Friendship: A Model for Member Care
In studying the Jesuits lately, I have been particularly impressed by their emphasis on friendship. Their whole mission was sustained and shaped by the concept of friendship. Jesuits are actively discouraged from trying to gain any position of power or status. Leaders are trained in the context of spiritual direction, and mutual discernment. Every Jesuit, from the most senior and experienced, to the novice, has the same value and each contribution is welcomed. The key thing about their friendships is that they were all committed to mission and following Jesus first; their friendships produced a loyalty to Jesus over a loyalty to their institution. Jesuits extended mission globally, and Ignatian spirituality is as relevant and welcomed today as it ever was.
Friendship as a model for agency-partner relationships really appeals to me. There seems to be so much fear, distrust, competition, inability to let go and transition, manipulation and control, poor communication and lack of personal care that seems to exist between sending organisations and their missionaries. I do not know of anyone who has been sent by a mission agency who hasn’t felt some or all of these things – and likely the same for the mission agency regarding the person being sent.
Sometimes the issue is that we all think its our mission. And its God’s – only God’s. As soon as we lay a claim, however small, to God’s work, then we become a danger to the work itself and the people who are involved in it.
The thing about people who go off on mission to far flung places, is that they are deeply broken individuals. They have scars from past pains, false selves that jostle for space with the authentic self. They have families, friends, memories left in a homeland, and so much to adjust to. They are likely to display their absolute worst alongside their absolute best in a culture, language and pace of life that is unfamiliar. All because they are human. Throw in some mental health issues, and you will find some raw humanity.
One of my most favourite Bible verses is John 13:35; its Jesus speaking, and its the first verse I ever memorised as a child:
‘By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
If you want a missional strategy, there it is. If you want a verse to shape how we care for missionaries, that’s the one. I don’t know of any missionary who has struggled or had to return home because of a lack of strategy or good ideas. Telling a missionary how to engage in their work is like training me to butter my toast. But a lack of love? A lack of support? A lack of being trusted? It’s the one ingredient that every missionary, every Christian, every person, needs to thrive and fulfil their purpose. It is to be loved, freed, and offered the gift of friendship to sustain them on the road ahead.
We religiously taught our teams about cultivating an environment of grace, and overall, we hope that that is what we built during our time in Ibiza. The thing is, to take risks, we must know we can fail and still be accepted and approved of. To fulfil potential, we need high accountability (=close, loving, honest friendship), and low control. The nature of the relationship in supporting missionaries is critical in seeing them achieve all that is in God’s mind for them. There was nothing that brought us more joy than empowering, releasing, and freeing people who worked with us, to serve God in ways that were different to what we had thought, and more effective than we could ever stretch to. And so quickly we learnt, from our own experiences and the stories of others, that friendship, rather than control and competition, was the way to go about it.
If we want to sustain our missionaries and see them thrive, we must befriend them. If we want to train our people to take risks of faith, ventures into the unknown, and to have confidence to follow God wherever He really is leading, we must love them. That song, and that story about ‘Jesus lead me where my feet would never wander’ is that Peter jumped out of a boat full of friends, to walk towards the God who is our friend. He may have been amazed and convinced by Jesus’ power, but I wonder whether he was motivated to take the plunge because he was secure in the experience of Jesus' good intentions towards him, as a valued and loved friend. Even though he could have plunged to his death, and almost did, he was in the safest place he could have ever been. What was there to lose?
We need to engage in mission and in our faith with risks like that again. We need to revive the tenacity of the missional ambition of the past. We need to lay down ideals of superficial or even quantifiable ‘bigger, better, faster, stronger, more likes and follows’ – because that shapes how we are with each other and we so easily choose the path of popularity and ‘success’ over the bumpy ground of selfless love. But who do we follow?? And who is it who called us His friend?
Missionary work really is deep friendship experienced in a visible way; may our agencies, teams, ministries and ministers marinade in the empowering, sustaining, nurturing friendship for the well-being of their people and so that all people will know whose disciples we really are.