Tough Times: The breakup of a team of missionaries

This unpublished manuscript was originally written as a chapter for a book to be entitled Tough Times.

If you wish to use this as a case study, some general case study guidelines are available to aid in your reflection and discussion.

"I can't go on like this," he said, his chin quivering. His eyes reddened as he sat wringing his hands.

Something was tearing my friend apart. It was not family problems. He was not caught in some sin. He was not wrestling with an evil habit. He was simply a fellow missionary embroiled in a severe conflict — a test of wills — with a co-worker.

I was new on the field. I didn't know what to say. So, as he talked, I listened and prayed silently. I asked the Lord to help me find a way to become an instrument of healing.

My distraught colleague had been on the field only a little over two years. Some turnover in missionary personnel had catapulted him into a position of leadership as mission director. Before long, regrettable disagreements with missionaries working under him had degenerated into permanent polarization. He and one of the other missionaries could scarcely agree on what day of the week it was.

No one remembered exactly what drove the first wedge between these two men. However, by the time my wife and I arrived on the field, those two had been questioning each other's job qualifications. Not long afterward, they began questioning each other's integrity. No doctrinal issues were involved. But the polarization was so complete that neither would give in even on minor issues regarding mundane, day-to-day mission work. So the one who was mission director would pull rank, leaving his co-worker to grumble and plot new strategies to undermine his supervisor.

Both missionaries were hard-working. Both testified clearly to a call to cross-cultural missionary service. Both testified of "up-to-date experiences" with the Lord. Highly motivated, they were both gifted in unique ways. With such potential — and our missionary work at stake — we needed to find a way to dissipate the tensions and harness the energies of these men in developing a strong national church.

I heard about this clash of wills before leaving our homeland for the field. The news first came from some fellow missionaries who passed along a rumor from the "grapevine." Then, two mission board members, a senior administrator, and finally, the regional director all expressed to us their dismay over the worsening situation.

When we arrived on the field, we would be fresh faces. We had not been involved in past disputes. Maybe such neutrality might enable us to build bridges between the two. Church leaders gave us as much moral support and encouragement as they could muster. They urged us to make friends with both sides.

Not long after landing on the field, however, I began to wonder if those two men were even living on the same planet. Their views of the work, of ways to solve problems, and of each other were usually diametrically opposed. The leader saw the missionary under him as irresponsible, devious, and unwilling to submit to authority. That missionary, in turn, viewed the leader as an inflexible obstructionist who was power- and prestige-hungry. Each one thought of the other as a little mentally unbalanced. For two people who needed to be working together, spreading the message of perfect love, this was anything but an ideal arrangement.

It hurt me to see two good people obstructing each other in the exercise of their God-given talents. I watched the problem spread like cancer through others in the missionary team. As this polarization infected other people and two "camps" emerged, the frailties of these good men moved from affecting just their own ministries to those of their colleagues.

I began searching for some ways to bridge the chasm. Agonizing hours of prayer and reflection only left me staring numbly into space.

About a month after our arrival on the field, my wife and I started a weekly prayer meeting and fellowship time for the missionaries. Could the rest of us create an environment of loving forbearance that would embrace our two colleagues and draw them and the rest of us together? We hoped that would happen.

I kept praying for an end to the bitter drama. Revival and renewal are undoubtedly going to come, I kept thinking. Tears of repentance and forgiveness will flow. Embraces will come, and we'll march away from the altar, arm in arm, singing, "We are one in the bond of love." But that didn't happen.

On the contrary, positions seemed to become more entrenched as the weeks passed. Though now spoken, words like "liar" and "thief" were certainly implied. Neither trusted the other to faithfully communicate with missions headquarters. Via telephone and written communication, each argued his case directly with denominational leaders. The regional director came for a brief visit. His attempts at even-handedness in disputes were interpreted as indecisiveness and a lack of support for the "right" solutions. Following his visit, both men became even more aggressive as each tried to demonstrate his competence as a missionary.

I hated to have to talk to one of them about the other. Neither one seemed able to mention the other without using disparaging words. They ceased relating to each other as living, breathing people. They began seeing only exaggerated caricatures. Mutual suspicion was never far below the surface, even when they managed to smile when they met. We tried to encourage the two of them to put the best light on each other's words and actions. By that point, however, their responses to each other were dictated by emotions rather than reason.

One way out, of course, would have been to declare a "winner" in the conflict. The "loser" could be labeled "spiritually immature" and sent home in disgrace. That, in fact, was the solution both men began hinting at. The rest of us felt there had to be a better way. Both families felt called by God. Both testified of the unique ways God had led them to this mission field. Surely, there was a ministry for both of them on that field to which they both felt divinely led.

I read and re-read the fifteenth chapter of Acts. That chapter spotlights a pair of conflicts between church leaders. In the first dispute, some of the Early Church leaders insisted that Gentile converts follow the Jewish rituals. Other church leaders, Paul included, disagreed with an intensity that threatened to split Christianity into two factions. Following what everyone felt was divine guidance, the crisis was resolved amid rejoicing. I dared to hope for a similar miraculous end to our crisis.

On the other hand, the second conflict in Acts 15 ends with the breakup of a missionary team. The separation of Paul and Barnabas over the question of John Mark's reliability demonstrates that human infirmities in even sanctified believers can cause intolerable discord.

In my years of service to the church, I had often enlisted the prayer support of fellow believers back in my home country. The solution to this problem certainly seemed beyond our own human wisdom. So I longed to ask many of our longtime prayer partners to join us in prayer. Unfortunately, I just could not find a way to explain the state of our missionary team without reflecting on the reputation of one or both of my fellow missionaries. Besides, missionaries are supposed to be fighting the devil, not each other. So I kept the problem to myself. I did ask my friends to pray about other things on the field. But our biggest problem — missionary relationships — remained confined to our own prayer lists.

Several months after I arrived on the field, I had to make a quick trip back to the USA. On the same flight were some American Nazarenes who had been to our field to dedicate a church building they had funded. They were there only a few days, but in that short time, one of the two missionaries in the conflict had talked to a pastor in the group about the problem. This pastor and I had been friends for a long time. Since we found ourselves sitting next to each other on the flight, it was inevitable that he would bring up the personnel clash.

He reminded me that the problem resembled those that are often faced by staff serving larger churches. As highly motivated and gifted people try to find themselves in new positions of ministry, Satan shows up to exploit differences in personality and lifestyle. Relationships need time to form, he said. Time can also settle unimportant issues. So maybe time was on our side. Maybe the genuineness of the "perfect love" we preach could squeeze Satan out of the scene and heal the insecurities of both of these missionaries.

This plane trip did reveal a disturbing widening of the conflict. Church members from abroad were now getting emotionally involved in the problem. We tried to hint to our two missionary brothers that they should keep their differences under wraps when visitors came. Denominational leaders were even more direct with them. They "ordered" the pair to shield visitors from the disagreements. As the conflict continued to consume the two, hints and orders seemed as ineffective as demanding an injured man to stop bleeding. It only took one curious question, and the floodgates would suddenly burst open. We were all miserable.

Eight months after we arrived on the field, it was time for district assemblies. Two denominational leaders arrived to conduct the assemblies, and while they were there, they spent some time with the two missionaries. The leaders suggested changes in team organization. And they urged the two "adversaries" to concentrate on ministry goals and to get their eyes off each other. The decision-making process that had previously involved the two men was broadened to include other people. The hope was that this would lessen the chances of head-to-head confrontations.

The plan was only partially successful. Each time we began to take a half step of forward progress, one of the two would do something to drive the other up a wall, leaving the air tinged once again with suspicion and even hostility. Each came to believe that the only possible solution was for church leaders to order the other family home in disgrace. We kept hoping for a different solution.

This problem was not unique to our field. Most missionaries are highly motivated self-starters. Strong-willed personalities — even sanctified ones — have clashed in mission fields all over the world, in conflicts that varied in intensity. In some cases, the national church has gotten caught up in the disagreements, becoming cheerleaders for one side of the dispute. We prayed that the Lord would isolate our national church from this turmoil. A revival among the churches was going on at the time. We feared if the national pastors got caught up in this problem, it could snuff out those fires. That, of course, was the goal of satanic forces.

After we had been on the field nearly a year, I began to think we could tough it out somehow. In just another year, one of the families involved was due for twelve months of home assignment. At the end of that year, the other family would be due for a home assignment. So they would actually have two years of being apart. The Holy Spirit can do a lot of healing in that time. Perspectives can be changed in two years. The reorganizations of the missionary staff due to home assignments and other changes could produce some new working relationships.

"If we can just make it a few more months," I told each of the families, "there's hope. Just hang on."

Then, one family abruptly threw in the towel. Away from the tense working situation for a summer vacation, they had felt enormous loads lifted. There was such relief from emotional pressures that they decided they did not want to return to living under that load. So, while still on vacation, they called missions office administrators to ask for an immediate leave of absence. They would return to their missionary home only to pack so they could return to the States. Technically, a leave of absence meant they would be up for re-appointment in 12 months. Privately, they were telling friends they were through with missionary service. Criticism of denominational leaders began to surface, as they blamed leadership for not taking the other family off the field when the problems began.

Meanwhile, in mission headquarters offices, a decision was made to ask the other missionary family to take an immediate, early home assignment with the likelihood of their being sent to a different field at the end of that time. It had long been clear that both families were at fault. Church leaders had no desire to declare a "winner." With both families off the field, the remaining missionaries could be reorganized into a more harmonious team and get on with their task of evangelizing and discipling.

As the news of the decisions broke on the field, we all were stunned. Then, we began to try to find a way to explain to the national church how such a thing could happen among "holiness people." Fortunately, the national church had not gotten involved in the problem.

As the two families packed, they avoided each other. Both felt that church leadership had abandoned them. They were wrong, of course. But that did not stop them from feeling that way. Even as they left the field, both were dropping wildly exaggerated accusations. In their devastation, they turned to family and friends. Even there, they faced uncertainty as people back home could not understand why they were coming home.

Billows of sadness enveloped the two families and followed them back to the USA. The great hopes that had soared when they had been appointed as missionaries came crashing down. The excitement of being part of the worldwide missionary force had wilted and sagged and was now disappearing altogether.

With their departure, we began shuffling assignments and tried to get going again. One day I sat down and cried. I cried for both of these friends of mine who had alienated themselves from each other. I cried for my church which had tried in vain to resolve, without casualties, this bitter conflict. I cried for myself because of the emptiness I felt at losing two friends.

Eventually, our missionary team regained its health and was able to concentrate on assisting the revival sweeping through the land. I thank God for that. Sometimes in the evening, when I sit in the yard outside my home, I think of the tragedy that took my friends away. And I think about the times in my life when I've seen God turn tragedy inside out so that it becomes an unbelievable victory. I pray this will happen for my two friends and their families. I praise God that it is already happening here on the field, for I sense a new tenderness among the missionary survivors of the conflict — a fresh love and appreciation for one another.

Surely this must be the work of God. Only He can reach into the ashes and retrieve the unexpected and the beautiful.

Reflection questions

  1. Have you seen examples of conflicts and clashes of will within a ministry team impact the overall effectiveness of the group's work?
  2. What strategies might be employed to mediate conflicts within a team, especially when leaders and colleagues initial interventions were not successful?
  3. Reflecting on this particular case, what are some potential consequences of unresolved conflicts within a team, and how can they affect the individuals involved as well as the overall team dynamics?
  4. In situations where highly motivated and gifted individuals clash, what approaches can be taken to harness energies and talents towards a common goal, rather than allowing the conflicts to hinder progress?
  5. Considering the challenges faced by the missionary team in the situation described, what lessons can be drawn about the importance of communication, understanding, and fostering a sense of unity within a team, especially in mission-driven or high-stakes environments?

    -- Howard Culbertson,

The book for which this was written was never published. Perhaps it was because readers not intensely involved with the missionary enterprise might have reacted too negatively.

An editor's note was to have been published with the article. Here's what it would have said:

The problem of personality clashes among missionaries is not unique to this one field. There is potential for conflict where two or three are gathered, missionaries included. This true account illustrates the truth that missionaries are not super-spiritual beings working in sterilized environments free of normal human problems. Missionaries are humans like us, with problems like us. Just as disagreements with co-workers can be extremely frustrating for us, so it is for our missionaries.

The problem our missionaries face, which we don't, is they find it hard to ask friends to pray about these personality clashes when they flare up. So, in your private times of talking with God, remember our missionaries by name. Ask the Father to grant them wisdom, patience, and compassion in their day-to-day working relationships.

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