journal_0001_185128779_620x224A few years ago a pastor asked me if I agreed that missionaries “fail in ministry”
because they had no real strategic plan. Resisting the urge to dance my sword under his chin threateningly, I answered his question by asking questions of my own. 


plan and reality bike“What if what you and I may call a failure is really a bigger context for God to shape this individual, his/her family, the team, and potentially their field of service to look more like Jesus? Maybe they are poorly suited for the task at hand, but if we start there, how are we really all that different from a non-Christian company? Shouldn’t our Christian world view at least start with the question, “What is God up to?” before we begin assessing the strength of a person’s strategic plan or their skill set in meeting it? After all, as I read the stories of scripture, few were all that good at what God asked of them…”


Unreasonable Goals and deadlines

I’ve read some blogs suggesting that vague or poorly constructed goals are cause for pre-mature departure from the field. Curiously, that contention simply does not show up in the research. However, to the credit of these dear souls drawing attention to missionary struggle, there is a need for the missionary to establish healthy goals and boundaries. Missionaries need to think through what they hope to accomplish and how they plan to do it. Otherwise, the tyranny of the urgent takes over and they wake up one day with a vague sense of lacking purpose. The set up is most damaging in a team where leadership is ambiguous. Natural leaders will want to set the pace and ‘go somewhere’ while those who are less driven will be seen as not holding up their end.


common mistakes in setting goals (too many, too big, not specific, not written) - concept presented with sticky notes and white chalk handwriting on blackboard

Frankly, I’m uncertain where to actually draw a line between unreasonable goals and something better suited to reducing stress. When we think about it, the big hairy audacious goals are the ones only God can accomplish. And isn’t that the reality of Christian mission? We want to reach the world for Christ. Great. How? Good question. The means are various and outcomes questionable, but we go anyway. After all, it’s the Lord of the harvest who brings the increase. That’s not on us to figure out.

Making a distinction between goals and desires may be helpful at this juncture. Goals are something we can control while desires are outside our control. For example, we may desire losing so much weight and make it a goal to only eat so many calories. We can control our calorie intake but we cannot control how our body will respond to the reduced intake and exercise. 



We cannot make it our goal to reach the entire world for Christ. There are too many moving parts to rightly control for that to be an appropriate goal. It can be a desire, which we pray toward while working on our goal to learn another language in order to tell someone who has not heard the good news.


So, what does this have to do with missionary retention? Ask better questions of your missionary. Do they have a handle on the difference between goals and desires? Can they articulate how their desires and goals inform the other? Do they feel internal pressure to meet some unspoken standard of what ‘real missionaries’ accomplish? Do they feel the church or their sending agency is pressuring them to meet a desire more than a realistic goal? In the end, do they feel heard and compassion when they somehow don’t meet goals? Are you looking for what God is doing in the midst of their confusion and shame? Are you willing to give them room to struggle rather than determine their worth by the outcome?


I could go on, but you get the picture. There are a few more set ups on the way. Stay tuned…