David, Northern Africa
Deputation is tough. There is, of course, great good that comes from it, and in a practical sense, it is necessary in this age for the advancement of the gospel. But the unavoidable fact remains that deputation is difficult. The missionary on deputation faces long, circuitous trips across the country, the pressure of engaging with hundreds of individuals in condensed periods of time, the loneliness of never really developing close friendships, the emotional stress of depending almost entirely on the generosity of others for necessities like food and clothes, and the awkwardness of trying to express a deeply-felt, sometimes lifelong ministry burden in a way that inevitably ends up sounding a bit like a sales pitch.
None of this ought to be discouraging for prospective missionaries. Indeed, I would hasten to point out that our overall experience on deputation has been very positive. But it behooves us to be prepared and to count what costs pursuing a life in missions may include. Still, there are some costs that one cannot fully prepare for ahead of time because they lie so completely out of human control. Such has been the case with the recent outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent global restrictions on meetings and travel. For many missionaries – including our family – COVID-19 pushed deputation from difficult to almost impossible.
The spring and the fall are often the busiest times for deputation since churches tend to emphasize missions or hold conferences during those months. As such, we rely heavily on those times for advancing our support-raising efforts. Throughout March and April, we were scheduled to be in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. By the second week of March, we began receiving phone calls from pastors informing us that they would have to cancel their plans because of restrictions in their states. Quite literally in a matter of three or four days, our entire spring schedule was cleared out. Eventually, we lost all of our meetings through the end of June.
These were tough blows. Missionaries don’t just stumble onto meetings while traveling; they’re a precious commodity. Obviously, meetings bring the possibility of committed support and another step towards on-field service, but there are other benefits as well. For many of us on deputation, love offerings are not just nice – they get us through the month. We had worked hard to get our schedule put together, and several of these churches seemed like they held good potential for us. But, one by one, the calls came, and I found myself taking an eraser to my planner.
We were thankful that most pastors were sympathetic and willing to work on rescheduling us, but as of now, only one has actually settled on a new date. Of course, we understand their situation. The stresses of shepherding a congregation through an epidemic and unknowns about restrictions in the future obviously affect the ability of church leaders to confidently say anything about missionary visits. Many churches have faced great economic burdens as church attendance plummeted to zero. We simply cannot expect churches to take from the needs of their own sheep to tend to ministries elsewhere. But the discouragement was still sharp. We were hopeful that after our spring meetings, we would have moved ahead in our support by several percentage points. As of now, we’ve simply flatlined and do not know how much longer it will take to make up for what feels a bit like lost weeks. The situation has certainly pushed back our target date by several months.
In one way, all of this simply underscores the foundational role of the local church in accomplishing the task of missions. Without churches meeting regularly, the progress of sending new missionaries comes to a grinding halt. This, I believe, is to be expected under a biblical philosophy of missions. But in another way, the situation highlights the need for serious reflection on the deputation process and how we might better prepare for contingencies such as the ones we are now facing.
Many churches have turned to social media for their “meetings” during these months. Platforms such as Facebook and Zoom have become key ways for churches to stay connected with one another. But they also may hold interesting opportunities for deputation. Using them, missionaries have been able to initially present their burden to church leaders and engage with small groups across the country without actually having to travel. We were invited to participate with one church’s prayer meeting via Zoom and were able to share updates with them. Another church invited us to share our burden with their missions committee by the same platform. The possibility for pastors and missionaries to “meet” this way early in the process of forming relationships, before deciding to make an expensive trip, could prove beneficial to both senders and goers.
Still, there are other complexities to consider. We were counselled by many people to publish videos on Facebook and YouTube for pastors and churches to watch since we couldn’t travel. That may be wise in many cases, but security risks prohibit us from utilizing publicly accessible forms of communication. Participating in open livestream services was often simply not an option for us, given our target field. This severely limits our ability to connect with churches when almost all connections are being done over public social media. Small groups on platforms such as Zoom are helpful, but the churches that were ready to host such meetings for us were few and far between. I don’t know that I have a simple solution for how missionaries like us can best proceed under the circumstances.
Nevertheless, this time has also taught us some truly wonderful things. First, we have seen the Lord provide for us in meaningful and encouraging ways. We really have only lost a small fraction of support, despite many churches facing financial stress. Indeed, some churches and individuals gave extra to our ministry to help us during these months, and these gifts are precious to us. God provides for His people by His people, and this principle holds true through all the storms of this world.
We have also learned patience and contentment. Paul himself learned to be abased and to abound through the strength of Christ, and we are finding that it is a sweet secret to learn. Deputation was never really in our control. The Lord is the Lord of the harvest; we are unprofitable servants. There is indeed a great deal of rest to be found in that truth. The Lord knows the right time for us to leave America, and it is for us to believe that He is right and rejoice in it.
Finally, God has renewed our understanding that deputation is about service to the church. It is not about us, ultimately. We may, in the providence of God, never reach our field, but if His Spirit has moved through us to increase the devotion of one congregation, we are pleased. It would be a strange sort of Christian who claimed a desire to spend his or her life building up the church in far off places who also sneered at opportunities to serve the church at home. And now that we’ve been home for so long, we genuinely miss being with God’s people and stirring them up for the glorious work of missions.
COVID-19 has brought about complex problems for missionaries on deputation, and there are no simple answers for most of them. But it has also done us some good. It has brought us focus and has built patience. And, in a strange sort of way, it’s shown us that we long to be on the road again. It has given us certainty about two things – that deputation is tough, and that we miss it.
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The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.