Saturday, January 08, 2011

It Takes A Team: Making Up Positions To Have Something To Do

It’s an old problem in missions, trying to create a position for someone so they will have something to do when they leave the field or retire. In the old days, before schools tightened up their academic requirements, you would often see retired missionaries teaching in Bible Colleges or seminaries. It didn’t make much difference if they were qualified, had the gift of teaching or that their subject was even relevant to emerging missions, they were given a position so the school could (1) fill needed staff positions and (2) allow the missionaries to maintain their support and therefore not a financial burden on the school. Returning missionaries also was good to fill office staff, cheap labor for mundane busy work.

Today’s mission organizations, at least a few that I know, find positions for people to serve, whether the job is relevant or not. Some family gets burned out overseas and so is given a post as a regional director (Asia, W. Europe, E. Africa, etc.). The family lives either in a different country or, more likely in the U.S., and manages others on the field. And how do they manage --- MEETINGS. Strategic meetings, team family retreats, meetings to plan other meetings, conference meetings, all in the name of efficiency, effectiveness and tactical.

I have been around organizations long enough to know that most meetings are just busy work, at best. One-year goals, quarterly reviews make the manager feel like they have a role, make the organization feel like they are holding people accountable but seldom translate into concrete action. If a missionary is a worth his/her salt they are usually self-motivated and they don’t need a manager tell them what or how to do their work. In some cases the manager isn’t qualified to direct people because they weren’t all that effective themselves (I know of one organization where the president was a first-term dropout, never planted a church and had conflict with his colleagues on the field). Goal setting is important but the people who actually do the work, in my opinion, don’t need approval from someone else to move forward.

The other reason for creating a position is so that the organization doesn’t lose the needed revenue that the missionary support provides. Para-church groups live off the 10, 15 or 20 percent of the support that missionaries raise. Missionary attrition is an economic hardship for those in the home office, so to keep revenue stream flowing, agencies create positions for retainment, not necessarily because the person is qualified for the job or that is a position is needed or that it is vital to the ongoing work of the Great Commission. The mission director may say, “We really need this person’s valuable experience,” but behind that is that small voice is, “and we really can’t afford to lose the $700 a month his support contributes to our agency.”

Yes, there are some good people who for various reasons have had to leave the field and their expertise and giftedness are extremely helpful to the mission as a whole, just as there were gifted retired missionaries working in schools. But, like in business, where the Peter Principle often elevates people into positions beyond their ability, many people on home assignment are no more strategic than the meetings they design.

Before I left Kenya, where I served for 13 years, I approached my organization (which was not dependent on my support for their operation expensed) ad what role or job might be available to me if I returned to the states. I was told flatly that they didn’t have an opening for me and my choices were simple, stay in Africa or come home and resign as a missionary. I remained in Kenya until an opportunity to train missionaries was presented to me. By not providing a position for me I was forced to trust the Lord for His direction and, I was driven to make my own decisions. I assume that most missionaries who must or need to leave active service overseas follow the same pattern. For groups that feel they must create a position to retain personal and funds it doesn’t reflect well on organization. Growing agencies are known for their focus of ministry, not providing safety nets for those who leave the field.