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I Could Have Been a Better Missionary

July 17, 2017

by David Stevens, MD, MA(Ethics)

I'm an overachiever, probably just like you and most other healthcare professionals.

Okay, that is not completely accurate. I confess, I'm an over overachiever. I've always wanted to be the best of the best. I graduated AOA from medical school, not because I was smarter than most but because I worked harder than many. I was chief resident of my 40-member family practice residency program. At the young age of 34, I was the doctor in charge and CEO of a 250-bed mission hospital. Before I was 40, I had raised millions of dollars, built a dam and a 320KW hydroelectric plant, overseen the creation of a nursing school, created a large community health and development program that brought as many as 15,000 people to the Lord in a year and helped start a chaplaincy training school for Africa.

I don't tell you that to boast. The Lord accomplished all of it and gave me the joy of being along for the ride. I tell you that to give you a reference point when I say, "I could have been a much better missionary."

That is my assessment now, not then. Everyone then was singing my praises and it was nice to believe what I heard way too often. It was easy to look around and compare myself to others as we all do to measure our accomplishments. No one had accomplished as much as I had, at least in my own eyes, but I could have been a much better missionary.

I preached often to good effect. I taught staff, people in the community, church leaders and leaders from other missions. Missionaries from 24 countries came to learn from our community health program, but I could have been a much better missionary. I know because of the time that has passed and what I've seen and learned. I know because I'm wiser now than I was back then. Here is what I know now:

  • I needed better missionary education during my training days. I was totally focused on learning medicine while I was in medical school and residency. I didn't take a missiology course or pick up a book on cross-cultural communication. I never read a book on how to share the gospel with an animist. In those days there wasn't a Perspectives course on world missions. If there had been, I probably wouldn't have made the effort to take it. I was more concerned about being able to treat rare tropical diseases than share the gospel. I see now that I was working so hard preparing to be a missionary physician that I neglected getting ready to be a physician missionary. There is a huge difference.

    If I was doing it over again, I would have taken the time to more intensely prepare for the most important part of what God had called me to do-effectively communicating the gospel and discipling new converts. I would have been a better missionary if I had.

  • I would have gotten better orientation before I went to the field. We had two weeks of new missionary training given by our mission agency, which was about standard in those days. Most of it had to do with mission policies and procedures and how to do deputation. That training was needed, but it was totally inadequate for what lay ahead when we landed in Kenya.

    Frankly, the mission couldn't have provided all of the training we needed even if they tried. For example, medicine is totally different overseas. In this country, we are taught it is unethical to do things you are not trained to do. In Africa, I had to do those things all the time. During language school in a remote rural area, I did an emergency tracheostomy, delivered breech pregnancies by lantern light, elevated a baby's head off a prolapsed cord during a wild ride in the back of a Volkswagen Beetle, treated anthrax and resuscitated three siblings with hundreds of vicious African bee stingers embedded in their bodies. I had excellent training, but it didn't cover any of those issues. During my 11 years in Africa, I frequently saw diseases and did procedures I was untrained to handle. We were so short staffed that I played God everyday just deciding which patients I would see and which ones would have to get by until the next day. I was ethically conflicted until older missionaries guided me in how to properly apply ethical principles in our situation. I had to learn to deal with the psychological tension of going against my professional training on the job. I would have been a better missionary if I had better orientation.

  • I should have learned the heart language of the people better. I applied myself in language school, but Kipsigis is tonal, like Chinese, and you could put nine parts of speech in one word. It was not something you could master in the six months we had in school. When I got to the hospital, all our staff spoke English and many of the patients did as well, so I regressed instead of progressing under my heavy workload. The newspapers were in English; the signs were in English. If people didn't speak English and were outside their tribal area, they spoke Swahili. Our kids can speak English like Africans, but they never learned Kipsigis. Their playmates conversed with them in English since that was the language they used in school. So I learned medical Kipsigis to take histories with but never climbed off that plateau.

    I should have made time to master the local heart language. You can't really know people well unless you speak it, and it is difficult to minister when you preach with a translator. Mastering a language sends a clear message that you love the people you have come to serve and respect their culture and traditions. It enables you to build deeper relationships. It would have allowed me to better understand the ethos and values that motivated their lives. I would have been a much better missionary if I had mastered the local language.

I encourage and challenge you to be a better missionary than I was. Set aside time during your training years to go beyond healthcare to learn the skills you will need to adapt to a new culture, communicate the gospel effectively to another people group and strategies for reaching the unreached through courses, books and conferences. There is so much more available today than there was 30 years ago. Make use of it.

Find a mission organization that provides excellent training before you head overseas. My daughter and her husband had three months of intense education in the U.S. before heading overseas, including practical applications like going into stores and initiating conversations with people from different cultures in our country with the goal of sharing the gospel. Difficult? Yes, but so essential in learning to build bridges to other people's hearts.

Join us at CMDA's Orientation to Medical Missions, a pre-field orientation conference for healthcare missionaries where you will learn to deal with the unique challenges and issues you will face like different cultures' views of health and healing, healthcare rationing, medical evangelism and so much more.

Determine to prioritize language acquisition. If you can learn the Kreb's Cycle, you can master a different tongue. Just approach it with the same determination and attention that you give your medical studies and you will excel. Realize that learning a language is a lifetime endeavor and not just a year or so of focused study. You will be so glad you made the effort.

Don't make the mistakes I did. Be a better missionary!

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