Foreign mission work is difficult and one of the greatest difficulties lurks within the mission team itself. The voices of experienced missionaries combined with research done by others indicates that interpersonal relationships with fellow missionaries is the number one problem faced on the field. Several mission agencies (Christian Church and Baptist) also report that most problems on the field are not related to the culture or the nationals but are between missionaries.
We may wonder, "How is it that Christians, who go somewhere to work together, experience these kinds of problems?" There are several very important reasons interpersonal relationship problems plague God's teams on the mission field. First, teams of Americans come from a culture that is very individualistic which complicates their working as teams. Second, mission teams are often isolated and have less contact with others of their own culture. Third, this isolation increases their interpersonal contact with each other, thus increasing the possibility that tensions will arise. Fourth, cross-cultural living is stressful regardless of the work you do. Finally, and most importantly, mission teams are placed at the forefront of the war against Satan's kingdom of darkness. Satan will use every weapon at his disposal to destroy their work, and one of his easiest targets is the interpersonal relationships of team members.
Paul's teaching on the body of Christ (Romans 12:4-8; 1 Corinthians 12) illustrates the value and need for diversity. Mission teams are diversified in many ways: sex, marital status, talents, experience, personalities, age, training, and others. The challenge before them is to appreciate their differences and see the value of inter-relatedness as they work together.
A major theological understanding related to the church is the concept of the church's being the family of God. This is not intended to be primarily an emotional concept, though emotion is evoked with the term "family." Levels of emotional closeness will be different within mission teams, therefore, emotional closeness cannot be relied upon to hold a team together.
The strength of the family of God is that God Himself has brought the family together by His power. In the New Testament being a family of God was defined by how people treated each other rather than how they felt about each other. God's family, or mission team, needs to understand that they are responsible for how they treat each other regardless of their levels of emotional closeness and that how they treat each other is informed by a theology of the cross and servanthood.
Last year I completed a Doctor of Ministry Project/Thesis which addressed the issue of missionary interpersonal relationships. The title of the project was: "A Model For Enhancing Interpersonal Relationships Within Mission Teams." Through a survey of many past and present missionaries and through research related to effective teams several issues were surfaced that, if addressed, can help prepare a mission team for life and work together on the mission field.
Teams need a clear understanding of what a team is. Often expectations are unrealistic. Even though team members may have different degrees of emotional closeness, it is commitment to the team and teamwork that will allow them to work through problems. Several characteristics of healthy teams need to be present in the stressful world of team missions: Appreciating Diversity; Communication Skills (Active Listening and the ability to Give and Receive Feedback); Constructive Conflict Resolution; Leadership Skills; Decisions Making; and Trust and Openness. Each of these will help create an environment where relationships can grow in a healthy manner. These characteristics, along with others, are descriptive of healthy, working teams that embrace teamwork regardless of the risks involved.
The Project/Thesis involved the developing of a seminar that addressed these important interpersonal relationship issues. The seminar was conducted for three developing mission teams. Both pre-testing and post-testing was done to determine skill and attitude levels related to team maintenance. An additional post-test was given one month after the seminar to further the analysis of the seminar's effectiveness. The results of the testing indicated that all of the mission teams improved both their skill levels and attitude levels related to the interpersonal relationship issues addressed.
Pre-field preparation is good and, yes, it does work. The ultimate test will be whether the teams will continue the use of good interpersonal skills as God develops their relationships. Mission teams face the challenge of making practical application of the theology of relationship within their new, stressful, cultural context. Pre-field preparation will not guarantee success but, such preparation will help keep Satan from easily gaining a foothold to destroy a mission team's relationships and, thus, thwart the expansion of the kingdom of Christ.
Our Christian colleges and universities have resource people who can help mission teams prepare for the challenges ahead of them. Mission strategy and team maintenance are both essential for mission teams to be successful. I and others would welcome opportunities to help equip and sustain mission teams in their very important work. May God's blessings rest on all those who labor for Him in cross-cultural circumstances. May we do all we can to prepare mission teams to be effective tools, making theology practical so God can work both in and through them to His glory.
published as: Guild, Sonny. 1997. Prepping the Mission Team. Gospel Advocate 139 (August): 24-25.