various types of help. An earlier Catalyst Postings describes six levels of care that churches can provide directly or indirectly, including Friend Care, Pastoral Care, Barnabas Care, Professional Care, Specialized Professional Care, and Professional Residential Care.
While many churches are improving their missionary care, they may remain unaware of the care needs of their national partners and other national Christian leaders working alongside them—such as indigenous pastors, church planters, and local missionaries, as well as the staff of national mission agencies and NGOs. It’s easy to falsely assume that nationals either don’t need care or have caring support systems within their own community.
Like their Western counterparts, younger workers now taking up ministry leadership around the world are more self aware than previous generations, and more sensitive to their own needs and the needs of their families. Yet they are often reticent to admit their struggles to their Western partners.
Acknowledging that one isn’t strong enough to be self-sufficient brings shame in many cultures. In addition, a national partner’s religious background and culture may teach that acceptance by God and others is based on performance. This often leads to an unhealthy work/life balance, leaving them in desperate need of rest and their families short-changed. Care and biblical counsel is so needed!
SEVEN WAYS TO CARE WELL
1. Provide sensitive care yourself
Over time, strong, cross-cultural relationships can develop deep levels of trust, enabling Westerners to care for their national brothers and sisters with sensitivity and humility. In some situations national workers may feel more free to share their struggles with the “outside” Westerner rather than with a national colleague. The distance protects them from shame and the fear of gossip that could come with admitting such problems to someone in their own community.
Of course Western partners must guard against the danger of ever treating national partners as “projects,” rather than as loved and respected friends and colleagues. Sometimes the most powerful expression of that love is to follow Paul’s injunction in Romans 12:15 to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Many times it may be the fact that someone cares, more than the advice or assistance itself, that renews the national colleague.
Care from a Western church can be powerful. However, despite their best intentions, Western partners must realize that they will never be able to truly comprehend many of their national partners’ issues because they are deeply rooted in a different culture and perspective. A heartfelt desire to help doesn’t necessarily translate into culturally sensitive counsel or care that touches the true need.
Our national missionaries work cross culturally in very difficult places. It would be an incredible blessing if a caring Western couple would commit to call and pray with them every month. You see, many of our workers went to the field with fierce resistance from their unbelieving family members. They don’t have any family support and often no church that takes any care responsibility. They would be deeply touched and blessed if a Western family would take an interest in them and their family . This form of care doesn’t require any special skill, but the partner would have to make a commitment—not just do it for a month or two and then forget— and also learn and maintain security restrictions. This care relationship would also help the American church to understand us.”
A missionary care provider in an indigenous mission agency
Western churches’ greatest care contribution often will be indirect. Here’s how:
2. Model care
Modeling pastoral care for their Western workers is powerful in two ways. First, it demonstrates that it is okay for people in ministry to admit they have areas of weakness and need help. When the national worker sees their Western colleagues accept care and allow others to help meet their needs, it makes it easier to do the same.
Second, modeling is a great way for a Western church to help indigenous churches, denominations, mission agencies, NGOs, etc., grasp the need for such care and the role that congregations can play in providing it. National pastors and leaders learn as they see how Western churches care for their missionaries as well as for their pastors, other staff, and their families.
Modeling care requires openly discussing what good care looks like. One national caregiver explained, “If you practice missionary care, it is important that you talk about it. If our national agencies and churches don’t hear you emphasizing the importance of care, it can be assumed that it is not important to you.”
Understand that young mission agencies in developing countries like ours are facing major challenges to build out multiple aspects of their organization. Here, many of our agencies focus on church planting and media. We aren’t thinking much about member care as we get launched. We need help to make this aspect of care an integral part of who we are as organizations.
A leader in a national mission agency
3. Identify and facilitate access to the best care options
A Western church partner may at some point be faced with a major crisis situation in the life of a national partner that is clearly beyond the scope of what they or anyone on site can adequately address. Here’s where relationships with others in a regional network or the Global Member Care Network are so valuable because they are go-to people for caregiver recommendations. In cases where the best help is not local, the Western partner may need to fund travel and other expenses so the national worker and family can access such care.
Over a period of years, our church developed a deep friendship with a national couple who were leaders in our Africa partnership. Our initiative leaders for that partnership talked to this couple weekly, developing an incredible level of trust. Eventually we realized that this couple had serious struggles in their marriage, struggles that we, as an American church, were not equipped to address in a culturally appropriate way.
Through our network connections, we reached out to two leaders who are very knowledgeable about care resources in that part of the world. They both recommended the same counselor on staff at a retreat center in an adjacent country. The cost of travel and spending time at this center was out of reach for these workers, so our church covered the expense of travel and a month away for rest and resetting their marriage. The result was not only a restoration of their marriage but also a return to productive ministry.
Several years later, this couple’s son died suddenly. Again, we knew that the parents and siblings needed clinical care that we weren’t equipped to give. The best way we could care for them was to make it possible for the whole family to take some time away from ministry at another retreat center where they could grieve and be cared for by a competent counselor who knew their culture. These two crisis interventions where we identified and funded specialized care occurred because we value deep relationships and prioritize spending to help our national partners flourish in life and ministry.
A former missions pastor in the US
4. Train those who can train caregivers
An experienced missionary caregiver emphasizes the value of preparing national counselors: “A caregiver who can use the workers’ heart language and who intimately understands their cultural issues is almost always more effective than a Westerner. But if the local person lacks the training and skills, there is a role for those who can provide training that addresses missing competencies, especially if they focus on the biblical principles and not specific action steps which may be so dependent on the cultural context.” For example, a Western counselor could teach the biblical principle of good communication in marriage without suggesting that a “date night” is the best way to achieve it since dating is not a part of many cultures.
Many Western churches have highly trained counselors who could take a short-term trip for the purpose of expanding the counseling skills of national caregivers. Some online training can also be valuable, particularly if the relationship is already established.
Someone from North America skilled in an aspect of pastoral care could come and sit with us and learn about our needs. That would help them know what would help us. It would be best if they teach us and then we care for workers here since we understand the culture.
A national member-care provider
5. Underwrite professional training
Assisting national counselors to take courses or get an advanced degree in counseling could also be a valuable financial investment by Western partners. One national commented, “Sometimes Americans say, ‘Learn by doing.’ But our people need preparation.” An advanced degree for someone who can then develop culturally appropriate care programs could pay dividends in healthier missionaries, pastors, and leaders for decades to come.
6. Help launch retreats and renewal centers
A growing number of missionary-care retreats are being held in various places around the globe and year-round respite centers are being established where workers can go for renewal and care without having to travel all the way back to their home country. Both types of care are desperately needed by national workers as well—but with attention to the context and content that are most helpful.
I was invited to attend a missionary care retreat that was sponsored primarily for North American workers who serve in my country. The retreat was held in a beautiful facility, and the leaders went to amazing lengths to lovingly serve all of us. I was very thankful for their gracious care, but it was not comfortable for me. We could never replicate something like this because of the cost. We need examples of care events that are affordable in our situation. It would be better for the Western church to partner with one of our indigenous agencies that understands our needs.
A national missionary care provider from a Majority World country
As suggested by this national caregiver, there can be an effective role for Western churches to come alongside nationals as they envision and develop their own retreats and renewal centers. The Global Member Care Network can advise as well as connect the partners with successful models.
7. Facilitate national partners to train globally
Western churches may find that they have some national partners who already have both skills and experience in providing pastoral care. If these partners come from the Majority World, they will have developed their care methodologies in a cultural context that is most likely similar to that of national workers in other regions of the world. Their ability to understand and resource other national caregivers for these places will almost surely supersede the Western church’s. How exciting it would be for a Western partner church to fund the travel of a national caregiver to train others in some other region of the Majority World!
“IT’S HARD TO SEE some of our precious local workers falling by the wayside because of the lack of care,” many indigenous missions leaders have expressed in various ways. As a Western partner, you can make a tremendous difference. Will you help provide care to avoid this loss? How can your church respond?