Congregational Support Teams
Support Team Concept of Missionary Care
By Beth Reese
Churches of Christ take seriously the commands given in Matthew 28:18-20 and Mark 16:15-16 and other passages to “Go into all the world.” Local congregations are willing to send missionaries who are willing to go. Sometimes, however, congregations need to do a better job of supporting those they send.
Most congregations have an eldership or a specific mission committee that decides who to send and how to support them. They oversee the missionary and his work in whatever manner they think is best. Philippians 4:10-19 gives us some interesting thoughts about supporting missionaries. It appears that there were times that Paul was in real need and did not receive help. There were times he was amply supplied. Today, just as with Paul, there are times where congregations overseeing missionaries leave our missionaries in real need and other times congregations amply take care of those they send out. One suggestion for leaders is to learn the lesson of Aaron and Hur when Israel was fighting the Amalekites. The story in Exodus 17:8-16 is that Moses would be the one to give encouragement to the people of God during the battle. While his hands were lifted up the Israelites would prevail. The only problem was that if he got tired and his hands dropped, then the enemy would prevail. So Aaron and Hur helped Moses to be comfortable and literally held up Moses’ hands throughout the day. Joshua won a great victory that day not only because Moses was showing them that God was with them, but because Moses had great support from those who were with him.
One congregation that has done a good job of trying to support the missionary in a holistic way is the Mission Leadership Team of Westover Hills Church of Christ in Austin, Texas. They work to put together a support team from its membership for each missionary family they sponsor. This is a team of friends, family, and supporters that agree to meet from time to time to pray for the missionary family and their work. (Pleasant Valley Church of Christ in Little Rock follows a similar concept assigning a specific Bible class to be the support team for the missionary.) Often the support team does other things, such as, send birthday cards (or small gifts) to each in the family, send Christmas greetings, help to organize the furlough time in the home area so that it is most productive, etc. The primary purpose of the support team is to take care of the missionary needs as a whole – physically, mentally, emotionally, socially and spiritually. So while the eldership or the mission committee is overseeing the missionary and his work, the volunteer support team is charged with the task of holding up the hands of the missionary family.
Usually a support team is formed fairly naturally around people who know and love the missionary. It is always good, however, to announce a way for people who might be interested to join the support team. Some people join a support team because someone they know had lived in that county. Some join a support team because they themselves had lived overseas and felt a great need for this kind of support. Some join because they would love to do world evangelism themselves but, for some reason, can’t move overseas. Support teams work best if the leader of the support team is the specific liaison for the missionary on the mission committee. He is really the one commissioned with the job, but his team helps him to make it happen.
Over time one will find that there are four major phases that the support team will need to address – send off, on the field, furlough, and re-entry.
Usually the support team will be forming as the missionary is getting ready to go to the field. Often a support team forms naturally as people that know and like the missionary will express a desire to help them. The missionary should be part of putting this team together. These friends will go from being an encouragement to the missionary individually to forming a team. If they can work together before the missionary leaves them, they will be able to work out the duties of the support team members, as well as develop a deeper bond with the team. The first big job will be to organize an encouraging send-off for the missionary family. This will include a congregation wide official send-off as well as some activity at the airport.
On the Field:
Once the missionary is on the field, the support team will think they can relax for a little while because the missionaries are not yet tired. In reality, they need a lot of prayer support as they find their way in this new culture. The missionary family will start bumping up against cultural walls that they do not know how to scale. They need friends to listen to them as culture shock goes from being something they read about in textbooks to a real part of their lives. They need family and friends to encourage and lift them up when they begin to feel that they are far, far away. The types of support might change over time depending on if missionaries have been in their field for two months, two years, or twenty years. The needs will be different at times, but the need will always be there.
The document, “Ideas for Missionary Care” will give many specific suggestions that can be adapted to fit the needs of specific missionaries and supporting congregations. More specifically, missionaries sometimes find it helpful to assign specific jobs to individual support team members. One might be in charge of the bulletin board, digital updates, or whatever way the congregation is informed about missionary activities. Another might receive local mail for the missionary (credit card bills, IRS statements, etc. This same person (or another) might assist the missionary Stateside with their personal finances. There might be a support team member that keeps the records for the working and travel funds. Many missionaries send digital newsletters but there is still a need for someone to print a few and mail to those (often grandmothers) who need a paper copy. Some support team members with children the same age might consider it their special job to think of ways to help and encourage the children. Many missionaries will send a monthly prayer list to their support team. They feel free to ask for prayers for even personal struggles because the support team has become their most intimate group of friends. Most specifically, a support team is a group of Christians that focuses on the missionary family and remembers them often even when many in the congregation might suffer from dimming memories.
The next area that will need specific suggestions will be in supporting your missionary family while they return on furlough to their home base. This is a time of visiting and reporting to the churches that sent them. This is also a time of reconnecting with family and loved ones. Furlough is often a time to restock needed supplies that are not easily found in the host country. Furlough is sometimes considered by senders as a vacation time for missionaries (some use the term ‘home leave’ instead of furlough). On the other hand, furlough is usually considered by missionary families to be a time of always on show, always on the move and usually stressful.
Missionaries need special help during furlough. There are some specific suggestions in “Ideas for Missionary Care” for furloughs. The most obvious task will be arranging an airport welcome and a congregation wide welcome (often a potluck). Also the support team can facilitate the missionary to connect with many members during their time available. Instead of the missionary having to work to connect with people, the support team can pre-arrange get-togethers of 5 or 6 families for fellowship time for listening to the story of what God is doing through the missionary family. The support team can also arrange opportunities for the missionary to be in front of the congregation or to teach in a variety of Bible classes. Support team leaders can encourage the mission committee or eldership in arranging opportunities for preaching or leading the communion thoughts. The support team could also take that shopping list the missionary arrives with and help to secure some of the work items that are needed. Support teams will also need to arrange housing and transportation for the furlough time. The missionary family will appreciate being informed about congregational activities that they could be part of while they are in town. Some things might need some forethought, for example, if your missionary children will be in town during camp time, someone on the support team might need to think ahead to enroll them before the deadline.
The on the field and furlough jobs will rotate while the missionary is still based on his field. Once the decision is made to return permanently (either by the missionary, the supporting congregation, or circumstances of life), then the support team will begin to focus on helping the missionary to successfully Re-enter the home country. They can be a resource to help him think through the things he needs to do.
As with furlough, the support team can help get the missionary in front of people where he can tell his story. The support team can also assist the missionary family in ways to obtain physical goods they might need for living. Moving from one country to another is no easy feat. Practically starting over with very little when coming back to the home country (generally with a growing family) is much more difficult than starting life as a married couple complete with wedding showers and fewer needs. The mission committee should be arranging any kind of re-entry counseling and help needed as well as arranging to “give honor to whom honor is due”, but the support group can assist with these jobs helping to make the missionary family feel really special.
The benefits of being more intentional in caring for our missionaries are enormous. More missionaries will probably stay longer and be more productive. This is far less expensive than premature returns of missionaries. Our missionaries will likely be happier people, suffering less from the difficulties of living and working in another country. As we began our discussion with Philippians, chapter 4, verse seventeen also implies that the supporters will benefit as much or more than the missionary when they send help to him. Everyone benefits when a congregation is more proactive in the care of their missionary. A support team will assist the mission committee liaison in his task. Many people in the congregation will benefit by helping to care for the missionary. The support team concept will help to ensure that the job is accomplished.