He Said/She Said/You Say? “Should I Go Overseas with an Organization?”

Part II: The “NOPE” Side of the Argument (and what not to do either way)

Missed Part I, the “yep” side? Grab it here.

Going overseas independently has its benefits–like autonomy, neutrality from agencies’ agendas, and flexibility. What do you need to know if you’re thinking in this direction? Don’t miss these important thoughts.

I chose to go the independent route because I felt that I already had (or was able to find) all of the services of a missions agency from other sources at a fraction of the cost.

But there are several advantages for being associated with a missions agency, including the following:

THE PROS

    • Agencies provide a stamp of legitimacy to help with fund-raising.
    • Agencies provide practical help, such as finding health insurance, saving for retirement, receipting donations, setting up housing and transportation for furloughs, and mailing newsletters.
    • Agencies provide a structure to guide your ministry efforts, both in the general sense of choosing an assignment and in the short-term sense of month-to-month work.
    • Agencies may provide accountability so that you don’t fall into sin or into nonproductive activities.
  • A team can offer encouragement and day-to-day practical help.

If you are fortunate to find a wonderful agency, you will get all of these benefits in some measure. If you are unfortunate, you’ll receive very little, but will still have all the disadvantages.

THE CONS

    • Financial cost. Many mission agencies support their home-office staff with a percentage of the funds raised by overseas missionaries (e.g., ten percent). In addition, your agency may require you to raise more funds than you think you need.
    • Time cost. Some missions agencies consume an inordinate amount of time with general conferences, field conferences, area meetings, and reporting requirements. I’ve heard stories of folks who lost an entire day each week just in meetings.
    • Relationship cost. If your agency has others working in your local area, you have to invest the effort to get along with those folks, even if they have incompatible visions or personalities. You can’t choose with whom you work. Until you’ve been in this situation, you can’t imagine how costly this can be in terms of time and emotional energy.
  • Vision cost. With an agency, you may have to go with the flow of what they are doing, even if the season for one type of ministry in your area is over and you feel led to do something different. In most cases, you will have to plug into the vision of your agency’s founder or current head, or that of your local team leader, rather than going with the vision God gives you.

My feeling is that all of the benefits of a mission agency can be gained in a variety of ways for a fraction of the financial, time, relationship, and vision costs.

In my view, many missionaries are not very successful or productive for at least one of the following reasons:

  • They are not disciplined and self-motivated.
  • They don’t have a clear vision of what God is calling them to do.
  • They are not committed to accountable relationships.

Without these traits, you will fail, either as an independent missionary or as an agency-affiliated missionary. Going with an agency will not make up for these shortcomings.

If you can’t honestly say that you are disciplined, have a clear vision, and are committed to accountability, I’d suggest that you pray and fast, review your guidance into missions, and spend a year or two with an “open” agency that emphasizes training and formation of leaders, such as Operation Mobilization or Youth with a Mission. Only after you are certain you have some measure of these traits in your life should you even consider career missions.

From Jay, an independent missionary who has been working in Italy for five years.

A Word of Caution: Do Have Someone Who Sends You

In my relatively short time in Japan, most of those who are here as independents initially came with a mission, but quit when they had struggles with the leadership or couldn’t raise their financial support. Independents often do not fare well under leadership and become poor partners with other missionaries or with national leadership. Bottom line: most people, especially those first starting out, need to be accountable to someone – either their home church or an agency.

From John, who has served in Japan for five years.

WHEN YOU MIGHT BE ABLE TO GO WITHOUT

The biggest reason we didn’t go through a sending agency was that we had spent ten years developing our vision for ministry and had a good relationship, and a formal contract, with the project overseas. Taking all of this and finding an appropriate agency proved to be extremely difficult. And yet we didn’t want to get behind the philosophy of, or develop a relationship between, an agency in the US and a project overseas simply to facilitate our move. So

  • We knew what method of community development we believed in.
  • We knew where we wanted to work and with what project.
  • We had most of the pieces in place already.

But we had to create some of them, and we needed to have the gumption to do it. So we determined what important items we lacked:

  • pre-field training
  • a church that was behind our vision and would not forget us
  • solid financial support
  • someone to manage our finances well
  • strong evacuation insurance
  • an accountability team with contracts and clearly stated responsibilities
  • a strong debriefing program

And we set off to create this for ourselves.

1. Our church. We could not have done well without them. They managed our finances, prayed for us, loved us, were our friends, and there was no chance they would forget us. Our very small church was deeply invested in us. We had lived life together for years. They loved us, truly. As the coming months would show, they would drop everything and help us when we needed it.

2. Our accountability team. My husband and I each chose a person to be accountable to during our time overseas and wrote up a contract with this person. It wasn’t a contract of moral obligation but was one giving the person the right to speak into our lives and to ultimately pull us off the field if they deemed it necessary. It was a work contract. These were our leaders. And we submitted to them.

3. Pre-field training and debriefing. We paid the big bucks. We went with an outside company that specializes in training and debriefing for families and individuals moving overseas. They had programs for our kids and for us. Given my work history with sending agencies, it would have been easy for us to skip this step but we are so glad that we didn’t. This training proved to be critical.

Sending agencies do their jobs very well. Prior to moving overseas, I worked in member care for four years. Agencies work diligently to meet the needs of their workers and they’re worth their administrative fees. They have resources and networks when you’re struggling or have experienced trauma, and they have evacuation and emergency protocols that work. They are ready all the time, but especially for the things you don’t ever think you’ll need them for: the emergencies.

In going without a sending agency you need to have a certain personality. I’m talking

  • one that’s ready to take charge, and find whatever resources are necessary in an emergency
  • able to make quick decisions when lives are on the line, even if it’s yours
  • someone in authority over you for when you cannot see straight
  • able to handle that disaster without question. None of us want to prepare for the worst, but living in a developing country increases our chance for disaster.

You also need to be confident in the project you are joining.

  • Are you a single person that loves being a part of team?
  • If you’re going without a sending agency, will your receiving project be able to provide that sense of team-ness for you or will you be an outsider for a while?
  • Do you have a family and a spouse that will be left at home with the children and not feel connected to the work in country?

Going without an agency can create isolation while you are getting used to the project. Know the community that you’re going to and what resources are available for you there. This may be the biggest factor in your longevity on the field.

Sending agencies do their jobs well. If this is your first exposure into international work I would strongly suggest going with one. But if you are considering going overseas without an agency, as a contract worker, do not be flippant about it. Be wise. Seek advice from those who have been involved in missions for years. Do not skip the items that will cost you money like insurance, training, and scheduled return trips to your home. You are sidestepping some of the infrastructure and you’ll need to create it yourself. If that feels possible to you, then maybe it’s for you. If it seems like you’re in over your head, you may want to consider a sending agency. Both have their place.

From Courtney, who serves in Sierra Leone through her church.

 

Editor’s note: The percentage of missionaries serving without the support of an agency seems to be growing. If that is your situation or one you are considering, check out Going It Alone from the UK-based Syzgy Missions Support Network.

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