A missionary’s life is about transition. Sometimes we are conscious of this reality and sometimes it sits in the background, way in the background. As I have thought more about the reality of transition for a missionary and how it can impact both positively and negatively I have begun to realize that there are three key times when a missionary deals with the issues of transition.
The first phase is obvious and yet we don’t always think of it as transition. Yet moving from your passport country to another country is in fact a major time of transition. How we view this transition and what happens during that time will greatly affect our ability to serve in our new home country.
That word home defines what needs to happen in this first phase of transition. We need to do everything possible to make it possible to see our new country, culture, and language as a place we can call home. It is generally not an easy process and a great deal of material has been written on all that is involved. I am not so much interested in all of that but in the transition process.
Too often people get caught up in rushing the process. They want to get busy in the ministry and work they feel they have been called to do or sent to do. Too quickly the greater purpose is lost and as a result the ability to be effective and accepted is severely hindered, even damaged.
There is a reason missiologists talk about the importance of learning a language. At least three years. They talk about the importance of learning the culture. Another three+ years. There are no shortcuts to this transition process. And even when it goes well the wise person realizes that the transition involved in making this new place a home will never really stop.
Poor use of language will result in being treated constantly as an outsider, insensitive and incapable of participating in the real life of the people around them. Poor understanding of culture will cause rifts in relationships, lack of trust, and a feeling that one does not truly love them. I could say more but this is enough.
This transition of culture and language is essential for the next transition to occur.
Phase two transition or Ministry transition. The transition actually has a couple of time frames that are part of the total process.
The first time frame is the transition involved in developing the skills and relationships involved carrying out the task, ministry, or work assigned. It doesn’t matter if in fact you are an expert in your area of ministry. You will have little success if you are unable to develop a new set of skills related to functioning in this new environment and working with people who do not and never will think like you.
An example may be helpful. I have done construction work in four different countries. Each of those countries had different ways of doing construction based on the type of materials available to do the work. In one place I had to learn how to build with mud blocks. In another they used wood framing with metal sheathing. Another place involved learning to use wood poles, grass roofing, and vines. Another used concrete and concrete blocks.
In each of these I had to make a number of transitions. I had to learn how the people did the work, I had to learn about the materials they used and how to use them, and I had to be willing to let them teach me how to do the work in their context. I knew how to build but I needed to make the transition to learning how they build and so build relationships and trust.
That is the first part of the transition of ministry in another country. You have to step back and build relationships first. To build trust so that you can enter the next time frame which is leading.
The time involved in this transition varies a lot. In one country I was assigned a high status and leadership role from the day I arrived. What I then had to do was to learn to fulfill their expectations of me. That can be quite a transition process.
Another country did not do the above. And while I was given a title and area of responsibility it took years to build the trust that allowed me to actually lead and teach. That is another challenge, and it can be emotionally draining wondering when you will finally be accepted and trusted.
The second time frame of this process is the preparation to shift your authority and activity to those around you. This is based on the very important reality that I will not be here forever. I am only temporary and will fill this role for a limited time. Many missionaries do not go with this thought in mind. This results in a number of issues.
Dependence – We treat them as incapable of doing the work and so we don’t invest in their training and development. We create an issue with resources so that without us they cannot access the resources needed for the work.
Insecurity – Since we don’t trust them, they end up being perpetual children never believing they can do the work without us and they could never learn the skills needed. This will create further distrust and a type of dependence that will create a very negative environment.
Ethnocentrism – We maintain control because we choose not to explore and inquire about how they might be able to do the work using their abilities and resources. This means that they can only do the work with our help. If in fact, they find a way to do it that is different we resist the change and see it as inefficient or not the best way to do it.
There are other effects that could be itemized but this is enough to highlight what happens when we don’t plan for a transition from being in charge to them being in charge. A key concept to keep in mind is that as we are acting as the leader, we need to be training others to take our place. We also need to be willing to learn from them about how things work and can be done in their culture and context.
The last time frame of this process is the actual transfer of authority and responsibility. I was working on this process with my leadership team and it was not going well. Not because I was inhibiting the process, but key leaders were resisting the change. I asked one of them why the leaders didn’t have faith in these young leaders. His answer is not essential to this discussion. What is essential is that I was working on making this transition and the fact that I wanted it to happen and sought the advice of a key leader on the process opened the way for the shift to begin to happen.
At another point I was ready to step down, but both the key leaders and my team told me that it was not time yet for that to happen. That is an important indicator that the process of transition is going well. When the time came for this transition it went well. The best indicator of this was all the new ideas and structures the team created without me and how well all of it was accepted by the key leaders.
This period of transition flows along a continuum. It starts with me as the learner, then the leader/trainer, and lastly the advisor. If we don’t see this then our time and work may not last past the time of our final transition. I have seen this over and over. Attempts to provide a resource, do a task, and carry out a ministry that does not take into account this process dies, leaving behind rusted, rotten, useless relics shouting out the reality that the transition was not handled properly.
The last phase is what I will call the exit strategy. We use this phrase in relation to preparing an emergency plan to leave a country if problems arise that could result in serious danger to us and those around you. Strategies that help us know who to communicate with to learn what the danger is and how severe it could be. Strategies to guide us in how to leave a place and get to safety. These usually have options related to different methods and routes depending on the nature of the danger and how it could affect each option for leaving.
I have been through this process and defined several methods and routes to use depending on what was happening.
In a way we need to have a similar plan. We need an exit strategy to be used to help us transition out of the place where we have been serving. This can be done in a couple of ways.
One will allow a person to stay and help develop another ministry. This can be a healthy process. Things went well and the people want to use your knowledge and skill in another area. It can also be an unhealthy process. Instead of seeing the truth that it is time to go you decide to create another area of ministry so you can stay. It may be a valid ministry, but the issue is not in having a ministry but an unwillingness to go. It is based on two things, the need to be needed, and a fear of what lies in the future.
In this is the dangerous belief that they cannot do a good job without you and the fear that you may no longer be needed. That is related to your new home. The other is the fear of the unknown, of what you will do when you return to your passport country. You have spent, invested your life in adapting to this new home. You know how to live and thrive in it. You are aware that this has altered you and that your passport country has changed. People have moved on without you. Life has moved on without you. And on the ideas go that feed this fear. This is most evident in the impact it has on MKs. They hardly know the culture and life of their passport culture. They struggle to function in it.
Again, much could be said about this, but the point is that we need to plan for this transition. Sometimes the planning for this exit strategy needs to start early on. You need to plan for the eventual return, inevitable return back to your passport country.
This planning is not just about you but all those who you have served with, have become your friends, even your family. You will be leaving them. And the reality is that once you leave you likely may never return. They will take over all the work and ministry you were doing. They will continue to live and thrive without you. Are you planning for that reality both for yourself and them?
I am in the midst of this phase right now and it is causing a great deal of thought and reflection. I have left three other countries and ministries. I am not sure I have done the best possible in handling this transition. I think I have done okay based on the comments of those I have left behind. But it is a challenge and a transition that we don’t often think about until we are in the midst of the transition and then it is too late.
We do get a little taste of this process each time we come home for furlough, home ministries, or partnership development. But this is always colored by the idea that we will be returning soon. We are not really leaving just yet. This process involves transition as well. I have chosen not to deal with this, but it is further evidence of the need to be aware that we are constantly dealing with transition.
As I reflect on my years of service, I have become very aware that there is no time in which I was not dealing with transition in one form or another. How we handle this reality will have a real and measurable impact on our effectiveness and longevity in ministry. It will also affect how well we do at facilitating others.