Interview by Mark A. Taylor
We spoke with four local church missions ministers about best practices for missions ministry. Their answers were as inspiring as they were practical. Here are approaches to the local church’s global outreach that build up the church and nourish the workers on foreign fields.
We think every congregation will appreciate the insights and ideas these four shared: PAT CREECH, global outreach pastor for Crossroads Christian Church, Newburgh, Indiana; DREW DEPLER, global outreach pastor at LifeBridge Christian Church, Longmont, Colorado; TYLER HARI, pastor of outreach, Eastview Christian Church, Normal, Illinois; and DAVID THORESEN, director of local and international outreach, Pantano Christian Church, Tucson, Arizona.
After reading these excerpts from our interview, many readers will want to listen to the whole hour-long conversation at www.blogtalkradio.com/standardpublishing/2015/08/12/missions-ministers-talk-best-practices.
CHRISTIAN STANDARD: How do you decide whom to support?
Pat Creech: We have had to decide, What do we believe the Lord is asking us as Crossroads Christian Church to do? Sticking to our vision and mission is key to us making those decisions.
For instance, our weighted emphasis in global outreach is planting churches among the world’s unreached people groups. So suppose we’re considering support for somebody who has a vision to go and plant churches among people where there already is access to the Word of God, the people of God, and the message of God. If we were also to consider somebody wanting to go and engage a people or a culture that does not yet have viable, reproducible access to the people of God, the Word of God, or the message of God, we would definitely lean toward facilitating church planting among that unreached people group, where there is not yet an established and viable church.
Tyler Hari: Five years ago Eastview Christian Church was being inundated with requests for support from local missionaries, international missionaries, mission organizations, and NGOs. We decided we were going to focus on two distinct groups, those we raised up from Eastview and those we would describe as global partners.
We didn’t feel we were doing an adequate job training, equipping, and sending our own people to specific locations. So we intend to double down our efforts in improving our training and sending.
Global partners are the indigenous-led ministries with a God-given vision, gifted leaders, and structure in place. But maybe a partnership could increase their capacity. We didn’t want to tell them how to create ministry in their cultural setting; we just wanted our partnership to increase the scope of what they were able to do.
Right now, we have only four global partners, and we’d be looking to grow maybe to six in the next couple of years. But we’re intentionally keeping that very slow so we can increase our impact. Outside of those two buckets, we say no frequently to really good ministries that we just don’t feel God has called us to support.
Drew Depler: One of the things we struggled with for a long time here at LifeBridge was how to support partnerships at a level significant enough to make a difference. We had many small-dollar partnerships. In order to have a good partnership, you need significant relationship.
So we tried to look at the concerns God had put in our hearts. God had called us to specific missions, and one of those is single moms. We really pay attention deeply to the needs of single moms in our own community, and for a long time we’ve had a reputation and an emphasis on being an externally focused church, a church that looks into our community and tries to make a difference to the needs that God has called us to.
We try to find that same thinking locally and globally, and so we’ve been emphasizing those things close to our hearts in our global partnerships as well. That meant we had to cut some of our partnerships but go deeper into other partnerships relationally, spiritually, and with a connection and focus around what God was doing in those places. We’ve sought to form partnerships that add life to where they’re working as well as to the kingdom that exists here right at home in Longmont, Colorado.
Was this a difficult transition for you, Drew? To make the decision to cut some support?
Depler: Yeah, nobody wants to be the person making those phone calls or sending those letters to say we’re not going to continue in support. But most understand that support changes. Even if the conversations are kind, with an explanation of what you’re trying to do, the conversations can be difficult.
We’ve helped missionaries find other partners, and we’ve taken deliberate steps not to remove support overnight. Where we have discontinued support, we’ve stepped folks down so they can move forward and not be left in the lurch.
David Thoresen: At Pantano we start by asking if we have a shared vision. We have a purpose statement for international outreach, to facilitate church training movements together with community transformation. Our primary strategy is partnering with indigenous, national ministries. In addition, we do have some “supporting partners” who provide expertise and support in church planting or development for our primary partners.
When we’re evaluating a potential partner we have a scorecard, listing a number of criteria very important to us. Some of them are more important than others, so they’re weighted. We use this same scorecard to consider new partners and to evaluate our current partners annually.
Of course there’s also always a question of capacity, so sometimes we’ll have to pass up what looks like it could be a really good partnership. If we don’t have both the financial capacity and the human resources to take on another partner, then we won’t even consider new partnerships.
What if a potential partner fits your mission better than someone you’re currently supporting?
Creech: We’ve found that when we are committed to a certain region or people or project over the long term, the Lord will bring to us additional partners that complement the existing strategy. Or he will take away partners that aren’t staying aligned.
We’re totally open to having more than one partner in an area. For instance in one of our major strategic regions, we have eight partners, but they are all aligned in their vision and their strategy. They work together for a common purpose.
Depler: I’ve seen that where God is calling us, he provides the resources. We’ve had a couple situations in which we clearly felt we needed to step forward in a new partnership, and the resources weren’t there to do that. So we presented that to our congregation, and have been able to see God provide for those opportunities.
Tyler, you said you were hoping in a couple of years to move your major partnerships from four to six. I’m assuming that’s because you’re projecting income growth that will allow you to support more missions. Is that what’s driving that comment?
Hari: Yes, about six years ago we transitioned from having about 30 different partners down to five, and that was done over the course of a year, so it was pretty quick. When I came on the staff, the goal was to keep our global partners in a range of about four to eight. We had two partners we’re no longer partnering with, and we have refocused our effort on some new partners. So we’re really just at a point where, because each partnership that we add is so visible, and the amount of prayer and financial partnership and trip partnership is so extensive, we just want to move very intentionally as we add partners.
So we have the capacity to add those partners, and not just in our normal global outreach budget. We do what we call an expanding ministries offering every December for the continued growth at Eastview, and a portion of that is always allocated to one of our global partners. This is a way we may be able to resource new global partners beyond a fixed budget.
A couple of years ago we did something called blank check, where we committed to give away whatever was given above and beyond our budgeted targeted need for the fiscal year, whether it was $500 or $5,000. It ended up being around $460,000! That’s not something we do every year, but in a year where our global budget was fixed, we did a reverse tithe; we sent 90 percent of our overage globally and 10 percent locally.
What about support for church members who want to go to a certain field?
Hari: It’s really driven by participation in our training (we have a nine-month internship program), whether or not they’re going to the two unreached places we’re focused on, and what type of work they’re doing there when they’re sent. We’ve developed a grid to help us evaluate this.
So it’s possible you might not support somebody from your own church?
Hari: They may score lower after we put all the factors into our grid. In that case, the financial support would be minimal. But we’ve found it’s not really about the money as much as it is the affirmation, and feeling like my sending church is behind me. So we do have Eastview missionaries in countries we aren’t targeting. But they’ve participated in our training, and they’ve been faithful to do things we’ve called them to. But the lion’s share goes to those in our church who catch the vision and really are going to the bull’s-eye places that we’re calling them to.
Creech: We see people who are coming up through our ministry; they know our emphasis, so they’re going to be predisposed to go to the strategic fields we’re already targeting. But if they’re not, if they feel called to minister someplace else, we will consider it. But it will be at a lower financial level, and we will devote lower energy to promoting their ministry and connecting other people to their work.
One of the first things we look for is an ability to affirm their call. We understand God owns their call, but as a church, we want to be able to recognize, and say, “This seems to make sense. It does appear God is asking you to do what you want to do.”
The second thing we consider is whether there is a fit for this person that makes sense in a particular ministry or field. Then we look at what kind of accountability structure, what kind of a team environment can be provided for them so that they can have a fruitful, effective, and accountable ministry.
Thoresen: Often we say “not yet” to a potential recruit, instead of “no.” This allows some time and space to maybe work on some spiritual formation issues, or self awareness, or personal skills.
Because you’re so focused on your church’s mission and vision for missions, what kind of influence or control do you exert on the work on the field?
Creech: Our partnerships generally look like a stool with three legs: the missionary, the sending church, and a sending agency or larger mission providing specialty services or the rest of the team the missionary will be working with. Together we agree on a partnership strategy.
Generally the church will speak into issues such as accountability, spiritual formation, and care and support to ensure the missionary is sustained on the field. If it’s a field where we do have some experience and expertise, we may be speaking into strategy at a higher level than we would in a field where we have less experience, but it’s a partnership that makes this work. So we don’t view it as control, as much as we do having a voice at a table with a group of people, three different partners all heading the same direction.
Hari: When there’s healthy control, it’s a cooperative effort where each one of the team players, or members, is yielding to the one who is in a position to best make the day-to-day decisions in support of the broader, or higher mission goals.
There are times when churches need to be pushing back on the field leaders or the agencies in a healthy, productive, God-honoring kind of way. But we don’t view that so much as control, [but rather] as appropriate influence within the partnership.
Depler: I think when we start having issues of control, we’ve really missed the partnership. The key is really alignment, a clear sense of direction, and vision. When you have that, everybody starts pulling in the same direction, and you can have transparent conversations.
How are you promoting missions to your whole congregation? How does your congregation feel involved with the work you’re doing internationally?
Depler: If you’re able to talk about your partners over the course of a year, so that most in the congregation can remember their names, that will create a connection. Getting your senior ministers deeply engaged is a really key aspect. Taking them to visit the partnerships in the field gives them firsthand knowledge and establishes a key relationship. We’ve had great success with child sponsorship. This creates a one-to-one relationship much more meaningful than simply church to partner.
Several years ago, we found that as our body was engaging more and more with our global partners, the focus was actually on our missionaries rather than on the work they were doing and the people they were serving. So we actually got rid of every one of our partner’s pictures on display in our building. We went through a season of 18 to 24 months where all we did was talk about the people we’re trying to serve, and the work that needed to be done. And then we brought back our missionaries and partners in context of those fields and the people they were serving.
That told our body, “We’re committed to the work. These people, our partners, might come and go, but this work must outlive any one partner or program.” This has made a ton of difference here.
Creech: Our people are connected directly to our partnerships through a variety of means. We have a global e-newsletter, we create slide shows, and we use our website. We have six different regionally based task forces composed of people in our body connecting on a regular basis with our partners. Almost every single weekend, our folks will hear something from the pulpit with a global perspective.
We’re actually trying to “demission” missions. We’re trying to normalize, or make this idea of God’s ambition for the nations, central to the heart of the church so it doesn’t seem like it’s the thing for the select few, or just the thing the missionaries do. Reaching the nations is the thing the church does.
So we’re trying to find ways that even get rid of the word missions, because we’ve seen that word alone gives people an excuse to set something on a bookshelf, or try to delegate responsibilities to others.
Thoresen: What makes my job much easier is that our lead pastor, Glen Elliot, came to our church staff off the mission field. He understands God’s heart for the nations, and I have a great ally there. We have a mobilization program called My Global Partner designed to help our church members know, pray for, and encourage one partner. This is usually done through a simple e-mail, or it could be a periodic Skype call.
We’re now in phase one of My Global Partner, which means launching it to our small groups. We encourage every small group to pick a global partner to support and pray for together.
Later this year we will open it up to individuals and families; we just need to work out some of the logistical changes, because we don’t want 100 people sending individual e-mails to a partner.
Because of our location in southern Arizona, it is really easy for us to go to Puerto Penasco, Mexico. We have a partner down there, and we send about 200 people for a short-term mission there every year.
Child sponsorship is becoming big for us, too. Like Drew, we partnered with Compassion International through Stadia to plant a church where there was no church and start up a Compassion program. Our body has monitored all 200 kids from that program, so that gives us a mission partner the whole church knows and is excited about, and we’ll have our first short-term mission this November.
We know we need to improve at sharing stories from what’s happening around the world. We have a new creative arts and communications director, and we really believe sharing stories will be an important way to get more people involved.
Hari: What you display around your church speaks to your values and your vision. So we’re just about three weeks out from constructing a 15-by-15-foot global outreach display that’s right between the main doors going into the auditorium. It will have a 70-inch interactive screen where people can pull up videos, photos, and other information about our partners. We want to begin to create a culture where everybody in our church knows that, even if you know nothing about global outreach, you know that’s a place to come in and learn more. We’ll staff that with volunteers every Sunday.
We’re realizing our church family is busy, and we make several asks of them every week: to be at corporate worship, to be in a small group, to serve in some capacity locally, and within our church. So we’re trying to think of missions-
involvement ideas that don’t feel like the fifth or sixth ask. How do we partner with other ministries?
One answer is a curriculum we’ll launch as a small group global outreach study. Instead of asking one more commitment from a small group, we’re inviting the groups to take a break and let us facilitate a six-to-eight-week global small group study. We try to tie generous giving back to the impact it makes globally and locally; when we’re generous with what God’s entrusted to us, people around the world are blessed.
We also always try to give our congregation something from, or on behalf of, our global partners. When we receive the expanding ministries offering, we remind members, “Part of your offering today goes to our global partners. As a thank-you, here’s a calendar, or a book, or a prayer journal, or something similar.
What’s your approach to short-term mission trips?
Hari: I think some might disagree with me, but I believe short-term trips have become a cultural expectation in our churches. There’s no question that they can be a catalyst for incredible transformation. Or they can be a bucket list experience that leaves very little impact, and in some ways might even inoculate people to the mission after the trip.
I guess where I land is, it’s not whether to send people, but whom do we send? How do we select those we feel will be ambassadors for Christ and our church, and then how can we train and send them well?
We’ve created a six-month curriculum* that everyone taking one of our short-term trips must complete. They meet once a month and consider one chapter each month. Each chapter has three components: spiritual formation, cultural formation, and team formation.
With spiritual formation, we hope to help people understand that God’s working in and through them even to sign up for this trip. What is God saying to you, and how is he going to use you, and how do you think he’s using this trip to develop you? It’s not just a trip for your scrapbook. God’s using this for much more than that.
The cultural piece is really helping them understand God’s heart, the biblical and cultural basis for mission.
Then, finally, the team formation is just interpersonal: how do we honor God, our teammates, and our global partners when we’re there?
David, do you do something similar when you send 200 people to Mexico?
Thoresen: That trip is quite different from all our others. It’s the only one where we invite the church to sign up through a simple registration process. It’s a four-day trip that’s really helpful for exposing people to another culture and to real economic poverty, to get them excited about serving. We do some preparation, we have a couple of orientations, but it’s way different from all of our other trips.
Our approach to other short-term missions is much like what Tyler described. We’ll have five or six two-to-three-hour prep meetings. We really try to abide by a body of best practices for short-term trips so they will be mutually beneficial to our people and to our partners. We’re preparing a team now by reading Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, the authors of When Helping Hurts.
We’re enthusiastic about the value of short-term missions because we believe they can be done well when they’re designed well, and can really add value to what our partners are doing. But I agree, there are many hurtful short-term missions.
Creech: We recognize that short-term trips are discipling opportunities. We want to prepare people to be a blessing, and not a burden, so we try to be realistic about what is a short-term trip, and what isn’t.
So with that in mind, we hope we can do some real practical good and add a bit of value to our partner during the trip. But what we’re really hoping is that after the trip, based on what our folks learned before the trip and during the trip, they can be better stewards of the global gospel.
Our people must jump a hurdle even to apply for a trip. They must complete one of two prerequisites even to fill out a short-term trip application. They must attend Crossing Cultures 101, which is a four-hour course, or a course we call Momentum, which is a six-night (two and one-half hours each night) course. If they do that, they can apply for a trip.
And then, similar to what Tyler described, the applicants go through a series of team formations, about 20 hours of additional training for spiritual formation, team building, this sort of thing. Then they’re trained on how to be a steward of the opportunity when they get back, how to appropriately share the stories, how to discern what God has taught them, how to share personal growth, and how to take next steps to make global connection prayer partnership part of the rest of their life.
Depler: We try to make sure we’re doing work with our partners, not for, and not to. We do all our teams centered around concepts of relationship, not around project. So we’re not going in order to do a project. The project is not the focus; it is the partners, the friendship, the relationship that God will bless.
We try to take smaller trips rather than bigger trips because we feel larger groups are more difficult for our partners to manage. We’ve found that somewhere between 8 and 18 is our best number. Our partners feel blessed and they feel encouraged; they feel someone has come alongside and what they’re doing matters.
*For more information about the missions-trip curriculum developed by Eastview Christian Church, contact Tyler Hari at firstname.lastname@example.org.