In the 1970s and ‘80s, when our family was living in Japan, member care was new. Many missionaries thought needing “outside help” was a sign of weakness, and a lack of faith and trust in God. Nowadays, many missionaries realize that encouragement, support, and counseling help are necessary ingredients for fruitful ministry in missions. However, the key to successfully providing this kind of member care is in how it is done by mission agencies and boards.
Serious emotional and relational problems within missionary families or their church community sap their strength, and hinders the work. Furthermore, dealing with complex relationship problems can drain the energy of mission executives, forcing them to spend valuable time in areas for which they often are not gifted. All branches of the organization can be negatively affected.
But when the members of a mission organization feel heard, and their needs are being met, then everyone can do the work they have been called to do with the least amount of interference and stress.
Member care cannot be set up just to put out fires or in reaction to a crisis. Policies and practices have to start at the top, before problems emerge. Leaders in both home and field offices must see the value of member care and communicate that to everyone else.
A plan must be initiated, policies drawn up, and a structure put in place for member care to work. Obviously each organization is different, so the final written policy will look different, but the general implementation is the same. Everyone within the mission organization needs to understand and see member care policy in writing. It should be clear and straightforward.
The overriding purpose of member care should be positive, to give support and encouragement to its members. Its main purpose is not to just solve problems or send people to counselors, but rather to be a tool to create an atmosphere of understanding and care from the top down.
The basic structure depends on every missionary family being interviewed at least once a year. Therefore everyone, not just “people with problems,” are recipients of member care. The purpose of this interview is to share the joys and hopes, as well as the concerns and difficulties, of missionary life. Just having someone listen to feelings and stories communicates understanding and care. To know someone from the organization’s management cares about what you are doing and how you are doing is invaluable.
The interviewer, who could be the mission director in a smaller agency, does not have to be a counselor, but simply someone who is trained to be a good listener. Of course this person must be someone who can be trusted and be someone who treats people with respect and dignity.
Further help may be needed if there are situations in the missionaries’ lives that are keeping them from functioning in their work, or if some part of their life isn’t healthy. If harm is being done to self or others, then the member care person can suggest that the missionary get help from a trained counselor or pastor, and give referrals.
It’s advisable that interviewers receive some form of training. This is necessary in order to recognize symptoms of emotional problems such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress, and to know when to refer or ask for advice.
When it is determined that a fellow missionary, someone in the family, or the whole family needs professional help, there are different ways the agency can deal with this. A pre-determined process needs to be clearly written down in the member care policies and guidelines.
Help can be in the form of a suggestion to seek counseling, or counseling can be made mandatory. If it is mandatory, and the person refuses to get help within a certain period of time, the mission can have the policy that the missionary needs to leave the field if harm is being done to themselves, their loved ones, or to the work of the mission.
Some missions require the counselor, after a certain amount of sessions, to give a written summary to the mission with general recommendations, (not specific details). Then the mission can make an informed decision as to what is best for the individual missionary and family. Sometimes that means continuing counseling on the field, other times that might mean having to go back to their home country for a period of time.
When I was counseling in Africa four years ago, I learned about some missionaries who had had to leave the field for a while to take care of a family situation. They looked at this as part of their calling, and often they would return to the field, sometimes after spending years in their home country, and continue their work.
In the Old Testament story of Job, his friends did a good job of ministering to Job by just being present with him and listening to him (Job 2: 11-13). But they messed things up when they started giving Job advice, admonition, and reasons why God was doing this to him; in the end God was displeased and angry with Job’s friends for doing this (Job 42:7-9).
Listening is so helpful to people who are struggling, need direction, or are in pain. We are all human, and sometimes we need to be on the receiving end of ministry. But in order to give the care its members need, the mission agency itself has to be supportive, understanding, and non-threatening. Speaking the truth in love is also often necessary to make it work. If missionaries can be ministered to in this supportive and loving atmosphere, the work of the Kingdom will be enhanced and needless suffering will be avoided on many fronts.