The Bittersweet Goodness of a Missionary Good-bye

When is a good-bye a good and Godly thing? And why does this matter for the World Mission Prayer League?

None of us, I suppose, claim to be especially good at farewells. Even in less-than-positive relationships we have difficulty knowing how best to take our leave. And when the good-byes are being said among those who love each other – and love each other in Christ – well, it’s just not very easy. It can be downright painful. Missionaries know this all too well. Nonetheless, more often that not, and by God’s design, it’s an important part of what we’re called to do.

In the book of Acts, we find the Apostle Paul saying missionary good-byes rather regularly. Perhaps nowhere do we see a more emotional leave-taking than when he called for the Ephesian church elders to meet him in Miletus. “Behold, I am going to Jerusalem,” he told them, “constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there.” (Acts 20:22) After reminding them of his work among them and exhorting them to faithfulness in the ministry now charged to them, he commended them “to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up…” (Acts 20:32) Afterward, “he knelt down and prayed with them all. And there was much weeping on the part of all.” (Acts 20:36,37)

My wife, Pris, and I will soon be saying our good-byes here at the WMPL offices. Our departure won’t be anything as emotional or consequential as Saint Paul’s farewell in Miletus, but I know that some tears will be shed as we bring a close to my six years of service as Executive Director. Over the years, we have shared emotional good-byes with those among whom we served in the Philippines, Peru, Chicago, Seattle, and Portland. We have also seen how those departures fit well into God’s plan for us and for them, as he so often brought great good out of our going. We will say our good-byes this time confident that the same will be true, confident that missionary good-byes matter.

Why do missionary good-byes matter? More often than not, there comes a time when the work we do simply requires that we depart. As inside as a gifted missionary might get, the missionary nonetheless remains an outsider. Ministry and leadership belong with those most intimately and knowingly connected with a community and its culture. We expect God to call and equip leaders from within a community that has received the Gospel. In WMPL, we want to serve that end, not impede it. For this reason, “we pledge ourselves to expendability… We understand ourselves as scaffolding; but when a building is completed, the scaffolding must be removed” (Handbook ¶23), and we want to prepare for that eventuality from the very beginning of any work we do. While not all of these cultural dynamics may apply in the case of my upcoming departure, it remains true that God has reasons and seasons for service and leadership to pass from one to another. He knows when changing times and directions require new perspectives, approaches, and gifting. For this reason, it’s important that we recognize when it’s time to “move on,” and ask God to help us do it well.

I am very pleased that on October 8 of this year, Kyle Scott will be installed as the new Executive Director of WMPL. In preparation for that time, Kyle and I are already engaged in an intentional transition process. We want to do this well, and we’re trusting God to help us. I’m also trusting some principles I’ve learned from my previous missionary good-byes. I invite you to pray for these three things:

Intentionality. A good missionary good-bye requires foresight. It’s a planned and gradual process. I’m fond of saying that a missionary needs to step over, and then step back, before he or she steps
out. We want to leave future leaders well informed, practiced, and confident with their new charge.

Humility. Even a “job well done” isn’t done perfectly. A departing leader does well to empower others to make potentially different decisions, giving “permission” to do things differently. Things don’t have to “stay the same.”

Trust. Above all, a missionary good-bye requires full trust in the Holy Spirit to guide and equip those he has raised up and called to continue the work. It requires lovingly and confidently trusting the God- chosen servants and leaders one will leave behind.

Pris and I share great love and appreciation with Kyle and Lois, and we are grateful that God has called them to their new roles of leadership in the World Mission Prayer League. The trust has come easily, and so we know that while the good-bye won’t be easy, it most certainly will be blessed.

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