Life After Seminary: International Missions

by John Medendorp, co-editor-in-chief

One of the projects we’re working on this year through The Kerux is a “Life After Seminary” series. In this series, we will be looking at some of the various ministry options available to seminary graduates, considering some of the challenges of the field, expressing the blessings of the ministry, and hearing some of the stories of those who are beginning their vocation in diverse and unique ministry settings. This article, the first installment in our series, is focused on international missionary work. We hope that this project will be informative, interesting, and helpful for those who have a calling to serve in any of these areas.

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When Jonathan Young first set foot in eastern Germany, on an interim trip during his undergraduate studies at Calvin College, he was amazed by the historical and societal paradoxes that faced him. He visited Wittenberg, where Martin Luther published his famous Ninety-Five theses in 1517, and was surrounded by people who had absolutely no knowledge of God and no interest in the church. He visited Weimar, a flourishing center of arts and politics, and just outside the city sat the remains of Buchenwald, one of the largest concentration camps in WWII, and the first one built in Germany in 1935. In these paradoxes, Young felt the beginnings of his call to missionary work in Eastern Europe, a burning desire to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to people who had once been such strong proponents of it themselves.
Fast-forward several years, and Young, now an ordained minister in the CRCNA, husband and father of three, and partner missionary with Christian Reformed World Missions (CRWM) and InterVarsity, just a couple of weeks ago left for Slovenia with his family to start a campus-ministry at the University of Ljubljana. God has blessed him along the way, but it was not an easy road.
Nalini Van Den Bosch, née Suganandam, Placement and Training Manager for CRWM, says that one of the greatest challenges for younger candidates interested in missions work is defining their call to missions. “They may have a passion and heart for missions,” she says, “but is this a short term or long term call, and what is considered long term these days? Sometimes there is a desire to be involved in missions, but there is a lack of clarity or understanding about missions.” Turning that passion to spread the gospel internationally into a specific calling to a particular position requires discernment and clarity. “There is not often a lot of turn-over,” says Van Den Bosch, “and so it has been important for our directors, regional leaders, and field staff to think creatively about how to place people well” as well as connect them with local partners and support networks.
When Young started following up on his interest to become a missionary to Eastern Europe in his last year at CTS, he found that things started to fall in place very easily. He contacted Steve Van Zanen at CRWM, who connected him with another person, who connected him with another person, and another person, and another person, all in a matter of weeks. The people at the missionary organizations he was dialoguing with started telling him that he would fit well in Slovenia. “I didn’t even know where Slovenia was!” says Young. “Everything just started coming together. God opened the door to where we needed to go.”
Relying on God is a skill in which international missionaries are notoriously well-practiced. And they need to be, because there are many challenges even before a missionary leaves the country. There are, of course, the challenges of adapting to a new culture, the question of whether to send your kids to day school or homeschool them yourself, the agony of being separated from your family and home church (we will return to these later). But even before a missionary leaves the country, there is the enormous hurdle of fundraising.
“Fundraising sucks,” says Young. “It’s not the way it’s supposed to be (to throw a shout-out to Neal Plantinga).” He goes on to say that it is an important process, one in which God moulds and prepares you for ministry, but it is not fun or easy, especially if one has a family. “For younger candidates (college age or career age), the area of support raising can be a daunting task,” says Van Den Bosch, “especially if there is need to still be paying off loans.  And depending on the size of one’s family, and the location to where he/she is going, the amount needing to be raised will change.” Steve Van Zanen, Director for Missions Education and Engagement at CRWM, recognizes the difficulty of this task, especially for partner missionaries (like Young). Whereas career missionaries with CRWM are provided with secure salaries and benefits, partner missionaries negotiate budgets with the partner agency, so the level of support varies. In Young’s case, his fundraising guidelines were through InterVarsity, which holds the policy that a missionary raises all of their own funds. Although CRWM helped him at many points along the process, the sheer dollar amount to send a missionary from North America to another country is nothing to shake a stick at. Most missionary family budgets run upwards of $100,000. Van Zanen very bluntly reported that the budgets for each missionary are large enough that they inhibit CRWM’s ability to send many career missionaries overseas.
Fundraising challenges can also be compounded if one is not well-connected in the CRC. Classical Ministry Shares, one of the main sources of income for CRWM, have been flat for the last two decades, according to Van Zanen. This has led to many missionaries going to local congregations for support. Van Zanen says that churches have stepped up in an impressive way, but Van Den Bosch points out that this can lead to increasing complications for people new to the CRC: “Some of the missionaries who serve through CRWM have been well-connected with missions for a long time, either having grown up on the mission field, or through various service opportunities here in North America, or though providing prayer and/or financial support for other missionaries. And these missionaries are often well-connected within the CRC community, and have established a strong network…. This minimizes the initial stress that many missionaries may face during their first term.” She continues: “However, we have a number of people that come on board without having much of these experiences, and this can be an overwhelming experience for them.” Van Den Bosch spends a significant amount of time helping new candidates discern their calling so that CRWM can be as efficient as possible in directing fundraising strategies.
Once a missionary is on the field, new challenges arise. There is the challenge of maintaining one’s financial support base. Rev. Albert Strydhorst, who began this year at CTS as the Lee Huizenga Missionary-in-Residence, is very familiar with the financial problems that come with living away from your supporters. As a missionary to Nigeria from 1994 to 2012, Rev. Strydhorst says that he has “no regrets,” but it was not always easy. “One of the real challenges on the field is the old mantra, ‘out of sight, out of mind,’” he says. “Our schedules here in America are so very hectic, and there are a lot of things clamoring for our attention, so the challenge is to maintain a presence in the lives and minds of your supporters.” With technology, of course, this is much easier than in times past. Strydhorst says regular prayer letters, the traditional method for missionaries to keep in touch with their support base, are still an expected avenue, recommended at least six times per year. But with new technology there are almost endless possibilities. “Short email messages, almost Twitterish, are helpful,” he says. “Just to keep people thinking about you. You can tell them a story about something that happened in your ministry, or short updates on your family.” Another must is thank-you notes to supporters once a missionary is made aware of a donation. Van Zanen mentions Skype as a powerful tool for keeping in contact with people back home, and maintaing a support base. “Don’t give supporters the opportunity to forget,” Strydhorst urges.
The fundraising issue is bigger than just individual missionaries, however. Steve Van Zanen recognizes that the problem of lower Ministry Shares affects the entire way the CRC does missions. “We need to work harder at raising mission funds in other ways,” he says. “CRWM may need to significantly change the paradigm that we have been using.” This means using denominational influences to encourage local congregations to support individual missionaries, but it also means working with partner mission organizations in creative new ways, forging strong relationships that allow us to share resources. “We are now partnering with several of those, like ELIC, Wycliffe, international teams, etc., such that CRC people working with those agencies can apply to be partner missionaries with us.” Which is exactly what Jonathan Young ended up doing.
Once missionaries move into their new setting, they are faced with a whole host of new challenges, challenges which Young says training programs began to prepare him for well before he ever left the country. “You worry about your family,” he says, “about the reality that your kids will grow up in a foreign culture and a foreign school system—for my kids, that means secular schools in a secular society, since devout, fervent Christianity is such a minority there.” But there is excitement, too. Young expresses gratitude that his kids will be learning a new culture and a new language, and raising children in a different culture puts a heavy responsibility on him and Joy, his wife, to raise their children in the faith and make sure they understand their own cultural heritage. Nalini Van Den Bosch, whose parents were Indian missionaries to Ethiopia, speaks from first hand experience, and considers her convoluted cultural upbringing, “a hodge-podge…intertwined with beautiful and rich experiences,” as a blessing that has allowed her to grow into the person God has called her to be. She says that the mix of cultures did not seem strange to her growing up, because it was all she ever knew. “It was just a ‘normal’ part of life.” She appreciates that her parents encouraged her and her siblings to learn about Indian culture as a part of their heritage, without ever demanding that it should be their culture. As she grew up, there were times when her culture came into conflict with that of her parents, but growing up in a mix of cultures makes one realize that cultures are different, and don’t always agree, but that doesn’t make them wrong or distorted. Strydhorst, who raised three children during his time in Nigeria, says that his children also consider their multicultural upbringing to be a blessing, even considering Nigeria to be their home country.
One of the greatest difficulties, however, is being separated from family, friends, and the Christian community back home. Van Den Bosch says that “for new missionaries, this is often one of the hardest things to deal with.” Young is aware of this as well. He worries about his wife and himself feeling lonely and isolated, being away from family in a foreign culture that has a reputation for being somewhat stand-offish and difficult to forge friendships. He worries about his children not really knowing their grandparents and uncles and aunts as they grow up. Thankfully, new technologies, like Skype and others, make this separation much more bearable and much less lonely than in times past, but as Van Den Bosch points out, “the novelty of being in a new place, on the field or in the bush, can quickly wear off and the desire for that which is familiar—home—takes over.” CRWM knows this is a problem, and has developed many resources to care for overseas missionaries and guide them through these difficult times, including mentoring, pastoral care, accountability, re-entry training, and mentoring for third-culture kids. “We realize that adjustment to the field will take time,” says Van Den Bosch, “and we try to have the necessary pieces in place, as much as possible.”
Despite these challenges, the future of international missions in the CRC looks strong. Van Zanen is especially inspired by the zeal and enthusiasm of Korean CRC churches, who “are doing a great deal in missions.” He would like to see that fire spread the good news and become infectious across the CRC. New partnerships with other international mission organizations are also a promising way forward, and many of the organizations that CRWM and World Renew (formerly the CRWRC) are partnering with are very mature and committed, and offer innovative new ways of bringing the gospel to more and more countries, making western personnel and dollars more effective. Van Zanen also sees a passion and eagerness among young people, who he says are much more attuned to cross-cultural issues, a vital skill for international work. Finally, new technologies enable people from virtually any corner of the globe to interact in unique and novel ways, and harvesting that resource for the pursuit of the Kingdom is another exciting way forward.
I asked all of the people who were involved in this article what first-year seminary students should be doing to prepare for international missions when they graduate, and almost all said to use the resources that Calvin Theological Seminary already provides. The Cross-Cultural Internship (XCI), which is usually recommended after the first year, has many options for international mission work. Young took the initiative to set up a summer internship in Germany himself (the first two sermons he ever preached at a church were in German!), but CRWM is intentional about working closely with CTS to set up international experiences for students who are interested. Talk to Al Gelder and Chris Wright about international options for the XCI.
Calvin also has a service learning requirement, which demands that students at the seminary volunteer at a local nonprofit. There are countless opportunities right here in Grand Rapids to step out of your comfort zone and interact with people of a different culture. Grand Rapids is a major destination for international refugees, and many refugee service programs can be found throughout the city. We also have a rapidly growing Hispanic population, with its own needs and blessings as well. There is also a growing number of unchurched people in Grand Rapids, who can be served through a variety of evangelistic and service-oriented organizations throughout the city.
Missions courses and electives will be offered by Professor Michael Goheen and Albert Strydhorst, as well as visiting professors and missionaries, which will offer important preparation for ministry as well. The newly-formed Institute for Global Church-Planting and Renewal, spearheaded by Professor Carl Bosma, has also developed numerous international partners, which could offer resources and direction for working in an international setting. The “Perspectives” course, offered locally here in Grand Rapids, is also a wonderful resource (Van Zanen says it is “the most comprehensive single introduction to missions.” Definitely worth checking out).
For those who are interested, there is also the option of the Urbana missions conference, run by InterVarisity, which only happens every three years. Thankfully, it is scheduled for this year, from December 27-31. This five-day conference brings together mission organizations from around the world for a wonderful and diverse celebration of God’s work across the globe. CTS and CRWM will both have exhibits this year, which will also offer the opportunity to showcase other CRC ministries. All in all, 250 mission organizations will be exhibited, and about 25,000 people are expected to attend. Urbana always has a good lineup of international speakers in both plenary and workshop settings, and offers a wonderful opportunity for building connections with reputable missions organizations. It could even lead to an XCI!
Albert Strydhorst attended Urbana in 1984, and was connected with Youth With a Mission (YWAM). He was invited to do mission work in Kenya, through YWAM, in the summer of 1985, but the larger influence of Urbana was that it made him actually consider a lifetime of mission as a vocational path. For Strydhorst, Urbana brought his interest in international missions from peripheral interest to the center stage. Most people who attend Urbana don’t become missionaries, but those who do attend have an increased awareness, interest, and passion in international ministry, and become advocates for international ministry wherever they are. If you are interested in attending Urbana this December, stop by Al’s office, or keep an eye out for promotional materials in the Student Center later this October.