U-C: What I See

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Mission is messy business


(This is a long reflection on the challenges and opportunities in creating mission partnerships around the world. If you’re not into such things, feel free to skip it. I’ll post again tomorrow with a description of hospitality in India and Pakistan.)

Arriving in Mumbay (used to be Bombay), which is the largest city and the financial center of India, I found myself back in the kind of chaos that comes with a country that has great poverty as well as great wealth, and serious challenges to match the richness of its history and culture. India isn’t the sleek, modern airports or the fancy hotels of Korea and Taiwan, nor is it the relatively good manners on super highways that I Edwin and I noticed as we traveled in Seoul and Taiwan.

This is different. Traffic is pandemonium, the noise never stops, the streets are both dirty and full of life, and one cannot escape the press of people, more people and even more people – all the time. We arrived at our hotel after 10 p.m., after flying all day from Taipei through Hong Kong and Bangkok. When we arrived at the hotel we were greeted by a delegation of a dozen or so people from our partner church, the Church of North India (CNI). After quickly putting our luggage in our rooms, we moved to the basement of the hotel for our welcoming reception. A little before one a.m., we rolled into bed.

By eight, we checked out of the hotel and headed back to the airport. This time, we headed several hundred kilometers south to visit the diocese of Kolhapur. The CNI is a united church that was founded around 1970, with heavy involvement from Presbyterians and Anglicans, among many others. Like the Catholics, they are organized into dioceses with presiding bishops, though the bishops are elected by a representative council rather than by a Pope. Kohlapur is an area that was largely Presbyeterian before the merger took place. Pastors are called Presbyters, and they often have responsibility for more than one congregation, which is an attempt to cover the small, rural congregations that proliferate. The CNI has roughly 1.5 million members and it is a growing church.

Presbyterian missionaries came to India more than one hundred and seventy years ago. Just as I experienced when I visited our partner churches in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, here the missionaries founded dozens of churches, hospitals and schools. At one point fifty or more years ago, there were more than two hundred missionaries here. In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, there was a move to hand over responsibility for the various ministries to the churches that we had planted. As I’ve traveled, I’ve learned that most leaders of our partner churches were grateful for our missionaries’ attempt to recognize their maturity and help them to become independent, but they remain bewildered, and often angry, by the almost complete disappearance of their sisters and brothers in the United States in the years that followed.

In India, and also in Pakistan, the pulling back of our missionaries meant that our local churches back home largely lost contact with (and interest in) the churches and ministries of the church that they had created. Here in India, that put huge responsibility on the churches, because we left behind large institutions – and buildings - that have to be maintained. Further complicating things, we typically continued to hold the property in our names (often for good reasons that included complex tax and property ownership laws), so that the bottom line was that our partners were not free to carry out their own decisions when they had to deal with the increasingly valuable land that they were sitting on.

In the last thirty years or so, there has been another problem as well. Many of the hospitals and schools initially founded in conjunction with local congregations have now become largely independent of the church. Given their history and their obvious need, they’ve often been able to develop their own support systems in the United States, and so there has been a false division that has sometimes grown up between the institutions and the church. Further, some institutions have been more effective at telling their story and fundraising than others have been, and there is wide disparity of resources among the institutions that I was able to visit. Though we began in India, I learned that these problems are equally serious with our partner, the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan, and its related institutions and ministries as well. In both countries, leaders of the churches and the institutions have spent recent years working proactively to seek common ground and to reconnect with one another, and our staff and mission workers have attempted to support their efforts.

Even while those leaders are trying to renew their commitment to one another in their own countries, our understanding of mission has grown far more complex back in the United States. Presbyterians, their local congregations and many presbyteries have rediscovered their own vitality as they have become directly involved in mission themselves, forming partnerships and designing exchanges and delegation opportunities, and seeking joint projects to work on with their partners. Though we have far fewer long-term missionaries in the field today, it’s also true that there are thousands more of our members who have had a direct experience with our partners around the world. Although this creates all kinds of opportunity for difficulty, it is exciting to see the ways that it can transform individuals lives on both sides of the relationship.

The possible difficulties are obvious:

What if the majority of our potential partners in the U.S. all want to go to countries that are close by and easy to get to?

What happens when partners tend to bunch up around a particularly compelling pastor in the partner church because he or she (mostly he) is fluent in English and quite charismatic, or even just because that person’s church is closer to a paved road?

Further, given that we have mission partnerships in roughly eighty countries around the world, and in some of those countries we have more than one partner institution, what do we do with the fact that there are quite likely to be far more partnership opportunities out there than we have the energy to sustain?

Mission partnerships are complex and, like a good marriage, they take years to develop. Who provides the glue that holds everything together as lay leaders and pastors in the two partners change and as there are serious challenges in coping with the cultural differences that both enrich and challenge us?

Finally, what happens when Rick’s first rule of mission – “mission is messy business” – takes over and there are misunderstandings and conflicts that can become quite serious?

Here are some of the principles of what makes a good partnership that have become clear as more and more partnerships have been created:

First, Presbyterians do mission in partnership. That means that there should be a local partner, whether it is a church or an institution or a faith based non-governmental organization or an emerging ministry. A good partner church or ministry can provide long-term stability, outlast individuals as they come and go on both sides, and provide the checks and balances necessary to counter the concentration of power in the hands of one individual.

Second, our efforts must be coordinated on our end. One of the most exciting things to happen in the Worldwide Ministries Division of the PC(USA) has been the formation of “voluntary networks” of the churches, presbyteries and synods that are all working in partnership in a particular country. There are now close to thirty of those networks, and they tend to meet yearly in an effort to share stories, challenges, and best practices with one another. (Learn more about this at http://www.pcusa.org/partnerships/mission-networks.htm).

Third, we have learned that partnerships tend to work best when they are negotiated between a Presbytery or Synod or the General Assembly in our church and the most appropriate judicatory body in our partner church. Again, the reason is coordination. When we approach the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan to ask them where a partnership is most needed, they can provide the direction that spreads our efforts out appropriately. This can help in avoiding creating divisions due to jealousies about one church that has an active partner, while another has one that is inactive or doesn´t have a partner at all.

Fourth, experience has taught us that it is most healthy to develop a clear Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) about the expectations and responsibilities of each party in the partnership. The need for this is obvious, though it’s amazing how often I’ve seen partnerships that began on the strength of a warm, fuzzy feeling and were quickly destroyed as the honeymoon ended and misunderstandings arose.

Fifth, in my experience the mission personnel of our Worldwide Ministries Division are becoming far more important. Increasingly, we’re going to need people who know each of the cultures well and who are skilled at facilitating relationships and building cross-cultural relationships. Further, the simple truth is that some kinds of mission demand a steady, long-term presence. That means that even as we get excited about sending delegations for short-term experiences and taking on new projects with our partners, we must renew our commitment to the mission program of the larger church. The reason that we’re still doing mission in many places that other churches in the U.S. long ago abandoned is because of the mission workers who have made long-term commitments to our partners. That also means that we need to foster a renewed interest in long-term mission service back home. (If this entices you, go to www.pcusa.org/onedoor and check out some of the possibilities that are out there right now.

Finally, my experience has continuously reconfirmed a simple truth. The best mission efforts aren´t about money. In fact, when financial support is introduced too quickly into the relationship, it often corrupts the development of the long-term partnership. This is a tough one, because the need is great, and we are compassionate people. We’re also folks who want to fix things right now, and our partners are often desperate for that support. Still, I encourage new partners to agree (in their written MOU) that they will invest first in building relationships for three to four years. I could write pages about why this is important, but you get the idea.

I´ve now had the opportunity to travel all over the world to meet with our partners, and it is clear to me that God is leading us into a new moment in mission. The good news is that some of our churches, middle governing bodies and partners around the world have been doing this for awhile, and they have a great deal to teach us.

In the end, mission must be driven by God’s clear call to us to follow Christ into the world and to share his good news with all whom we encounter. My own conviction is that as we do so, we will discover the renewal of our own churches back here at home.

From Kohlapur – and in awe of the legacy created by 170 years of mission in this place,


If you made it all the way to the end of this long entry, you might actually be interested in checking out the PC(USA)´s document on how we do mission.
You can find it at http://www.pcusa.org/wmd/gathering.htm