Missions Mobilization and Your Pastor

Have you ever wondered how best to interact with a pastor who just isn’t that excited about global missions? One of our church mobilizers shares some practical advice on missions mobilization.

9 Minute Read

By John Hawke

Looking back, I should have seen the warning signs earlier. I was consulting with a medium-sized, four-year-old U.S. church plant that seemed healthy enough on the surface. Membership was growing, people were being baptized and the church had some decently successful ideas for impacting its community. But they had no plan for cross-cultural missions, so a member of their missions committee had reached out to me for help.

I had just finished my informal presentation on ways this church could improve (read: “begin”) their approach to cross-cultural missions. A few of the elders seemed genuinely excited as I encouraged them to brainstorm ways they could influence and empower lay-leaders in their church as part of their broader vision for missions. I felt amazing. I love watching church leaders as the light bulb switches on.

“These guys really seem to get it,” I thought to myself. “I’d expect a young church to struggle a bit, but I wonder why their missions program didn’t exist at all?”

It took about 15 seconds before their lead pastor shattered my now-fleeing euphoria.

“Thanks so much for sharing, John. I’m so encouraged by your passion for missions…”

I’d heard this one before. I silently echoed the dreaded phrase I knew was coming next.

“But missions just isn’t my thing.”

There it was. This well-intentioned, innocuous-sounding statement held the power to stop a missions program dead in its tracks. Now it all made sense.

The Number One Question among Church Missions Leaders

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I’ve been a church mobilizer for almost a decade now. Between different trainings, presentations, meetings and consultations, I try to keep a running list of common problems and questions shared by different church missions leaders. Number one on my list? “What do I do when my senior pastor just doesn’t care about missions?”

The first time, I tried to answer this question by trivializing its importance. It doesn’t matter–your pastor is only one person! You’ve got hundreds of other people in the church you can disciple and influence. Once you gain some momentum, the rest of leadership will jump on board! (Awwwwe, I was so adorably naïve back then…)

To be fair, I still suggest a similar approach, but I make sure people recognize that they’re probably going to be facing an uphill, two-year process. Realistic expectations help.

Making the Most Out of Our Ecclesiology

The unfortunate reality is that most churches will never get their missions program off the ground without at least some degree of support from their senior pastor. That’s not to say that your pastor needs to do everything; that won’t work either. But the senior pastor possesses an enormous ability to influence the culture and values of the church.

However, there is a silver lining to all of this. Just as an unsupportive pastor can tank an otherwise healthy missions program, a passionate, missions-focused pastor can bring amazing focus and excitement to an inexperienced missions program. Suffice it to say, cultivating real support from your senior pastor is usually one of the most important components of your church’s missions strategy.

So, with that in mind, let’s get started.  John Hawke’s Collection of Advice, Resources and Tips for When Your Pastor Just Doesn’t Care about Missions:

1) This isn’t a competition and your pastor is not the enemy.

When unchecked, the “what do I do when my pastor isn’t passionate about missions” scenario tends to end up in the same place. After multiple years of faithful perseverance, the missions-minded lay-leader finally concludes that their efforts are being hamstrung by the senior pastor. Bitterness and learned helplessness fester until the pastor is seen as an unwitting obstacle obstinately opposed to God’s “greater” global mission.

I wish I were kidding, but I’ve seen this play out roughly 20 times, often resulting in nasty mass-exoduses. Suffice it to say, rampant contempt toward church leadership is not a very effective missions strategy.

My best explanation is that missions can often become an incredibly charged topic, cutting to the core of theological and missiological identity.

What does it mean to be a church, what does it mean to do missions, what does it mean to be a disciple of Christ in the first place?

As a culture, we don’t seem to really know how to interact when others hold diametrically opposing viewpoints to our own. (See: politics…) Add an unequal power dynamic, and you can see how things quickly spiral into contempt.

If you find yourself even remotely beginning to go down this road of dehumanization, pump the brakes. It sounds a bit tacky, but the best piece of advice I can give you is to honestly ask yourself whether your pastor is intentionally trying to sabotage your church. (Hint: the answer is probably “no.” If the answer is “yes,” you need to leave your church immediately.) I know it can get really frustrating when your pastor feels “against you,” but don’t let your relationship with your pastor spiral out of control.

2) Build a relationship. A real one.

OK, missions isn’t your pastor’s thing. What is? What’s their vision for the church? What gets them out of bed in the morning? Why’d they become a pastor in the first place?

I’ve written before on the global loneliness epidemic and its effect on churches and missions, and pastors are no exception. According to Stand Strong Ministries, 70% of pastors report that they have no close social confidant. That’s almost triple the national average.

Your pastor probably needs a friend.

For the record, I’m not suggesting you manipulate your pastor to advance your missions agenda. That’s obviously wrong, and I would refer you back to point 1. But as you build your friendship, you’ll get to share about your passion for missions. Not to mention almost all of the points below require a certain level of trust and relationship.

Plus, if your missions program goes down in flames, at least you’ll still have a new friend.

3) Unpack their reluctance regarding missions.

Now that you and your pastor are instant BFFs, you’ll have the authority and ability to dig into the whole “missions isn’t my thing” thing. Where’s that phrase coming from? Baggage from the past? A holy-sounding excuse? An actual theology of selective obedience? (Hint: again, it’s probably not this one.)

The point here isn’t to dismantle that line of thinking in one fell swoop. Rather, it’s to help open ongoing dialogue. “Why do we need missions if there are just as many problems here” would require a much different approach than “Christianity has already spread around the globe, and we need to focus on our local needs.”

4)Debrief consistently and relentlessly.

I’m going to give away one of my biggest secrets as a mobilizer and educator. You’re welcome.

The specific activities we do with people have very little impact on their ability to learn; almost all learning takes place through reflection after the event. In other words, there isn’t a significant difference between inviting your pastor to a four-person prayer night versus inviting them to a four-month Perspectives class, at least when it comes to long-term, sustainable change. Debriefing the experience is what matters most. (For an example of this principle in action, see this post on transforming short-term trips through intentional debriefing.)

I mention this because I see a ton of people get tripped up in missions mobilization trying to find the “perfect thing” to invite someone to. I want to free you from that oppressive line of thinking. If your pastor can’t go on a short-term trip, or attend that perfect missions mobilization event, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. (Except for prayer; that’s about as non-negotiable as it gets. See point 6.)

True, some events naturally lend themselves to better reflection than others, but I stand by my assertion that a well-debriefed prayer meeting will have a much greater long-term effect than a non-debriefed missions trip. Start however and wherever you can with your pastor and relentlessly debrief and follow up.

5)Build a team.

As you’ve probably picked up by now, there’s nothing fast or easy about any of these suggestions. You’re never going to be able to do all of this on your own. Plus, being the sole missions champion just leads to burnout and the church missions death spiral outlined in point 1. Healthy teams do a good job protecting against that.

It’s also typically much easier for teams to develop momentum, and strong momentum is hard for your pastor to ignore. “John has some crazy vision for our church” is a lot easier to dismiss than “oh, we have six different people working together toward a common vision.”

So what should you do if you can’t find anyone to be on your missions team? First, I’d encourage you to search around; there’s probably a lot more interest than you’d think. If you seriously can’t find people, then invite your pastor to join the team and explain how you want to have weekly meetings. Then your pastor will find people for you!

6) Pray. Passionately. Together. Frequently.

Now that you have a team, your first order of business should really be to create a consistent prayer time for missions at your church.  As much as possible, your pastors, elders and church leadership should all be part of it.

In my experience, pastoral involvement in prayer for missions is probably the single best predictor of future missions success at a church. Shocking, I know.

Between the inevitable spiritual warfare, messy interpersonal dynamics and our overall inability to actually accomplish anything in missions apart from God, I don’t think you’ll ever lack ideas for prayer. To paraphrase a John Piper video on prayer (well worth your three minutes), our missions efforts are utterly foolish if we’re failing to pray.

7) Ask for help.

As I’ve mentioned before, this process can be incredibly long and challenging. Fortunately, some of us specialize in this sort of thing. Please reach out if you’re ever feeling frustrated, stuck or you just think your pastor might respond well to a “professional.”

If you’re looking for places to start, I’d recommend the following:

  • Contact OMF’s Church Partnership Team. It’s completely free, and we’re happy to walk alongside you and your church. (You can even request yours truly!)
  • Catalyst Services has a fantastic collection of resources, from blog posts and books to seminars and training. I highly recommend subscribing to their free monthly newsletter for church missions leaders.
  • If your church sends missionaries through a mid-to-large-sized missions agency, then give the agency a call. There’s a good chance they have someone who can help.

Three Keys to Missions Mobilization

Like any good Christian message, at the end of the day, this all boils down to three points.

Love your pastor. Be humble. Pray like everything depends on it.

That might not solve all your missions problems, but hey, it’s not a bad place to start.

Author Bio

John worked 10 years at OMF (U.S.) as a mobilizer-data analyst-coder-teacher-writer. His passions include running, satire, coding, board games, mobilizing the American church and medium-length walks on the beach.