I recently returned from the Second South Pacific Membercare Conference, for all those involved in missionary care in Australia, New Zealand and across the Pacific. I have spent a lot of time over the last 7 years reflecting on member care and I was somewhat disappointed at the level of conversation and engagement at the conference. There were a number of conversations that I thought we should have been having (after all we only get together once every two years!), that didn’t happen. Conversations about the vision for the future of member care, conversations about the challenges ahead and where missionary care workers and indeed missionary care as a profession needs to step up, to upskill and to develop further as a profession.
My impression from my time at the conference last week is that member care workers have more that they want to do, than they can do, they are very busy and responsive to need. This makes them reluctant to put their heads up from the day to day work that is in front of them to reflect on the bigger picture. There is a lack of vision of how missionary care fits into the changing mission scene, of the broader picture of missionary care and how it needs to grow. Membercare is a relatively young field, so we need to think about how to grow in the skills, theory and research we need to increase our maturity. I believe that we are a small enough community in New Zealand to experiment with new models, perhaps here we can even introduce changes that have a global impact.
For New Zealand to lead the way in member care there are six core conversations that we need to hold. This week we look at the first conversation, a conversation about professionalism.
Missionary care is both professional and vocational, we need to be deepening our understanding of what that means. What does it mean to be vocational? What does it mean to be professional? Most importantly what does it mean to combine the two into a called-professionalism?
Missionary care was created in response to a need and many people (myself included) ended up in missionary care somewhat accidentally. We responded to God calling us to meet needs that we saw around us, or in the mission agency that we were involved in. It is something that many of us have dedicated our lives and our work to, that we have made substantial sacrifices for and something we believe God has called us into. I have encountered a fear that increasing the professionalism of missionary care will create barriers to people following God’s call to care for his people. I disagree, it is because we are called by God that we should be aspiring to care for God’s people in the best way possible. It is that call from God that draws us to reach for greater professionalism in all we do.
At the beginning of missionary care the primary experience that was required was some field experience as a missionary and perhaps one or two papers in pastoral care at a bible college. This background has meant that member care has struggled to think professionally. When I say think professionally I mean to have a broader understanding of theory, to be informed by evidence-based practice and research, to have accountability for professional growth and quality standards to develop ethical maturity and to see missionary care as a career.
We need to acknowledge that it is no longer enough to have people with limited training and understanding of theory in the field of missionary care.
We need to start conversations about stepping up, bravely stepping out and becoming more professional in all we do. Then when we gather as professionals in missionary care we won’t need to spend so much time on the most basic skills needed to care for people. Instead we will be able to extend ourselves into training and developing in these 4 key areas.
One of the key sources of the lack of professionalism in missionary care is that we haven’t moved beyond just learning a set of simple skills. Professionals develop good understandings of theories, that can help them understand and work to a high standard in a variety of situations. The theory helps them understand how and why they are learning and applying the skills. Currently, member care is a few steps behind important and informative practices that are emerging in the helping professions. Professionals however keep up with emerging trends, new research, changed practices, and recent critiques and replacements of old models. Professionals are then able to change their practice in response to this new information.
2) Research and Evidence-based Practice.
There is very little evidence of our effectiveness as missionary carers. To become professionals we need to begin conducting thorough research about what works, and developing some formulations of evidence-based practice. We need to seek out feedback and track trends and changes that occur as the result of our missionary care practices.
3) Accountability and Ethical Practice
To act and be a professional also means having accountability for our work. I was encouraged at the South Pacific Membercare Conference how many of the attendees were receiving supervision. But I wonder how much of that supervision is focussed on growth and development rather than just self-care and well-being. We also need to be enhancing our knowledge and practice of ethical maturity. There are still quite large challenges to ethical practice that we need to be discussing and working through. We still lack an ethical code and lack professional training tracks in New Zealand (although the Redcliffe masters programme will be available from next year). Our best practice guidelines still swing from being too basic in some places and too aspirational in others. There are no requirements for professional development, mandatory supervision, or even entrance qualifications.
4) Career Pathways
As we seek to increase the professionalism within missionary care another issue to be addressed is the high turnover of missionary care providers within the mission agencies. We lose many of the best people because there are no career pathways or opportunities for promotion. The contribution of missionary care personnel to the overall direction and management of mission agencies is not always valued. The constant turnover of staff limits our ability to grow and develop as it feels like instead of having opportunities to extend our practice and develop our professionalism the more experienced providers are often caught up in helping the newer providers catch up. To grow as a profession we need to not always be putting our energy into helping the last on catch up.
Professionalism does not need to challenge or negate our sense of vocation, rather our sense of vocation should lead us to strive further and higher in doing the best we can for those we care for. Next time, we will have a conversation about becoming proactive.