When we read the book of Acts, it is easy to become enthusiastic for missions. The Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost led to the Apostles going out and converting 3000 people in one day (Acts 2:41). The saying, “with God, all things are possible!” comes to mind, and we set out to convert our friends, family, neighbors, and fellow citizens to the faith we have encountered.
Reality sets in though, and we discover that it is quite difficult to start a new Church, even more difficult to get sizeable numbers to come, and yet harder still to retain them. All the while, though, the day-to-day tasks remain: making phone calls, cleaning the Church building, doing fundraisers and charitable events. We can become frustrated, and we begin to ask ourselves: “if this is the true faith, if Christ really matters, then why are more people not coming?” Two common causes of disappointment, which if unchecked can lead to burnout, are false expectations, and a small group bearing the brunt of the work.
Part of the problem has to do with our own expectations. In our culture, we are driven to quantify everything, chart and plot out all details, and measure the progression, seeking out feedback. Those who have had success in the business world often feel like a fish out of water when faced with the prospect of investing so much time, effort, and money into something that does not immediately return the expected results. This is a make-or-break moment for the mission and its founders; will they forge ahead, or will they throw in the towel?
It would be easy at this point to say to oneself, “it must not be God’s will.” Yet one would hope that God was consulted before the endeavor began, and that His blessing was discerned, through prayer, the reading of Scripture, etc. While those of us who are not in an advanced spiritual state cannot always directly discern the will of God in the same way that many of the righteous in the Bible could, God does not abandon those of us who have put our faith in Him, yet are still struggling with overcoming sin. No, He can and does make His will known, in ways that we can perceive. So, having ruled out that the mission was started against the will of God (and let us be honest with this question, if the evidence merits such consideration), we must overcome our disappointment, and find a way forward.
Results are not measured in terms of numbers, but rather in terms of the spiritual growth of those who have come. When we hear comments such as, “coming to this Church has been a blessing in my life,” “I feel different when I am here,” and “I have learned so much in my time here,” we know that God is with us, working through us to change the lives of others. Lack of large growth is not an indication of failure, because people have free will, and often they are not seeking the truth. Those Churches which have extreme growth are often achieving these types of “results” because of a watered down Gospel, and they also often have a person leaving for every person that joins. At the same time, we must never become satisfied with the status quo, either. We must diligently seek to reach more people with the message of the Gospel and the Church of Christ.
We can ask ourselves, what type of people are coming as a result of our evangelistic efforts? Truth seekers, or those seeking to be entertained or to find affirmation that they are “basically good people”? This is how we should measure ourselves. The saying mentioned above, “with God all things are possible” comes from Matthew 19:26. How many of us forget, however, that the preceding phrase is: “with man this is impossible, but…”? We must place our trust fully in God, and not ourselves, if we are to see our mission work succeed. This is a true act of faith, and one which is difficult to do, even for the priest. If we have been lacking in faith, let us repent today, at this moment, and offer God our doubts and fears, and an admission of our own weakness, because by giving it to Him, we can find healing and a way forward.
A Few Bearing the Brunt
It is almost universally true that in any group, some people are more dedicated than others. Unfortunately, in the Church, this is no different much of the time. The Church may be the Body of Christ, but it has a human and a divine aspect to it, and the human aspect can often be disappointing.
When a mission parish is formed, the priest usually travels in from another place, at least at first, and there is a local core family or two who do most of the organizing. In some instances, several families come together and form a mission, or several families come soon after the foundation of the community to add their support to the core families, but this is not always the case. In situations where one or two families bear the brunt of the work for an extended period of time, disappointment arises, and burnout can occur. There are so many little things that have to be managed: cleaning, paying the electric bill, mowing the lawn, fixing a tile on the roof, contacting the local news agency about an event, baking bread for the liturgy, etc. The priest also can become burnt out, a truth that many would not like to admit, and one which can cause guilt on his part, as he feels he is letting down his flock. Family stress can also became an issue, if the priest does not say “no” when he is overtaxed, and the parishioners should be understanding when the priest has to say “no.”
There are several ways that this can be avoided, or addressed and overcome if it has already occurred. The first is that good communication between the priest and the core families must exist. The parishioners should make the priest aware of fatigue. The priest should likewise apprise the parishioners if he is feeling overwhelmed. They must support one another, and set realistic expectations, and bear one another’s burdens. They must be patient with each other, especially when either party does not meet the expectations of the other. We have to remember that we are essentially operating as an extended family in small mission situations, and it is expected that there will be some differences of opinion, disagreements, and even hurt feelings from time to time. We will not always live up to our calling in Christ. Communicating this honestly on the one hand, and being willing to listen and address the concerns on the part of the other party, is essential. Patience with the shortcomings of others—shortcomings which may never change—is also required.
The priest should make sure to ask others to pitch in, even if they are new to the community. Things like cleaning schedules, “work parties,” and other situations need to be scheduled in order to take some of the work off of the core families. Those who are new to a mission need to understand that it is a team effort, and work does not magically get completed without their support; they should not wait to be asked how they can help, but should rather ask how they can pitch in. If everyone helps just a little, then no one will need to feel overburdened. In our specific case, we have also benefited from friends of the mission, who have come to help us during our charitable programs. Members of the mission should never shy away from asking others for help, because many people are eager to help out a good cause, even if they are not members of the Church—and such contacts could lead to them becoming so in the future.
Defining the Mission
Our mission work is conducted for the purpose of bringing people to salvation in Jesus Christ. We must set Him as our goal, our hope, our strength, and use our personal spiritual growth in Him as a measure of progress. We must work against false expectations, impatience, and disappointment, which will be frequent in our work. We must not be afraid to be open with one another about our concerns, and listen to others when they express theirs. We cannot be too proud to ask for help, and those of us who are new should seek to pitch in, even if we have not been asked. Together, we can provide a warm and welcoming community for others to make their home. By ourselves, the task is impossible, but with God, all things are possible!