Obtaining a missionary commission is not as simple as finding other kinds of ministry appointments. This should not be surprising. Greater glory to the Lord demands greater allegiance from his people. Crossing substantial barriers with the gospel is costly, risky, and requires careful coordination.
The parties normally involved in a commission include your sending church, a sending agency, and a receiving church. (In the absence of an established receiving church, there may be a field institution or ministry team.) These parties must coordinate and cooperate with each other according to their respective roles. Warning! They may not be accustomed to functioning in harmony, and there may be substantial differences among them (for example, linguistic, cultural, historical, and so on).
Coordinating and cooperating is challenging. But if you work on prayerful, high-quality, open, and patient communication from the outset, it will put you in a good position to manage potential conflicts down the road. This does not slow down missions, nor is it merely dealing with obstructions to missions, but is already the real work of missions.
The following is a template (for a mission internship or for a short- or long-term assignment) to get you to the field:
1. It all starts as you begin to explore a call to foreign missions in the context of friends, family, and church — those who have a vested interest in your calling and are committed to pray with you. It is important, at this earliest stage, to ask if your church (or presbytery) is the appropriate one for your commission. If it does not have this capacity or willingness, then do not delay in seeking out a church (or presbytery) that does (provided the reason for unwillingness is not you). Transitioning from one sending body to another will take time. If you make this transition later in the process, the delay can be frustrating.
2. Next, as your sense of call is forming, pursue the discernment of your church more formally. Ask your church to prepare, train, and test you. Ask about appropriate timing and duration for your assignment. During this formation, you will use all your questions to craft your philosophy of ministry. This will function as your guide in identifying a suitable field and agency. If you are not married and you think that you may want to get married, then this would be a good time to consider that timeline. It is much better to involve your future spouse earlier than later.
3. If affirmed by your church, you can begin more serious networking and open dialogues with potential field mentors. Do this under the continued guidance of your local church. The most important discernment at this stage is compatibility of theology and of philosophy of ministry. You should be able to clearly express your convictions while also demonstrating your desire to learn. You should expect corresponding clarity from each potential field mentor. You are not expecting to arrive on the field fully formed but rather with the expectation of a ministry community that will further develop you.
4. As these discussions with fields become more concrete, request documentation from the field mentor concerning the details of the assignment. This would include such things as the broad purpose, field structure, training process, responsibilities, accountability arrangement, accommodations, local church relationship, budget, funding mechanism, children’s education, and the process for reaching the field. Make sure that you understand the policies, because you will be accountable to them.
5. Process these details with your sending church and then make sure that there is high-quality, direct communication between your church and the field, evidenced by substantial mutual understanding. This open communication will become increasingly important as you proceed. This would be a good occasion to visit the field, perhaps with an elder from your church. At this point, it may be advisable to request your church (or presbytery, if you are ordained) to establish a permanent committee/team to oversee your ministry for the duration of your commission.
6. Now you are ready to complete the approval process with the field and agency (and presbytery, if appropriate), including the numerous logistics of employment, raising support, and final preparation.
7. As this approval process may take some time, at regular intervals make sure that any changes, whether in your own circumstances or in the field’s circumstances, are being understood and appropriately documented. There should be no huge surprises when you make the transition to the field.
8. This would be a good time to establish a plan with your sending church (or presbytery) for how you and your ministry will be overseen. How regularly will you report? What will constitute your reports? How will your church continue to care for you and your family? How will you and your church continue to grow your relationship — even through future transitions in the congregation and leadership?
9. Once everything is deemed to be in order, your church or presbytery will commission you (ordaining you first, if appropriate), formally establishing the bond which constitutes and sustains your missionary service.
10. Prior to making the transition to the field, you should request from the field leadership a more detailed plan for your first year or so. This would include housing, transportation, a training regimen, oversight, and a preliminary weekly schedule.
These 10 steps (which are more logical than chronological) indicate a maturing of the most crucial relationships — with milestones along the way. Beware! Ministry relationships are demanding and never completely smooth. Only machinery is smooth.
You were likely initially motivated by the urgency of the missionary task, so these 10 steps may feel like a lot of “hurry-up-and-wait.” Keep in mind:
- As mentioned earlier, missionary work begins in building relationships before you reach the field.
- Missionary work is waiting on God — precisely what you are learning throughout the steps.
- Lastly, investing in a solid foundation is the most responsible beginning of any great stewardship.
Enjoy the process as the Lord uses it to suit you for His service!
May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
that your way may be known on earth,
your saving power among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you!
— Psalm 67:1–3 (ESV)
This article is adapted from “Career Placement Handbook — Missionary Service,” Westminster Theological Seminary, 2020.