5 Things That Won’t “Return to Normal”
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. In the two years since everyone has been touched in some way and experienced some level of life change.
We look forward to the day when we can return to a pre-pandemic “normal.” However, in ministry, some changes over the past two years will remain, and that can be a good thing.
James and Lisa Dougherty, OMF (U.S.) President and Co-National Directors, share how the pandemic led to several changes in how ministry is done, changes that will stay in place once the pandemic is over.
8 Minute Read
By James and Lisa Dougherty
The longer the pandemic runs, the more our craving for a return to “normal” grows. This means something different to each of us.
As an organization, we think frequently about the ability to plan. We long to get back to a point where we can plan an event six months in the future and not have to re-shape it drastically three times before the day arrives.
As individuals we think of the suffering caused by health issues, and feel the frustration as people desiring to serve in the field find their plans altered again and again.
However, in the middle of our ongoing struggles caused by COVID-19, it’s helpful to reflect on the marvelous things God has done during this time that won’t stop when the pandemic ends.
1. How We Use Global Teams
You probably know a missionary who got stuck somewhere during the last couple of years. Among the workers OMF has sent out from the U.S., we have had a consistent group of more than fifty workers stranded in a country where they hadn’t planned to stay. Every month, one or two find a way through quarantines to get back to their area of service in Asia, while a few others find they can’t make their next move as planned.
We were surprised in this process to see that many of our OMF workers were able to find significant ways to move ministry forward even though they weren’t living where they expected to.
People in leadership, support, and training roles continued to serve from the U.S. (often working through the night to connect across the time zones.) Others found new ways to continue their discipleship and church leadership development ministries with people in Asia by working remotely. These ministries were able to manage effectively, especially since some parts of the Asian church were also making moves to work in virtual spaces.
In the past, we often thought teams working together needed to be in the same physical location. The location disruption, however, actually caused many OMF workers to come together, functioning as global teams. Furthermore, we believe this approach will work not only with our current team members but will also be helpful as we add global team members.
Because many people have been forced to learn to work virtually during the pandemic, location is no longer an obstacle for volunteers with special skills and experience to start serving with OMF. This is an incredible growth opportunity as we see people from around the world getting involved in supporting missions without needing to move.
2. How We Use Technology
One of the areas field teams have especially leaned into during this time is sharing the good news about Jesus through websites, videos, and social media. In the same way that Paul wrote much of the New Testament as letters from prison, technology gives us amazing opportunities to share with people that we don’t otherwise have access to.
For many years we have read through strategy plans from field teams that included a desire to use internet tools in new ways to share the gospel with the peoples they were trying to serve. For our teams living in Asia, however, it was hard to move this approach forward when days were full of other kinds of busyness.
The pandemic time created a perfect growth opportunity for sharing through technology as workers had other ministries paused and felt a strong desire to keep sharing and investing in the lives of the peoples they serve. One example of this kind of ministry is translating the Bible Project videos into Thai. This was started before the pandemic and has continued on through the last two years.
Many other web, video, and social media sharing efforts are directed at some of the peoples that we have the most trouble sharing with due to geographical, spiritual, cultural, or other obstacles. It seems that the global community of people focused on sharing the gospel through technology has grown exponentially during the last two years, and we pray that this growth continues well past the pandemic.
While we recognize that sharing through technology does not replace the need for face-to-face relationships and Christians living in a community, it is a powerful tool to connect those who share Jesus through their life and service with a community which might not have any other exposure to Jesus.
3. How We Support Workers
We’ve previously shared about being surprised that missionaries who couldn’t return to Asia found new ways to continue their ministry despite being in a different location. The other side of this journey for them is that it’s very hard to live through this disruption and uncertainty.
Each worker has struggled through the questions about what plan to pursue for how long, as well as how to support their family’s spiritual, emotional, and educational needs through the process. It’s exhausting for them and leads to tough logistical choices about housing, school plans, and how to communicate with partners who may not understand the challenges.
We’ve been encouraged by the OMF team in the U.S. and how they have rallied to provide care and support for our workers in new ways. This has included an extra capacity to listen to and support workers in transitions, finding new ways to provide flexible budgeting processes, and delivering support and training through new methods. The team has learned so much about how to bring our services to meet the unique needs of each person.
One special example of this has been our team ministering to our Third Culture Kids (TCKs), the children of our workers. They started several different opportunities for these kids across the U.S. to meet together on Zoom, have fun together, and talk about what they are experiencing. It’s been a special encouragement for kids at all different points in the journey. Some have recently returned from Asia and are processing their temporary time in the U.S., whereas others are feeling nervous about moving to Asia for the first time.
We are convinced that the pandemic pushed the OMF team to take new risks to support workers and their families. We have learned a lot through these endeavors, and our desire to see the team trying new things will continue to grow.
4. How We Invest in Mission Communities
God has called us to engage and mobilize the American church. This includes a lot of “missions discipleship.” We often meet people at the point when God is starting to speak to their heart regarding missions, but they may be five or more years away from taking a significant step like moving overseas.
Traditionally, we have found our best approach to helping people grow in their missions journey is to offer them a series of smaller involvement opportunities so that they can take one step at a time. This includes activities like going on a short-term mission trip, taking the Perspectives class, or perhaps joining a missions prayer group.
So, what do you do when many of those opportunities are suddenly shut down? Our Serve Asia Team faced this challenge when the borders closed. They had many people very excited about a short-term trip who were stuck waiting for the borders to open – and some are still waiting two years later! This was a challenging opportunity for the team.
The Serve Asia Team was afforded additional time to continue the mission discipleship activities. For example, virtual prayer journeys were offered through various locations in Asia to familiarize interested candidates with geography, customs, and culture in potential areas of service. Webinars were also offered so that candidates would become familiar with a variety of mission topics and issues.
This approach allowed hundreds of people to see what God is doing in Asia in a new way, even before their short-term trip. He is teaching us new ways to invest in and develop mission communities.
5. How We Train Workers
At the beginning of 2020, the Church Missions Consulting team (an OMF team in the U.S. focused on providing consulting and training to churches wanting to grow in missions involvement) was praying about ways to engage more with churches that were “hard to get to.” The face-to-face trainings were going really well, but it wasn’t always possible to travel to the churches that reached out for help and connection.
The pandemic pushed us into a season of learning to conduct training virtually. It’s been encouraging to see the team embrace this challenge and convert many of their training sessions to be especially effective in virtual environments. An additional benefit is that this removes geographical challenges and means we can engage with churches whenever they want and wherever they are.
This same change is happening in our internal training and equipping ministries for the OMF fellowship. In the past, we often thought of training as a face-to-face-only ministry which limited access to this kind of investment and growth. The pandemic years have pushed us to embrace virtual training in a way that removes some of the barriers. We can offer these opportunities for growth to a much wider community now.
God Hasn’t Stopped Working
None of the above are new ideas that only started during the pandemic. In fact, in each area we were using some of the ideas five or ten years ago. However, what’s remarkable to us is that the challenges of the last two years have accelerated the growth so significantly. Ideas that a few people dreamed about are now shared by many. Ministries that used to be limited to a couple of teams are now embraced more widely throughout the missions community.
COVID-19 has caused far too much pain and loss – we will continue to mourn and live with these scars. Even in our grief, we can thank God that He hasn’t stopped working. He is using this time to push us forward in new ways and draw others toward Him!
In at least these five areas, we’re grateful that we won’t be “returning to normal.”
We are both third culture kids with a foot in both North America and Asia. James was an aircraft mechanic and Lisa was a teacher, but we didn’t last too long in either of those jobs. Since 2006, we have spent most of our time in Asia serving together with the Asian church. We began serving as the OMF (U.S.) President and Co-National Directors in 2019.