Time was when young men attended seminaries, became pastors, and moved outward to international harvest fields. They lived and preached in situ, aging for 30 years towards an eventual retirement in the U.S., a retirement filled – if desired – with revivals and interim pastoral roles.
Not so much any more.
Young men and now women attend seminaries and move directly towards the field. Sometimes they lack US-based ministry experience, but that’s alright. Increasing numbers of workers in non-ministerial roles find themselves called to missions; they earn sufficient seminary hours to qualify and head outwards, leaving behind professional certificates and secular jobs. And that’s fine, too.
Unlike their vocational ancestors, they stay – on the average – less than 10 years.
Upon arrival in the US, where do they work? Seminary-to-mission grads lack the ministerial contacts their former classmates used to land jobs. Their families are older, and financial needs are larger; entry level (read: small church/youth pastor) jobs might not pay enough. They can’t get a secular job, either, because their degree is in ministry.
Former missionaries who came from certified jobs in the US often allow their certification to expire while gone. Fields change, jobs markets die, and technology leaves people behind. They can’t get a ministry job, since they lack degrees.
When the SBC’s flagship mission sending agency downsized, over 1,000 field workers returned to the US. A small percentage were of standard retirement age, and they rode off into a (hopefully) secure financial future. A sizable portion took early organizational retirement, but were too young to simply stop working. They were also too old to find new careers. Their seminary degrees – assuming they had them – might have helped, but they had no pastoral experience. Those without ministry degrees found themselves unable to break into their former fields.
While it would be easy to engage in yet another bout of hand-wringing over the decision to reduce headcount, that overlooks an emerging pattern: a career in missions is, for many, a short-term role which reduces long-term employability.
Take me, for example. I’m a 15+ year veteran of multiple mission fields. I’ve learned more than 4 languages to varying degrees of proficiency. I can teach the Bible to a variety of ages and backgrounds, from nominal Catholic to institutionalized atheism. All my organizationally-encouraged, field-based skill development has focused on how to do the missionary job better. I know how to missionary well enough to understand that I don’t know how to pastor.
My professional degree issued by a reputable state university has passed it’s 20th birthday, and technology has rendered many of my skills obsolete. My last professional certification expired in 2000. I would be considered entry level if I were to return to my old field of study, and I’d need a new post-graduate degree to resume working. My seminary hours, while hard-earned and numerous, do not add up to a degree.
When we heard of workers voluntarily leaving the field last year, my wife and I tried to imagine what it would be like if we returned. My wife thought about schools and how close to her parents we could stand to live. I envisioned soup kitchens and living in a van under the bridge over by the recycling plant.
Honestly – I am unemployable.
Using multiple languages in ministry is cool – but no one needs a staff member without a seminary degree who knows the languages that I know. Church member? Yeah, people want an experienced Bible teacher – for free.
Going back to school while unemployed? Working at Starbucks to support a family while going back to school? Where would we even live – we sold our house and car and most everything else when we left the US a long time ago.
In the fall of 2015, IMB Vice President Sebastian Traeger pointed out that today no one joins an organization with an eye on staying until retirement. Then they reduced the size of the retirement package. They eliminated the media department, followed a year later by axing the IT department. Field personnel were not fired, but roles disappeared and career workers found themselves facing an involuntary shift into jobs for which they felt less well-suited.
And I’m looking around wondering what I would do in those situations.
I’ve written on this site about preparing for a future on the field, doing what was necessary to ensure readiness when the time came. Now I talk to younger missionaries and tell them to keep up with their CEUs for their chosen fields, preparing them for the day they will leave.
Perhaps the model we’ve been following all these years has become obsolete. We’ve always viewed the secular and the sacred as distinct roles on the field. Most mission sending agencies require their workers to eschew all other work opportunities in order to more fully focus on the evangelism and discipleship task. If agencies reduce retirement and view their workforce as having a 10-year turnover, then perhaps they should also allow workers to be prepared for a return to the US.
Workers themselves should ethically, maybe, balance pursuit of the task at hand with an eye on the future. Were they laboring in any other field – electrician, graphic design, auto repair – they’d read the tea leaves to determine how long they could viably remain in their jobs without needing new skills and different tools. They would pursue those tools in anticipation of that eventual change.
What changes does our model require if it is to utilize church members without using them? How can mission agencies get the best from their workers without limiting employment futures?