What Missionaries Ought to know about Member Care
Ronald L. Koteskey
keep hearing about member care, but wonder about it. You are doing all
right and wonder why anyone would need help. What is member care anyway?
Since God cares for them, why would missionaries need member care from
other people? If missionaries did need it, who would give it to them?
How would missionaries go about getting such care, if they ever did need
it? Let us consider some of these questions about member care.
What is member care?
Many words can be used to describe what takes place in member care.
Some of those words are friendship, encouragement, affirmation, help,
and fellowship as well as sharing, communicating, visiting, guiding,
comforting, counseling and debriefing. All of these, and more, are
facets of member care given by someone who understands the special needs
Of course, all Christians have the care given by the Holy Spirit, the
one whom Jesus promised in John 14-16. Translated "comforter,"
"counselor," or "advocate," the Greek word (paraclete)
literally means one called or sent for to assist another, someone who
has been invited to stand by our side.
In addition to the Holy Spirit, God often uses other people to come
alongside and help us, whether we are missionaries or in other
vocations. Most people in your passport country have others they can
call on for help, whether pastor, counselor, or friends in a small
group-such as a Bible study group. Among missionaries who are members of
some mission agency or church, the term used for this process of having
someone come alongside to offer help is "member care." This
may be something as routine as a regularly scheduled visit from a pastor
asking, "How are you doing?" Or it may be as rare as a
psychologist rushing to get to you within a couple days for a trauma
debriefing to help prevent post-traumatic stress disorder.
Who needs member care?
In modern individualistic western cultures where people learn to
"make it on their own," even Christians may believe that they
do not need help from anyone except God. They may believe that asking
for help is a sign of immaturity or weakness, a lack of faith or
spirituality, or perhaps a symptom of illness-either mental or physical.
At the training sessions during the orientation of his twelve
disciples Jesus told them where to go, what to take, what to do, and how
to deal with conflict. He was not kidding when he went on to tell them
to be on their guard because he was sending them out like sheep among
wolves (Matthew 10). Today as you face the wolves of missionary life
whether they are malaria, dengue fever, parasites, depression, anxiety,
conflict, burnout, grief, guilt, temptations, assault, the violent death
of a colleague, or demonic forces, you may need someone to come and
stand by your side.
At the similar orientation session for the seventy-two others, Jesus
sent them out in twos (Luke 10). No one went alone. First Church in
Antioch commissioned Paul and Barnabas to leave on their first term (the
first missionaries), and as they left, John went with them as well (Acts
13). When Paul and Barnabas could not agree on who should go along with
them on their second term, they parted company and went out as two
missionary teams of two each (Acts 15). There were no "Lone
Rangers" (even the Lone Ranger had Tonto, his national companion).
Instead of being a sign of weakness, a lack of faith, or a symptom of
illness, asking someone for help is a sign of normality, reality, and
Everyone seems to recognize that lone missionaries in frontier work
need member care, but so do administrators in the home office. Even
people in the secular world know that it is "lonely at the
top." Though surrounded by people, chief administrators may feel
very alone and need someone to come alongside.
In every war there are many support staff for every soldier on the front
lines. When soldiers come back from the front, they are expected and
allowed to report that the battle was terrible, that they were anxious,
discouraged, and that the conflict was awful. Some say, "War is
hell." Missionaries are on the frontline of a spiritual war between
the powers of good and evil, and their battles are even worse. They need
even more support staff, more member care during which they can share
their inner battles, because they are literally in a war with the forces
Who gives member care?
Of course, anyone who cares can give member care. It may be a high
school friend, a distant relative, a retired neighbor from your
childhood, or anyone else. However, most often member care comes from
four major sources.
Your Sending Church: Ideally much member care comes from your home
church. Members can send letters, call you by telephone, send packages
of special things you miss, communicate with you by e-mail, and come
visit you. Unfortunately, in these days of much education (going to
college and then to seminary) missionaries often lose close connections
with their home churches. They may have not really bonded with the last
church attended before going overseas so that the churches commissioning
them may not really feel like their sending church. Thus they may
receive little member care.
Likewise, your support may be in rather small amounts from many churches
or many individuals. Since no church really feels like you are their
missionary, you may receive little member care from anyone. When a
pastor leaves a church, the new pastor may not know you well and may
give you little member care.
Other Missionaries. The people most likely to deeply understand what
you are going through and be able to empathize with you are other
missionaries. The missionaries you work with are the ones best able to
come alongside, but if you share too much, that may affect your working
relationships. You may be able to form a bond with missionaries from
other agencies in the area, if there are others nearby.
Your Agency. Many medium-size and large agencies now have people
whose assignment is to give member care. These may be pastors, veteran
missionaries, counselors, and so forth. They may be at centers in
different parts of the world, or they may travel from country to country
giving care to missionaries in that agency.
Member Care Specialists. At times you may rather talk with someone
completely outside your agency. You may have personal problems that you
do not want to share with anyone in the agency or for which you think
there is no help in the agency. Pastors, counselors, social workers,
psychologists, and psychiatrists who specialize in missionary care are
available to come alongside and help.
How do I get member care?
Ask for it. Tell people when you need help. Find someone you can ask
for help when you face the wolves of missionary life.
Your Sending Church: If you do not feel like you have a sending church,
ask a church to play that role for you. Tell them you want to be
"their missionary," and ask for care from them. You may even
want a coalition of churches geographically near each other to be your
"sending church" and furlough in their area. Tell them that
re-entry and furlough are difficult, and you want their help especially
during that time. Tell them that you need letters and phone calls while
on the field; then tell them when you are getting too much e-mail so
that they will not expect immediate, personal replies.
Other Missionaries. Form support groups with others on your field in
your agency or nearby. Meet regularly for Bible study, prayer, and
general care for each other. Form accountability relationships with two
or three others.
Your Agency. Tell your administrators when you need care. Ask them to
find someone to give you regular pastoral care if they do not already
have someone playing that role.
Member Care Specialists. Some organizations specialize in supplying
on-field care for missionaries. This may involve a cost, or the care may
be free. Other organizations provide care in sending countries, places
where you can temporarily withdraw from the battle and receive help from
mental health professionals.
The order of Stephanas
The missionary, Paul, wrote to the Corinthians about missionary care
he received. The household of Stephanas were the first converts in
Achaia, and Paul noted that they had "devoted themselves to the
service of the saints" (1 Corinthians 16:15). Paul said that he was
glad when Stephanas, Fortunatas, and Achaius arrived because they
brought just what was lacking. He wrote, "They refreshed my
spirit." That is just what people do for missionaries today when
they provide member care-they bring what is lacking and refresh spirits.
People supplying member care do not need to be mental health
professionals to be of great help. Literally hundreds of studies have
shown that paraprofessionals (people who have received some basic
training in the rudiments of counseling) can be just as effective in
helping others as are those who are licensed or certified by some state
board or agency.
sensitive people from your sending church, empathetic colleagues on your
field, understanding administrators in your agency, or professionally
trained member care specialists can be of great help as you face the
wolves among whom God has sent you.
Member Care Consultant