By Justin Horey
This past July, after less than four years on the field, Terry Harmon and his wife, Charlene, decided to end their mission on the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation in southeastern Arizona. Over the previous 18 months, the Harmons had watched their support dwindle to just 30 percent of what was needed to sustain their ministry. Today, Terry Harmon works part-time at the Bass Pro Shop in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and supplements his income with a small woodworking business. He hopes to soon begin preaching in a local church.
“The last six months have been extremely painful for us,” he said.
The Harmons are not alone. Countless other missionaries returned home from the field in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic. Some plan or hope to go back. Others have settled into life and ministry in the United States and are not planning to return to the field at all. Still others are undecided.
With the COVID-19 pandemic about to enter its third calendar year, missionaries and mission organizations are still adjusting to changes it has caused. Financial concerns top the list for many, though some changes have been less obvious. And by God’s grace, some positive effects have occurred for missions work as well.
The Harmons were among the many missionaries who lost significant financial support because of the novel coronavirus. Let’s Start Talking (LST), a ministry organization that equips volunteers to help people around the world practice their conversational English by discussing the Bible, cut more than half of its annual budget in 2020 in response to a falloff in donations. In April 2020, LST cut loose 10 of its 14 employees in a single day. The organization eventually sold its office building. Everyone who remains on staff now works from home. LST is continuing to fulfill its mission—albeit with a much smaller team. “We’re finding new ways,” said Dr. Craig Altrock, LST’s senior director of operations.
Amor Ministries also suffered a major financial disruption.
“Like many mission organizations, Amor relied heavily on participation fees to balance our budget,” said Amy Mathis, Amor’s director of specialty trips. In a normal year, Amor leads about 200 groups into the U.S.-Mexico border regions to build homes for families in need. The international travel restrictions implemented in 2020 left Amor with no income from those trips, which are vital to the organization’s annual budget.
At that time, said Mathis, “We put our faith into action and God, by his right hand, sustained us. As we look back over 2020 and now 2021, we see his faithfulness. We trusted and adjusted and began sharing our need, and people gave abundantly. I believe our story is the same as many mission organizations around the world.”
When COVID-related travel restrictions were first instituted in March 2020, Amor Ministries was just one of many mission organizations forced to adjust by postponing or canceling trips.
“A lot of short-term missions were really hurt badly,” said David Empson, executive director with the International Conference on Missions.
Lifeline Christian Mission’s experience was similar to Amor’s.
“We’ve had to shut trips down because you just can’t go anywhere,” said Keith Dimbath, Lifeline’s vice president of global mobilization.
In August 2021, Dimbath and his wife took their first short-term trip in roughly two years. But the Dimbaths did not attempt international travel; instead, they chose to visit a mission on a Native American reservation in Arizona.
Empson said the recent lack of short-term mission trips, and alternatives such as the Dimbaths pursued, could actually be a positive development.
“Americans need to think differently about short-term mission trips,” Empson said. “We can’t go to Romania, India, or Haiti right now. But we could be working closer to home—on Native American reservations, or with foreign exchange students at local universities, for example.”
Lifeline is planning to resume short-term trips to most of its traditional international destinations in January, but those plans are quite tentative.
Larrie Fraley, pastor of global outreach at Christ’s Church of the Valley (CCV) in Peoria, Arizona, is similarly hesitant to commit to plans or dates for short-term trips.
CCV typically sends 2,000 people or so on about 70 mission trips per year. With COVID-19’s “third wave” hitting the United States at the time of this writing, Fraley thinks it’s unlikely CCV will follow through with any plans for short-term trips in 2021—or even early 2022.
“It looks like mission trips are not coming back” in the immediate future, he said.
Fraley was among several people interviewed for this article who cited technological advancement as a positive effect of the pandemic. Fraley estimates the global church’s use of technology advanced five years in response to COVID-related restrictions.
Tony Twist, president of TCM, agrees.
“The pandemic accelerated TCM forward probably four or five years, because everyone got familiar with the technology,” Twist said.
This was a particular blessing for TCM because a majority of its work is conducted online. TCM provides distance-delivery education to missionaries and international Christian leaders in locations around the globe. As a result of the pandemic, professors and students who previously had been hesitant to participate in distance learning are now familiar with many of the programs and systems required for online courses. Twist said the general public’s reliance on videoconferencing platforms like Zoom has reduced objections and significantly increased participation in TCM’s programs.
Other mission organizations that normally rely on in-person contact have also pivoted to high-tech methods of ministry. When quarantine requirements and stay-at-home orders made it impossible for individuals to converse face-to-face, Let’s Start Talking introduced a new program called LST Connect that allows volunteers to interact with people online. Several hundred LST participants used the LST Connect system last year. The interactions are not the same on a screen as they are in person, but Craig Altrock believes LST Connect is far superior to just putting the organization’s program on hold while the pandemic continues.
While technology might not be able to solve every problem created by COVID-related restrictions, most organizations embraced digital solutions despite their flaws.
“Zoom and social media became the new way to connect, train, and meet—whether we liked it or not,” said Amor’s Mathis, seeming to sum up the feelings of many.
LOCAL AND NATIONAL LEADERSHIP
Another positive result of the pandemic is the empowering of more local leaders.
Lifeline missionary Brad Hammond, who lives and works in Haiti, shared the ways he has been empowering local leaders to make decisions for their own regions since COVID-19 arrived there.
A large number of Americans typically travel to Haiti for short-term mission trips every year, but those foreign visitors haven’t been making that trip since March 2020. As a result, Hammond said, “The local leaders have been focusing on learning to lead more because they have the space and time to do it.”
While the local church leaders in Haiti miss the visits from Americans, their absence has given Haitian Christians the opportunity to truly lead.
Keith Dimbath, who works with Hammond at Lifeline, said he expects national leaders to continue exercising more leadership over their ministries and over short-term trips when the pandemic is over.
“Lifeline staff is having more conversations with national leaders on the ground, learning what their needs are for long-term impact,” Dimbath said.
Lifeline has always relied on input from its field staff and local leaders, but it’s happening even more now. Hammond and Dimbath both acknowledged the ways national leaders have stepped up because of the lack of foreign visitors. In the future, Dimbath expects those leaders to direct short-term missions and short-term teams a lot more than ever before.
This kind of philosophical change is not unique to Lifeline or to Haiti. Many leaders noted that the pandemic caused them to reevaluate their ministry, their work, and the very reasons they do what they do. Those times of self-reflection produced significant philosophical changes for some leaders.
“Missions in general are awakening to the fact that we have overlooked discipleship because our focus was on evangelism and meeting practical needs,” Hammond said.
“COVID has given us time to reflect and seek God,” he said.
CCV’s Fraley shared a similar thought; he said he believes it’s time for American Christians to “rediscover” missions. In his opinion, some Christian missions—especially at the local church level—have been concentrating too heavily on issues of social justice and not enough on the Great Commission. The time he spent reflecting on his own ministry during the pandemic convinced him it’s time to change back.
“The church [recently] has started to put everything under missions”—ministries like homeless outreach, sex trafficking rescue, and other humanitarian causes. While those are important issues, Fraley contends Christians need to rediscover what missions are really about. Instead of broadening the definition of missions, he said, we should be broadening our definition of missionaries—teaching our congregations that “everyone is a missionary.” Fraley believes all churches and all Christians should be using this time during the COVID-19 pandemic to reevaluate our approach to missions.
Nearly two years after COVID-19’s arrival changed every aspect of life for people around the globe, the future of Christian missions is in many ways less certain than ever. Still, missionaries and mission organizations are finding ways to move forward—and they are trusting the Lord in new and deeper ways.
“We are still trusting and adjusting as we begin to travel,” said Amor’s Amy Mathis. “Mask guidelines, quarantine requirements, and COVID guidance all look different in every country. We’re constantly learning. Missionaries are trying to get back into their countries, reapplying for visas, and in some cases [are] being denied and sent to a new community or country.” Through all these challenges, she said, “we are having to remember nothing can or will shake those who are secure in God’s hands.”
Hope remains a constant throughout these trials. Mission organizations and missionaries—even those who have experienced hardship or lost their missions—are continuing to hope in the Lord. This hope often defies logic or worldly wisdom.
Despite the challenges of running a mission in a pandemic, Craig Altrock of Let’s Start Talking summed up the feeling of many mission-minded individuals: “We feel very confident and hopeful about today and the future.”