Missionary work has always had its fair share of problems, and so this article covers the application of general problem-solving skills in missions and draws on my 25 years experience relating to technology in missions and a decade prior to that of more general missions experience.
The article’s focus is not so much on prayer, worship, bible-reading and spiritual warfare; though they certainly must be part of the solution, since I am sure they are covered excellently elsewhere. Neither will I cover analysis tools, critical thinking, the lateral thinking and problem-solving techniques of general business literature.
Instead, this article will examine things that I have found particularly useful when applied to my won ministry, Cybermissions. We will start with a discussion of constructive mindsets, then discuss the idea of avoiding trouble and problems in the first place then move on to how we can go about managing problems in wise and effective ways.
PART ONE – MINDSETS
A problem-focused mindset focuses on everything that has gone wrong. It digs deep into “Why?”, operates out of fear, anxiety, and dread then ends in a blame-game. A problem-focused mindset amplifies and multiplies problems. By contrast, a solution-focused mindset focuses on finding a solution and is open to many creative possibilities.
A solution-focused mindset:
- Simply accepts the existence of the problem as a reality
- Then rapidly works on finding a creative solution.
Take two people both of whom have a flat tire. Problem-Focused Pete asks, “Why did I get this nail in my tire?” gets angry, does an analysis of nails on roads, calls a press conference and is still stuck by the side of the road a day later.
Solution-focused Sam simply accepts that he has a flat tire without blaming anyone or anything, get out the spare, changes the tire, and is on his way fifteen minutes later.
When Jesus was faced with a leper, Jesus accepted the reality of the leprosy without blaming anyone, then rapidly found a solution saying to the leper, “I am willing, be cleansed.” (Matthew 8:2,3)
Jesus did not ask how the leper got leprosy, or worried about it being contagious. Jesus never operated out of fear. Jesus never delved into the paralysis of analysis. Jesus operated out of solution-focused faith!
Let’s work three common examples: fundraising, staff conflict, and a failure of a major piece of equipment:
Seeing fundraising as a problem just creates fear, anxiety and dread. Seeking a long-term reliable solution for fundraising, doing fundraising courses, and trying to figure out creative income sources works much better. Seeking the financial solution is better than fearing the financial failure.
Next, staff conflict, if you fear and dread staff conflict you will end up becoming a burned-out people-pleaser with no boundaries. On the other hand if you accept the reality that staff conflict is just part of life and rapidly seek the solution by learning peace-making, boundary-setting skills and conflict-resolution then you will be a much better leader.
Thirdly, your generator blows up. It is $20,000 and at the center of your medical ministry. You can panic or you can figure out how to borrow a generator, fix the generator, get one second-hand, or use reserve funds to pay for a new one. Accepting that it is no longer working and rapidly finding a solution through the wisdom that God provides is the only faith-filled and rational answer.
Every time you face a problem in missions you have to make a choice between being problem-focused or being solution-focused. I have a small ebook on this topic, it is free, and is available at: www.globalchristians.org/eternity/sf_faith/
The ONLY real solution is a system, everything else is just a patch! If you just patch everything as you go along you will inevitably end up with a mess. Instead of patching, fixing and putting out fires you need to look at your organization from a 50,000-foot level and design an ongoing system that finally fixes the problems. This is called: “working on your business, not just in your business”.
The real solution to your financial woes is a good financial and fundraising system. Everything else is just a quick fix. The real solution to a staff shortage is a proper recruiting and member care system, everything else is just scrambling and grasping for folk to join you.
The only way to get a consistent, repeatable and verifiable result is with a system. Whether you are washing the dishes, or landing a rocket on a comet, the only way to get a consistently good result is with a good system.
Disciple Making Movements have simple, transmissible systems that can easily be passed on to the next generation. Also, biblical interpretation took a huge leap forward when the system we now know as biblical hermeneutics was formulated and we escaped random devotional and almost free-association interpretations of Scripture.
The Holy Spirit creates wise systems that move everyone toward wholeness. Wherever we look in Creation we find intricate systems that synergize. A good system is wisdom from God. You should pray for such wisdom to be given to you, for the sake of the gospel.
The notion that systems constrain God and quench the Spirit is severely misguided. No system is permanent. You can create, adapt and destroy systems according to wisdom and utility. The system is just a tool that you deploy in order to achieve a consistently good result. No system confines you, and no system confines God. The system is your servant and not your master. You may do crusade follow-up one way now and a different way later, however you will always require a crusade follow-up system of some sort if you are being responsible. If you do not have a system, you will not get a consistent result. In fact, in this fallen world you will undoubtedly get a destructive and random result.
All systems are difficult at first. It is difficult to invent them, maintain them, transmit them to others and ensure compliance. However, once people settle into the system then there is peace and order. You will not have to be always “putting out fires” if you use systems thinking and devise a wise and good system that solves problems permanently.
PART TWO – AVOIDING THE DEVELOPMENT OF PROBLEMS
Doing Things Right the First Time
There are six things that you need to get right, and they loop around in a self-reinforcing virtuous cycle that will build power and strength into your Christian organization:
- Right Goals Produce Right Actions
- Right Actions Produce Right Results
- Right Practice Produces Right Performance
- Right Systems Produce Right Outcomes
- Right Logic Produces Right Conclusions
- Right Knowledge Produces Right Ideas (which then produce right goals and so on)
If you have biblical goals that are ethical and wise, specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound then you and your staff will be on the right track and will have a peaceful sense of how things should be done and the specific actions they should be undertaking as part of the ministry. On the other hand, if your goals are vague or wrong-headed everything will eventually go astray.
Only actions produce results. Thinking about evangelism does not get anyone saved. Merely theologizing about church-planting does not result in a church-plant. There is way too much Christian dreaming and far too little Christian action. Right results generally come from a coordinated deliberate series of right actions. Go to the village, preach the gospel, heal the sick, start bible studies, form a church.
Actions need to be practiced over and over again. John Wesley used to say that, “You do not own a sermon until you have preached it forty times”. Whether it is piano practice, preaching practice, using spiritual gifts or engaging in missions administration you need to practice under mentoring and supervision. Good practice inevitably leads to good performance.
We saw earlier that right systems produce right outcomes. The next on our list is that right logic produces right conclusions. Superstitions destroy missions. Fantasies lead to failures. Magical thinking leads to fearing others and total ineffectiveness. Mind-reading people always just leads to conflict. God is not irrational (He is super-rational and holy).
Logic was devised to help people reach right conclusions from good data. Good logic will help with Bible interpretation. Good logic will also help you to sort out the false arguments of people who are trying to persuade you to take a foolish course of action. Poor logic is based on false premises, logical fallacies and emotional reasoning. Poor logic leads to erroneous conclusions. Erroneous conclusions lead to wrong goals, beliefs and actions, which then lead to wrong outcomes in mission.
Right logic may feel emotionally constraining but it can save us from making many stupid mistakes in life and ministry. Logic is difficult, however it is worth the effort.
Finally in this section: right knowledge produces right ideas (which then produce right goals and start the cycle all over again). If you know a lot of good, accurate information about your people group then you are far more likely to have good ideas on how to reach them. Poorly researched mission was common 100 years ago because information was often unavailable. Information is now much easier to obtain if we are diligent. Yes, it is possible to over-think everything and some people do. However, I have seen much damage done by people who excuse a total lack of due diligence by a “God will just take care of it” attitude. You can avoid problems such as “reinventing the wheel” by doing a little research.
In technology, complexity is a bitter foe. Complexity rapidly leads to resource depletion and draining, difficult situations. Every feature that you add becomes something that you have to maintain.
On the other hand, the wonderful success of many revivals comes from a commitment to the utmost simplicity of action and a removal of every source of unnecessary “friction” in the process of spreading the gospel.
We need to be very careful about what we think is “essential”. Every “essential” thing has to be maintained, paid for, supervised and so on. Is there really a “need for” things such as buildings, Ph.Ds., accreditation, endless committees, cars, status, robes, attorneys, copyright and the rest?
This excess baggage is slowing down the gospel by many orders of magnitude. I acknowledge that from time to time these things may be necessary, but you must be fully prepared to adeptly handle all the complexity associated with each of them in a timely fashion.
The art of simplicity involves looking at every small part of the process and removing friction. Can they meet in homes? Can the bible college be intensives held in a local school during summer holidays? Does every single thing have to be approved by a committee?
Also, avoid those people who create complexity as a means of controlling others. The kind of people who say about the church picnic: “There is risk here, this really needs to be reviewed by an attorney”. They sound wise and cautious but there are, in fact, mostly just playing games.
Leadership at the Speed of Trust
Stephen. M. Covey has a marvelous book called “Leadership At The Speed of Trust” and the main take-away is that leadership in low-trust situations is slow and expensive, whereas leadership in high-trust situations is fast and inexpensive. Creating high levels of trust solves just about every problem that you can think of!
Trust is built by repeatedly demonstrating good character, reliability, faithfulness and competence. You cannot trust a semi-competent person. We must be good at what we do if we want others to trust us; and we must build competence into our subordinates and in our teams.
Distrust between Westerners and national leaders, between senior pastors and junior staff, and between security-conscious and not-so-security conscious missionaries is corroding Kingdom partnerships and making missions slow and expensive.
Distrust between major donors and mission organizations is resulting in an overload of “accountability” and paperwork and a reliance on statistics and reports which result in an enormous and very unwelcome pressure on national organizations to produce very corporate results in Western formats.
We need to make a solid decision to build trust and to give trust; to train those we trust and to trust those we train.
Everyone wants to finish the Great Commission as soon as possible, however no one wants to trust anyone else! We will crawl along the ground, burning cash, and achieving nothing unless we learn how to build and maintain trust among those who serve the Lord!
Failure Hurts Everyone So Start Small and Go Slowly at First
I have seen multi-million dollar Christian technology projects crash and burn because of rushing in where angels fear to tread without proper thought, design, prototyping, testing and retesting. Going too big, too fast leads to failure, lost jobs, disappointed donors, and a massive blame game that can ruin relationships for decades.
Whether it is technology or church-planting in an area with complex demographics, it doesn’t hurt to go slowly, put a toe in the water, run a small test and go forward a bit at a time, solving the inevitable problems as they arise until you feel you have a decent grip on the situation.
I am not talking about the cowardly mindset of always playing it safe. I am saying: “Don’t be rash because failure hurts”. There is a con-artist leadership style that is always dashing around doing crazy missions projects that sound amazing but “never quite work out”. Don’t be that person.
Recruit the Right People
Hiring the right people prevents problems. Hire slow, fire fast. Take time to welcome people on-board and always have a three-month probation period. Good hires will willingly accept this.
Always hire people who do have demonstrated verifiable competence in their area of responsibility. Many people claim to be “experts” in areas where they are in fact rank amateurs.
Have a clear job-description and selection grid for each position. Do not take a “just get to know us and we will find a spot for you” attitude. This is very insulting to highly competent people and an open door to people whose only skill is ecclesiastical flattery.
Hiring good people who own the quality of their work, who are godly and who strive for excellence will greatly bless your ministry. However, hiring slack people can destroy it. Proverbs 18:9 tells us that hiring a slack person is the same as hiring a destructive person (think of someone who leaves the farm gate open so all the sheep escape).
So how do you get the good people? It is not just pay and benefits, especially in ministry. A compelling organizational vision, servant leadership at the top of the organization, the ability to make a difference, a stable well-structured work environment and the chance to be around other highly competent leaders are huge factors! You can convey most of this by having a highly professional, responsive and well-informed recruitment process.
Automate As Much Routine Work As Possible
Routines ensure safety and prevent problems. Routines are common in hospitals, the military and in any high-risk situation. Studies show that problems rapidly escalate when a routine is disrupted or broken. Nine missionaries in Papua New Guinea were killed in a plane crash in 1986; the cause was the aircraft mechanic who was interrupted by a phone call, went to lunch, and forgot to tighten an important part in the fuel line.
Prayer happens better when prayer meetings are scheduled and made routine (not that the prayer itself is routine). Signing up to receive training material should be automated. The person just enters their email and the lessons should be sent out to them by a sequential autoresponder every two weeks, or at whatever interval that you want. (See Olam Autoresponder at https://cybermissions.org/olam )
There are so many ways to automate tasks now and every missions agency should be taking advantage of them, not just to save time, but to increase safety margins and the predictability of outcomes. If you have to write something on a to-do list each time there is a chance that it will not get done.
PART THREE – MANAGING PROBLEMS AND CRISES
Take Your Time When Handling Personnel Issues
Hot button issues such as: staff conflict, sexual harassment, accusations of infidelity, and suspicion of embezzlement of funds must be handled with a wise, calm and cool spirit.
These issues tend to immediately split people into “for” and “against” camps. They can tear your entire organization apart in just two weeks. Hasten slowly. Yes, you do need to deal promptly with the issue. However, you also need to gather all the facts in a cool and impartial manner. Spending a couple of days sorting out the facts is a wise investment of time.
When you give everyone involved due process and a chance to speak then you will come across as a strong and confident leader who is not driven here and there by the winds of hysteria.
Despite the urgent cries for “immediate justice”, it is always better to wait until all the facts are on the table.
Problems in Partnerships
Good partnerships and excellent collaboration are hallmarks of true Kingdom-minded ministry, Unfortunately, disappointments in ministry partnerships are common, and then the organization tends to retreat into a ‘silo” of distrust.
So build partnerships slowly, and start by having very small projects in common. It is surprising where the differences lie. Phil Butler’s book “Well Connected” is an amazing contribution and details all the necessary steps to having a successful ministry partnership.
Spiritual alignment is very important. You have to be able to “walk together” in the things of the Spirit and to pray together over the work. Minor doctrinal differences can often be put aside in love, but differences in spiritual tone and major doctrines cannot be overlooked. Cybermissions does not partner with theologically liberal ministries. We do not condemn them, however the gulf is too great and we cannot “walk with them”.
Partnerships between large corporate Western missions agencies and mustard-seed ministries in the majority world often go badly wrong because of the vast power difference and incredibly different working styles and expectations of reporting, and very different expectations about what is involved in being a “friend”.
After a while, you will work out who you can, and cannot partner with. This should be written down and made into a policy document for the organization just in case you get the strong temptation to enter into yet another foolish partnership out of “hope”.
Problems with Deception
The Devil comes to steal, kill and destroy and one of his main weapons is temptation and deception. This can come in subtle ways such as temptation to engage in a seemingly important project that is not of God. There are con-artists out there who prey on gullible, well-intentioned Christians. For instance, many so-called orphanages are in fact fake, they are local children paid to turn up when Western missionaries arrive.
I would like to introduce you to a concept known as “inter-subjective verifiability”. This means “Can a number of people (subjects) readily verify the truth of the claim?” One televangelist was going around churches claiming that he had millions of Bibles in a secret warehouse in China and that he needed $140,000 immediately to “free them” by a secret payment to a secret official. None of this is at all verifiable. It is all hush-hush and supposedly “secret”. No-one knows about the Bibles, the supposed warehouse or the official. It was, of course, all a scam.
There is a saying, “In God we trust, everyone else we verify.” Often the person who speaks the best English is, in fact, unreliable. Charming people with great photos can be all smoke and mirrors, Personality is no guarantee of competence or even of integrity. People who you meet on Facebook can be terrible ministry partners. Moreover, those who call themselves the Reverend, Apostle, or Archbishop might only have three churches!
A good rule of thumb is to wait and to watch someone for at least six months, to pray, to discern, and to watch what they say about money. Get references from solid people and check people out thoroughly. It is not sinful to perform a background check.
Problems with an All-Consuming Project
Some Christian technology projects become all-consuming as new factors emerge, expenses climb and the burden of sustaining ongoing updates, maintenance and supply-chains becomes too much for the organization. This can also happen with orphanages, Bible colleges and Christian mercy projects. At this point you can end up with the “sunk-cost fallacy”: The sunk cost fallacy is the fallacy that investments (i.e., sunk costs) justify further expenditures.
If you ignore the warning signs and continue to pour time, money and effort into the “black hole” that the project has become, things will only get worse, as you throw good money after bad!
Even if you initially believed that the project was God’s will, it is now a complete mess. At this point, you need to seek the Lord again, preferably with the assistance of independent outside advisors. In my 25 years in technology ministry, the Lord has given me some very gracious exits once I sought Him for a way to terminate the runaway project.
While there is a large amount of embarrassment in saying, “this did not work out at all”, it is far better than just stubbornly plowing along and ending up with: “Why Lord didn’t you do a miracle and save it” as the conclusion to the matter.
The exit strategies can include handing the overwhelming project over to an organization with a greater capacity to manage it.
The Team is Way More Important Than the Project
If the need to get the project done is so urgent that you are driving people in unreasonable ways, or getting angry and upset with them, then you need to back away, cool down and reflect. Your people are God’s children. They are precious in His sight. You must love them. Love is the Great Commandment, not success!
Martin Luther once said, “Hurry is not of the Devil, it is the Devil”. All the fruit of the Sprit fall off the tree once you are in a hurry, When you are in a very great hurry you lose patience, joy, gentleness, kindness, goodness, peace, love and so on, until you finally lose self-control. You cannot sin your way to spiritual victory.
Every single member of your team is more important than your project. If a person who is utterly essential to the project is overwhelmed, stressed out and hurt by your demands then you need either to quit the project or to dial it back.
Idealists have a great problem with this because their vision is so compelling that everything must be sacrificed for the success of the vision. This is totally unbiblical. Jesus sacrificed Himself, not His disciples! Our very first duty as Christians is to love and care for each other. Ministry success is important but is a lesser priority.
Humility is “Sticking to Your Knitting”
“Sticking to your knitting” is a term from knitting circles when a busybody would try to meddle in someone else’s knitting project. The term has come to mean having the wisdom and good manners to stay within your own best competencies and designated areas of work. For instance, if Cybermissions decided to go into Bible translation (an area way outside of our calling and competence), simply because we imagined we could “do it better than the experts” (which we don’t think at all) then that would be arrogant and foolish.
There have been tragic cases of well-intentioned missionaries charging into highly complex areas and making a mess of everything, even costing lives as they suddenly become experts on, for instance, ”herbal cancer treatment” using local remedies. We should leave medical treatment to the doctors (whilst faithfully praying for healing), law to the attorneys, high finance to the bankers, and politics to the politicians.
Each of our ministries has a God-designated area of operation, which we should adhere to, and when we adhere to it, we will flourish as a palm tree by the stream. Evangelists who stick to evangelism flourish, but once they mess with politics they end up in a mess.
The need is not the call. If someone pressures you into considering a project that is way outside your calling, capacity and competencies you have every right to say “No” even if it is a humanitarian need. I have turned down projects such as a Christian aircraft carrier for medical purposes, a Neem tree plantation and numerous “small businesses for the poor” proposals simply because they were way outside our calling, capacity and competence. I am not saying they were wrong projects in and of themselves; they were just a very poor fit for Cybermissions.
Yes, we are out to change the world, but the gracious Lord has not given us the whole world to change, thank goodness! As soldiers in His army, we have a posting on the front lines and when we stick to our post, we have the blessing of our Master!
If we adopt a solution-focused Kingdom mindset, use systems thinking, do things right the first time, avoid complexity and build trust we will avoid many headaches to start with!
After this, we need to start small, recruit the right people, and automate as much routine work as possible. These three steps build safety into the system so that it does not fall over.
Next, deal with the people and partnership issues by being patient, wise and discerning, going slowly on personnel issues, building good partnerships and watching out for deception in ministry.
Lastly, we looked at projects gone wrong. We need to graciously exit from some all-consuming projects, put our team ahead of our success, and “stick to our knitting” by only taking on projects that are within our calling, capacity and competence.
I hope that I have not been too negative. My objective has been to give you the wisdom and the tools to succeed in the complex area of mission-field projects, especially technology projects, though I have tried to cast a wider net.
John Edmiston is an Australian missionary who has been in full-time Christian ministry since 1981 and who has served in Australia, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines, mainly in student ministry, urban ministry and Internet ministry as well as being a Bible college lecturer. He is currently the Chairman/CEO of the Antioch Internet Bible International and its partner organizations