My friend Ryan returned home on his first furlough after a two-year stint overseas. He drove to church on Sunday morning with excitement to see his friends and interact with his sending church. However, he was shocked as most people had no clue where he had been. They had completely forgotten that two years before the pastors prayed for him and taken a special offering. One person even asked him if he had backslid. Not only was Ryan struggling through all of the other reverse culture shock issues that missionaries deal with, but he was also facing the reality that his sending church had no clue where he was and what he was doing. I remember meeting with Ryan shortly after this Sunday morning disappointment and he, of course, was broken and frustrated. I could sense a seed of bitterness taking root in his heart towards his pastors and his home church. I quickly explained that two sides utterly failed here. Sure, his pastoral leadership completely dropped the ball on communicating with Ryan and keeping him in the minds of the congregation. But they are not solely to blame. I asked Ryan how many letters, updates, and phone calls he had made over the past two years. Of course, the answer was, “only a couple.” Communication is a two-way street. Ryan was also to blame.
Some people are natural communicators, and some are not. When I share with missionaries the importance of effective communication and that they should be writing update letters, making phone calls, and engaging with people back home via social media, they usually glaze over and check out of the conversation. It is the part of being a missionary that most missionaries dread.
A few years back I did research and compared how often missionaries communicate next to their financial support trends over a three year period. I was not surprised to find that missionaries who communicate well and regularly slowly climb in their financial support; while missionaries that do not communicate well and regularly are continually decreasing. The bottom line is, if you do not grow in your communication skills and learn to be an effective communicator, you will not last long as a missionary. Also, if you manage your time well, communication with family, friends, donors, and new contacts will not be as overwhelming.
Typically, as a missionary, you hear that it is a good idea to set aside one day a month to work on communication. That is a great idea! You should schedule in one-day per-month where you type out a monthly update letter. However, this is the bare minimum of your communication task. I would like to propose a yearly, monthly, weekly, and daily communication vision.
A Yearly Vision
On average, most missionaries return home on furlough once a year. We live in a world where travel has and is becoming increasingly more accessible and affordable. Compared to the missionaries of old that we often look to for inspiration, men like Hudson Taylor and Adoniram Judson who could only travel home once every few years and it required six months on a boat. Today we can jump on a plane and within twenty-four hours be just about anywhere in the world. Missionally speaking, we live in exciting times. However, even if you do not return home once a year on furlough, you still should have a yearly vision for communication. This avenue of communication should be a broader presentation and overview that reestablishes the vision God has given you, your missionary call, and that highlights the key points that the Lord has accomplished over the past year. There are a plethora of platforms that you can use. If you are in-person, a powerpoint presentation is always a useful method. We will discuss developing an effective presentation in later modules. If you are not able to be in person, you can put together a video, a slideshow, or record a powerpoint presentation directly on your computer. Then use your social media accounts and contact list to get the presentation in front of your family, friends, and supporters. To summarise, you can think of the yearly vision of communication as a relaunch. Use it as a tool to excite new contacts and as a reminder to breath further excitement into those who have partnered with you on your journey thus far.
A Monthly Vision
This takes us back to our monthly update task and the one day a month that you set aside solely for communication purposes. This is a radically essential part of any missionaries schedule that must be put on the calendar. Do not neglect this time. Of course, the primary task at this time is to type up a monthly update and get it out to your contacts. But it is also a time to get reorganized and focused on the task of communication. It is a time where you can schedule out Skype meetings, make phone calls, and write thank you notes. In other words, this is the time that you focus on and implement your communication vision.
A Weekly Vision
Along with a monthly update letter, you should plan on once a week connecting with at least one person via Skype, FaceTime, or over the phone. These personal one-on-one times are truly the most valuable thing you can do both for your own health and for your ministry. Most missionaries struggle with the loneliness and isolation of the mission field. They miss the Christian fellowship that they had every week back home. Well, this is how you fill that void. Do not think you are superhuman and that you do not need fellowship. God created us as relational beings, and it is an essential part of our Christian health. On the practical side, it helps to eliminate the distance and the out-of-sight-out-of-mind realities that every missionary faces. Lastly, it provides a ministry outlet for you as the missionary to encourage people back home. It is an avenue of missional discipleship that you should never neglect.
A Daily Vision
Like it or not, we live in a social media-driven world. I am always shocked when I log onto Facebook and see my friends from the Sudanese refugee camp. When I lived with them in Uganda, there was no electricity, and no one had cell phones. Today I can chat with them on Facebook! We live in a time of instant communication and with the ability to bring people into our lives and ministries with a simple tweet. Pray about developing a daily communication vision where you post something about your life and ministry on social media. Pictures, videos, and a short one to two sentence updates are the bread and butter of communication in today’s digital age. Remember, our goal is to effectively communicate, writing an update letter that gets emailed out is excellent, but a 30% open rate (the percentage of people that open the e-mail) is huge. If an e-mail blast once a month is your sole source of communication, you will miss a massive portion of your contacts. Effective communication, therefore, must then include a plethora of avenues and social media is today’s communication norm. Use it.
Train4Missions.com is one ministry Pastor Mike Thiemann runs to help equip and train missionaries for long-term overseas service. Pastor Mike and his wife Erin serve State-side as full-time missionaries through Saving Grace World Missions and raise their own missionary support. If you would like to partner with Pastor Mike and Erin to help them further the ministry of Missions Training, please click the “ways to give” image below.