Extending ministries

Bowing Out Gracefully

Making the hard decision to pull the plug on a mission endeavor

Hindsight: The recognition of the realities, possibilities or requirements of a situation, event or decision after its occurrence. Always 20/20.

When we partner with local churches in cultures other than our own, and become involved in ministry together, we cannot predict the outcome—whether fruit will remain, or whether there will be just an orchard of trees with dying leaves. Still, we keep trying to further the kingdom of God.

Pastor Dave (his name has been changed) is a man with a passion for the lost. He has embarked on many church-endorsed missions trips over the course of a 12-year ministry at his EFCA church. One such mission trip, in 2001, brought him to a small town on the Texas/Mexico border.

Dave took the trip with one of the elders from his Midwestern congregation. They wanted to know: Can we bring a group to do ministry among the urban poor, or even one day help plant a church?

Upon arriving at the border town, the two men arranged to meet with an EFCA ReachGlobal staff member serving in Mexico. They were eager to gain insight into the culture and learn about opportunities for reaching the lost. Dave and his church elder also met with other independent missionaries, to get similar insight. These missionaries introduced them to a local pastor who wanted to start a church among a small group of believers, struggling to survive in their poor dusty town.

After a spending a week with this pastor, Dave was invited to take part in helping start a church. "We were asked if we would support him in this endeavor," Dave remembers. "We saw an opportunity to reach people for Christ and disciple them, believing that church planting is one of the best ways to do that."

The life (and death) of a mission vision

The fire in the two men's hearts ignited, and the wheels began to spin. When Dave later brought the idea before the church board, it was approved. They decided to support this pastor for $500 a month and to make yearly trips over the next three to four years.

With members fully behind the vision, the church began sending short-term teams to Mexico and had a great time—doing children's ministry and street ministry, and even erecting a church building, with funds provided from Dave's church.

They encouraged the local pastor and the small group of believers and made great friendships. They felt like they were being "salt and light" in a community that desperately needed the gospel. This particular town was known for occasional drug violence, so through this partnership, the local believers were learning to trust God more and more with their future and with their lives.

Things did not, however, turn out the way Dave had envisioned.

Now, 11 years later, his church is currently cutting back its support and is in the process of pulling out of the Mexican church plant altogether.

So, what happened? Was there a scandal or was the pastor dishonest or immoral? Did the church plant use the money to set up a karaoke bar? How did this well-planned mission outreach go awry?

Looking back, Dave sees many things they could have done differently. Most importantly: "We did not think through all the parameters."

20/20 hindsight

No one thing, he concludes, led to board members' unanimous decision to pull out of this ministry. It was more a series of unintentional mistakes.

  1. Not clarifying expectations. The church board did not stipulate how it wanted the partner pastor in Mexico to use the majority of the support. The pastor spent most of the monies on his children's education, whereas the board would have preferred that he further his own theological education. Perhaps if he had done so, he could better himself and then help his children. If Dave and the board had thought through the partnership more, they might have been more specific about their intent.
  2. Operating independently. The mission team did not associate itself with any other church in the area. Dave now believes that the team should have involved other Evangelical Free churches or staff members who were already established in Mexico. The church board's ultimate hope was that this church plant would eventually become part of the Evangelical Free Church of Mexico, but because the team didn't network or take proactive steps toward this goal, it never happened.
  3. Acting impulsively. Board members realize now that they moved too quickly in deciding to offer support, because they wanted to "make it work." The need was so obvious; they really clicked with the local believers and the pastor; everything seemed to be dovetailing; the team was so excited. The results of acting impulsively became more evident when they saw that the local pastor was not asserting himself or promoting the church as best as he could have among the unreached community. They also quickly realized that the pastor had never been asked to be responsible for that amount of money before. Board members regret that they were not more pro-active in coming alongside him and teaching about budgeting and goals, instead of just giving him a large chunk of change and hoping for the best.
  4. Not setting clear deadlines. The U.S. church learned that it needed a timeline in place regarding how long it was going to support this work and this pastor. Such a time constraint might have motivated the pastor to become more self-supporting and to invest in his own growth by furthering his biblical education. There's no way the small congregation could have supported its pastor full-time; a supplementary income was necessary. But the U.S. church might have better served them all by helping him work toward financial independence from the start.

Lessons learned

Despite these unintentional mistakes, Dave and his church board did make the insightful decision to "leave well." They kept their relationships with the Mexican pastor and his family intact. "I could go to his house today, without contacting him, and be welcomed," Dave says.

As a matter of fact, a current member of Dave's church still makes frequent outreach trips to this church and family, helping with ministry and encouraging the pastor.

Leaving well also meant not placing blame on anyone. There was no shame in the decision to pull out, and all parties involved wanted to make sure that supporting this ministry did not leave a bad taste in anyone's mouth, including the team that went on the first mission's trip.

The U.S. church also decided not to immediately financially sever the relationship. They put a plan in place to be fully released from this project after five years, subtracting from their monthly support by $100 a year. Sudden withdrawal of funds could prove to be devastating to the church and to the pastor's family.

So, is Dave disillusioned with missions? Apparently not: He and other members of his church recently embarked on a mission trip to Kenya, where they are exploring another opportunity to plant a church. What they learned from the experiences in Mexico gave them invaluable insight into "doing it right," Dave says, so he is thankful for the experiences.

"Just because God is with you doesn't mean your project will succeed, and just because your project fails doesn't mean God was absent," states author and speaking coach (and former church planter) Wade Hodges, in his online article "10 Lessons From a Failed Church Plant."

The fire in Dave's heart still burns for the lost. And he's convinced that there is fruit in a small town in Mexico, because a church still exists where once there was none.

Ellen Conserva

Ellen is communications coordinator for Agape Home in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which provides a loving home for children affected by HIV/AIDS. Ellen and her husband, Michael, have lived in Thailand for 20 years and have been with ReachGlobal since 2004. To learn more about Agape Home, visitwww.nikkisplace.org.


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