Gathering international workers together for spiritual care and team-building

(LCMS Communications / Erik M. Lunsford)

The invitation for me to spend time with one of Synod’s five regional missionary teams was unexpected, and, for a part of me, it was unwanted.

Conversations with the regional director and business manager brought to light lingering frustrations and confusion among that region’s missionaries and international workers, including a number of fund-raising or donor-care decisions made over the past three years. The two regional leaders joined a long line of people telling me, “Come (or, go) see it with your own eyes.”

First, a bit of confession is necessary. Prior to this point I had vigorously dug my heels in, resisting invitations or exhortations to travel outside the United States to meet with LCMS international workers and see the work being done in foreign fields. After all, comparatively few donors who support the LCMS live outside the United States.

My desire to streamline fundraising and donor-care efforts for the sake of ‘real’ witness and mercy work also meant a prohibition on spending budgeted funds for international travel, even in economy class as required by Synod policy. Equally important, I carry a fear that people would perceive such a trip as bureaucratic sightseeing using someone else’s dime, and that fear was enough to keep my feet firmly planted on U.S. soil.

No, sir. No, ma’am. I wasn’t going to “Go see it with my own eyes.”

But then, after months of phone, email and face-to-face conversations, the region’s director and business manager shared enough specific information and insights about certain problems to help me see that a trip to this international field was not only necessary for the sake of that region’s workers; it also held enough potential to help my streamlining goal and improve working relationships with LCMS missionaries, educators and other international workers over the long haul.

It became a global mission issue, a life together issue, and a God-pleasing stewardship issue. It became something I could no longer avoid. It was a part of my job and this particular vocation.

With the blessing of Synod’s Chief Financial Officer and the then-interim Chief Mission Officer, I accepted the invitation and spent two weeks scouring the Internet for the lowest airfare possible. Leaving our house at 3 a.m. May 20, I started a 28.5 hour journey, arriving at my destination on the evening of the 21st. I joined 40 career and GEO workers, the regional director and business manager, at the seminary of the local partner church for three days of conversation. Rev. Dr. Al Collver, the Synod’s director of church relations, came to lead everyone through a study of Mark’s Gospel.

The experience, for me, was eye-opening and somewhat concerning.

(LCMS Communications / Erik M. Lunsford)

I joined these treasured servants of Christ as together we worshipped under His Word and Sacrament—multiple times—and heard many prayers offered up publicly on their behalf, speaking aloud  each individual’s name, including children. We sang songs, hymns, psalms, and the spiritual portions of the liturgy accompanied either by a plain upright piano or digital organ music replayed by a laptop through small portable speakers.

We ate no-frills meals, including local fare labeled in a language I couldn’t read, together off paper plates or out of small bowls using plastic forks and spoons, local utensils, and even our fingers.  The newest international workers listened intently to the wisdom offered by the more experienced in the group, and then those in the field learned more about their newest colleagues. 

Words of confession for the sins of omission and sins of commission against one another were exchanged, sometimes publicly and sometimes privately.  Words of apology for poor communication, unclear information and confusion resulting from decisions made months or years prior, and even some feelings of abandonment were shared and accepted. Words of forgiveness were pronounced and received with great joy.

In a particular moment that will never exit my memory, I witnessed a strong and caring husband’s voice break as, tears flowing, he counseled a new worker about patience and how important it will be to care for the new worker’s wife when the inevitable culture shock hits.  It was a no-holds-barred transfer of painful, real-world overseas experience.

Quite honestly, the only comfort I could hope to offer afterward was a private hug, trying to communicate that LCMS people in the United States do care about each missionary or international worker as a person, a redeemed human being who matters as much as the work we each expect them to perform in the name of our Lord.

I held a very young boy one morning at breakfast, a bright-eyed baby of a couple who would soon return to the U.S., and played with him as he laughed. I silently wondered, “Will any memory of your time in this corner of the world survive, young one? Will this experience open a door to you sharing the love of Jesus with others as your parents have been doing?”

And then, much too quickly, it was over. While the region’s team members would gather together again for another half-day, Dr. Collver and I rode in a taxi the 20 miles from our hotel to the airport, the start of a 23-hour journey home, and paid the driver with strange looking, unfamiliar money.  In a faux pas indicative of someone with no international experience, I gave the driver a small gratuity of thanks for his safe driving skills, an act which may have broken local law and went against local custom.

Settling in for the long flight home, I reflected on what God allowed me to see, hear and do with one of our five international teams. What struck me most in those hours, with only the sound of jet engines and the air rushing past the fuselage, was how important it is for the LCMS to periodically pull international workers and missionaries away from their challenging work and as a group– in the presence of others who truly understand the life they lead –feed them Word and Sacrament.

(LCMS Communications / Erik M. Lunsford)

During those important gathering opportunities, they hear the words “given and shed FOR YOU” and taste the very body and blood of a Savior who loves them and died for them.  They are permitted to share the burdens and challenges of the field with fellow members of Christ’s body who understand most what that particular life and vocation is like. They may confess sins and receive our Lord’s mercy and forgiveness freely offered.

They must be fed the very same Word we expect them to proclaim and feel the same mercy they carry out to others.  For that particular region’s team members, I pray even today that the time I was given to answer questions was enough to resolve the frustrations, overcome that sense of isolation and bring clarity to some confusion I helped create.  I learned I had allowed my own hard-headedness to fester far too long. Under the right conditions, part of my job and vocation is to “Go see it with your own eyes” and hear it with my own ears, to be part of a solution rather than part of a problem.

The care of our professional workers, in this case our treasured international workers, is a core value.  I was blessed to see that core value in action firsthand, even if only for a few days.

God grant all of us the courage to steward each one of our precious workers, including those who are so very far from our sight doing vitally important work on our behalf somewhere  in the four corners of the globe.