January 2021 | Volume 16 | Issue 1 | by Ellen Livingood
Don’t Get Back On The Plane Until…
Benefiting from the short-term trip pause
COVID-19 has certainly delivered difficult challenges to local churches. But by suspending international travel, the pandemic has also created space for church missions leaders to step back and listen to what God may want to say during this unique time.
Perhaps the easiest thing for churches to do post-COVID would be to rush back to doing what we did previously because we are so eager to escape the strictures of quarantines, and we long to return to the comfortable patterns of the past. Yet nothing could be more ill advised.
This pause in face-to-face global ministry is God’s invitation to reassess ourselves, our partners, and our ministry, and then wisely discern how He maybe shifting our role in the next season of global engagement. Many of these shifts will impact the teams we send overseas.
There is a range of questions to answer before we resume short-term trips. This Postings highlights the big-picture questions of short-term priorities and purpose that need to be carefully considered before we get back on those planes, especially issues that revolve around our national partners (we have not included logistical questions in the scope of this article).
This pause in face-to-face global ministry is God’s invitation to assess and discern how He may be shifting our role in the next season of global engagement.
PARTNER-FOCUSED ANALYSIS PAUSE
How has God been at work without our onsite presence?
A pandemic may have precluded our physical visits, but God continued to be present, and His activity may have been quite different while we were absent. This is a crucial time to hear our partners’ stories. We will want to listen carefully to multiple voices speaking from the ministry context to find out how COVID has changed their work. Both expat missionaries and national partners may be reimagining the future and implementing long-term ministry change.
BRIAN STARK, community and outreach pastor at South Hills Church, Kennewick, WA, describes one partnership where their partners’ ministry and their church’s involvement both changed: “As COVID shut down our partner school in Honduras, teachers used online tools and delivered materials to students’ homes. They soon realized they were not just teaching children but parents too. Many of these adults had little or no education and were using the time in lockdown to learn alongside their children. Because of this, exciting new opportunities for adult education are developing for our partners. We will evaluate what we can do to support them in this expanded ministry.”
MATTHEW PHILIP, director of global outreach at Trinity Church, Lansing, MI, describes the way their partner, Discovery Church in Galway, Ireland, shifted to a new strategy for leadership development during the pandemic. In place of the multiple Trinity consultations and trainings that had been scheduled for 2020, the Irish pastor and elders stepped up, used a local consultant, and kept moving forward on their project to develop the next tier of ministry leaders. The absence of the American church may have increased their sense of ownership and as well as the degree to which the final plan was contextualized.
Churches need to find out where new leaders have stepped into roles Westerners may have previously filled. If Western teams do return, it will be crucial that they come back in a support role that strengthens these new leaders, not forces them to defer to the visitors or last year’s mission trip agenda.
AMBER SMITH, global director at Reality Carpinteria (CA) Church describes how God was working in the ministry of one of their global partners: “For Wild Hope Tanzania, COVID put on hold expanded outreach plans, canceled training conferences, and closed their retreat and training center for six months. However, during this time, God’s Spirit was highlighting how the ministry could pivot to focus on unreached peoples through the next generation of Maasai leaders. Two of them are joining Wild Hope to focus full time on the unreached in Tanzania. We are now supporting these gifted young Maasai missionaries God has raised up.”
Since trip-related funding disappeared during COVID, partners may have relied more on local financial resources, and they may have identified different spending priorities as well. Before our churches and teams return to financing projects as we did pre-COVID, it is imperative to assess situations in which ministry may have been more effective without a dependency on Western funds. As the world emerges from this coronavirus, it is strategic to consider if our churches should invest more, less, or differently.
DURING the pandemic, South Hills’ Honduran partners also suffered extensive flood damage from hurricanes. Brian Stark explains, “Rather than focus on their own property, the staff served their community. Normally, South Hills would have fielded teams to go help. Instead, we provided resources that our national partners hand delivered, which had far greater impact than a Westerner showing up.”
How are our national partners viewing and responding to the pandemic itself?
Our global partners’ understanding of God and His divine providence as it relates to COVID may be very different from how people in our congregations view and react to it. These differences can challenge us and our partners to think deeply about divine providence, risk, and individual vs. community priorities.
Even before the pandemic hit, many Western churches were wrestling with the question of how to define biblical criteria for determining safety protocols and appropriate levels of risk for ministry assignments. They were increasingly uncomfortable when the overriding issue in sending short-term teams or long-term workers to a location defaulted to “Is it safe?” whereas Scripture clearly portrays personal risk as something the disciple should expect.
Difficult questions about how to choose appropriate safety precautions invaded the daily lives of our church members during COVID-19 and revealed major differences of opinion among believers in our churches concerning acceptable levels of, and reasons for, risk-taking. As congregations wrestle with divergent opinions, many note that their global partners often prioritize the needs of their church and community with much less concern given to personal safety. Discussing these differences of perspective with an openness to learn will assist us in continuing to seek answers for our own context as well as for our missions engagement.
What are the purposes, motivations, and implementation of short-term ministry in our church?
The pandemic pause is a God-given time to analyze what did or didn’t happen in the lives of our people because of this interruption. Church missions leadership teams can benefit by taking some time to clarify and perhaps modify their congregation’s global vision and engagement during this time when trips are suspended. Could God want to bring transformation in our people’s lives through alternate opportunities in which they grow in their cross-cultural awareness and missional understanding?
This pause is also an important time to step back and discern what God is saying to each of us personally. If I am desperately eager to return overseas, is my motivation rooted in solid evidence that my personal presence is needed, or do I need these interactions for my own sense of worth and personal renewal? Is my face-to-face connection needed to affirm that the congregation is still committed to healthy partnership and to the flourishing of our global partners who will likely be forced to deal with impacts of the pandemic long after most of the West has moved on?
SCOTT WHITE, associate pastor of outreach at Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena, CA, notes that “Our church has been working hard for 10 months to delink the definition of ‘church’ from the church property and move the focus onto the Family of Faith scattered or gathered. At the same time, we are working to delink partnership from ‘going.’ During COVID, a lot of our outreach has been in the US but still accomplishing many of the same discipleship and ministry goals as our prior international efforts.”
Scott adds, “This pause was a good time to think about the ‘whys’ instead of just the ‘whats’ of trips. ‘Whats’ are easy. ‘Whys’ demand reflection and discernment. Leaders need to respectfully but firmly engage these ‘why’ issues with other church leaders, especially those in authority above them. Church leaders may feel overwhelmed with just dealing with pandemic issues impacting the congregation, but as missions leaders, we need to present a challenge to engage in biblical reflection around short-term strategy now before we travel again.”
NEW NORMAL PAUSE
Churches moved many global relationships online during the past year. Now we need to ascertain how much partner communication, training, and support should stay online. Long-term virtual connection may require that we assist our partners in improving their internet access or technology, and in some cases learn from them in technical areas.
ANOTHER Trinity Church partner, Mamlaka Church in Kenya, grew in fresh ways thanks to COVID-19. As other ministry avenues closed, Mamlaka added daily online programs that focused on topics such as handling personal finances, working from home, dealing with marital stress, etc. They tapped non-staff leaders to host and deliver these presentations and host the virtual gatherings. As the pandemic continued, the programs birthed new topics, and also regular virtual participation from Michigan. Mamlaka discovered that this ministry pivot provided more than ample ground for their emerging leaders to be developed and released.
What if we decided not to restart missions trips or decided not to restart the same ones to the same places, or postponed them until at least 2022? How innovative could we be if we took another whole year to reboot our short-term efforts? Are there dynamic equivalents that would exceed our current objectives? As we emerge from COVID, we must assess the comparative results of leaning into other strategic methods or locations.
How creative could we be if we took another whole year to reboot our short-term efforts?
SCOTT WHITE speaks to this: “COVID raises some ethical questions for us. When we have vaccinations and can go back, should we? Does the community we are heading to serve have access to inoculations? If not, could our trip be replaced by offering the money for the purchase of vaccines that may otherwise be out of reach of those who are most strategic to the ministry in that place? Do they really need us to show up more than they need a shot that may save their life?”
After pursuing the listening and analysis processes described above, church missions leaders must decide which global missions trips should relaunch and how to do them better. For some, the extended pause will provide needed time to revamp short-term team design, recruitment/application/acceptance procedures, prefield training, team leadership structures, and/or debriefing processes. The Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Mission website provides resources for each of these steps. The restart delay could pay monumental dividends if the impact of all future trips is significantly improved.
What begins post-COVID can have an exponentially higher Kingdom value…
INERTIA tends to carry the Church forward in familiar patterns unless we are jolted into a new reality. COVID created a context in which it should be hard to ignore the need for prayerful, clear-eyed assessment of where we are and what “new normal” our God is calling us to envision and create. What begins post-COVID can have an exponentially higher Kingdom value if we take the time to learn the lessons God has for us, then humbly and boldly move forward in new ways.
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