When we reach the finish line of a major accomplishment, we experience satisfaction and joy. Graduation brings a sense of relief. It’s that feeling of “I’m finally done!” And there’s the “I can’t believe I’m done” exuberance on top of it all! Graduation means a whole lot of things for everyone. But, one thing graduation is NOT: it is not the end of the road to learning.
This June our youngest daughter, Andrea, who is a junior in High School, worked with discipline, with determination and with patience to complete the year. Good grades don’t come easy for her, so it takes a lot of effort!
With her third year of High School almost behind her she was looking forward to taking some pleasure in the Junior-Senior Banquet. There was the decorations, and the class planning meetings and the decisions about who does what. She and all of the other Juniors created and rehearsed and then filmed short videos with messages and jokes for the Seniors. The small group of juniors put their best foot forward and in so doing, made for a really sweet night of memories, laughter, photos and yes…good-byes.
But after all that effort and planning in advance, one little snag changed it all for Andrea: she contracted a bad cold the day before the banquet, making it impossible for her to attend! She had spent weeks preparing for that all-important night, but would not be there to see it all. For this Junior, the year ended with unexpected abruptness.
What does this family story have to do with the missionary endeavor? We, like Andrea, have worked in anticipation of reaching a goal. We have organized, trained, planned, prayed and discussed the many facets of our goal. Our mission team worked for long months and together we sensed that God was leading and working in us to complete a certain plan. What we did not expect was that one very important part, one valuable member of the team, would not be there to see the goal reached. Although no one saw it coming, one of our partners would bail just before reaching the finish line.
With that unexpected change comes various consequences: the efforts are detained, the goal appears to be unreachable and possibly the team will be stalemated in this aspect of the work. How do we interpret this detour? What is point of this set back? And why does the team have to face the delays, frustrations, and unfulfilled longings in place of what appeared to be God’s clear leading and desire for us?
Recently the team we serve with has been forced to accept and to deal with delays in team member appointment, project financing, churches that should or could have become self-supporting and autonomous…all a bit of just some of the ways we’ve come close to reaching a “graduation” in some aspect of the ministry, but then a missionary had to leave, and did or could not continue. The detours, these forced retooling of plans and ministries have brought us up short and like it or not, have forced our team to rethink our objectives. Just like Andrea, we thought we were nearly reaching the completing of an exciting and significant accomplishment, but then the whole picture changed.
Like it or not, teenagers face hard moments of disappointment that teach them lessons about life: about delayed gratification, about having a mature look at the matters of life, and the way that one handles those matters. Andrea can be at peace that at least she did her part for the good of the cause.
The same truth can be applied to our missionary team, and for us personally. If we have done our part through prayer, in seeking God’s will, in leaning on the Lord for at every turn, then even if the results don’t turn out as planned, we can be confident that the cause still is progressing, the Name of Christ is being held up, the work of making disciples around the world still moves ahead.
While it might seem more acceptable when looking at set backs, moral failure and spiritual struggles as one way God teaches us, maybe there is another lesson too. When a missionary colleagues leaves the field this may leave the team strategies in ruins, leaving one to wonder what to make of it. I have seen missionaries change mission agencies only to return to the same country. I have also witnessed missionaries who depart from the ministry itself, which has caused a major delay in the expected plans.
It’s in these situations that I feel we need to ask the question: what should be priority on the mission field, family or personal goals? Or team and country goals? In other words, to make the most of a strategy, those struggles and setbacks could be a way that God trains us to actually SEE and THINK of the strategy from His view point, rather than our own.
So like Andrea, we have learned that even after graduation, or in her case, the year-end banquet, we still have much to learn in the missions endeavor. When we run into setbacks, we see personal failure and team dysfunction. But when God sees setbacks, as the Lord the Harvest, He opens a new perspective to us to learn about ourselves and about how he does His work. Before graduation comes, the lessons must be learned. What is that? God’s work of missions is God’s first priority, and His strategy of making disciples of all peoples, all tribes, all peoples. His goal will not be frustrated!
One Biblical example comes to mind that illustrates this principle, the situation of Paul and Barnabas whose team ended up being dissolved over a difference of opinion. The text states “and there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed..” (Acts 15:39-40, ESV) The two premier missionaries of the early church…SEPARATED WAYS? Yes, their difference of opinion over a former teammate brought a team dysfunction. Was that the end of the missionary enterprise? NO! It was only a new configuration of that team, and out of the setback came two teams.
And they soon were out on the missionary trail again. Even though a hard time for the missionary team, the Lord used it to bring about a new team and through it, cover more ground, train more leaders, and reach more people with the Gospel. May that be how we can see today the challenges so many servants face. God uses them to train our vision of the way He does the work. This means we can look at setbacks as graduations in our missions outlook.
David L. Rogers, M.A.Min.