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Structured for Mission: The gift of COVID-19

Rosemary Dewerse and Ruth Osborne —

As the world responds to the COVID-19 pandemic the temptation could be to “pour energy into obsessing how to change structures and remake institutions.”[1]

This is particularly so for organisations, such as not-for-profits, that are especially vulnerable to fluctuating finances. But mission is God’s work and our contribution needs to be grounded in God’s call, expressed in our beliefs, values, and commitment – the why of what we do. The gift we are being offered is an opportunity to realign what we do, who we are, and how we live with this.

For the authors, the not-for-profit organisational context providing a case study for this article is Interserve (NZ): Te Riu Whakoreore. It is part of an interdenominational, multicultural fellowship conceived in a vision of Anglo-Indian women in India in 1819, established as a mission organisation in 1852, and today working among the peoples of Asia and the Arab World.

Rock or Sand?

In his book Structured for Mission, published in 2015, Alan Roxburgh, leader of The Missional Network, noted that the structures and institutions we create “are expressions of our underlying convictions about what makes life work and what we believe to be important.”[2] Underpinning those are “legitimating narratives” that tell the story of who a group is and how they want to live, which are built from “values, beliefs and commitments.”[3] Efforts at church renewal, particularly in missional attempts to address or stave off decline, too often focus on changing our what—restructuring, rebranding, bringing in new music, and new leadership. The phrase “rearranging the deck chairs” is used by many a frustrated thinker to describe this activity, with an embedded Titanic-sized warning.[4] What is needed, argues Roxburgh, is for us to look deeper, to critically examine the narratives that legitimate our activity and their foundation. In doing so, we ensure we build on rock, not sand.

Figures abound documenting decline in the church in Aotearoa New Zealand.[5] Many parishes and communities have been struggling to thrive in the cultural shifts of the last fifty years. Where relevance is gained for some it is often focused on engaging a particular generation. Covid-19 is sharpening the lens on the quality of our response. In an April 14 blog post from lockdown, Michael Frost lamented the work of too many American churches in changing nothing of an “overemphasis on ‘attractional’ strategies” (the “what”) by simply transferring their approach to a slick online production. While church attendance there is spiking, his “grave fear is that this … will be … illusory … [and] mask the reality that less and less people are devoted to a whole-hearted commitment to Christ.”[6] The danger is that this could be our story in Aotearoa New Zealand also.

Structured For Mission?

Within this wider church landscape our attention during Covid-19 is focused on a subset of the church, the Christian not-for-profit sector, particularly overseas mission work. What is true for the wider church is true for us as Christian not-for-profits, though arguably more acute; COVID-19 is a threat to life as we were managing it. Will we rearrange the deckchairs or accept its gift and look deeper through our who and how into our why, to ensure the structures we operate for the next season are built on rock?

The Protestant Missions movement was born in a time of European expansion and colonisation. William Carey’s “An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens” (1792) called Christians to use “every lawful method to spread the knowledge of his name.”[7] The movement has always been dependent on the goodwill and commitment of the “home church” for resourcing. Its fortunes have waxed and waned as waves of early twentieth-century liberalism, the Depression, the Billy-Graham-inspired evangelical fervour of the 1950s, and post-colonialism have washed over it, even as they brought necessary critique. In recent decades, a new challenge has arisen that is demanding a total rethink of missions structures, and of legitimating narratives should we choose to go there: the shift of the centre of gravity of the global church away from Europe and into the “South.” And now there is COVID-19, the closure of borders, arrival of social distancing, and the prospect of a world recession, if not Depression.

COVID-19 may prove the death knell of the overseas mission not-for-profit as we know it. The model is largely dependent on donations to support full-time workers heading overseas, with salaried staff at home providing member care, campaigning for and managing money, and producing communications to oil giving and prayer. Volunteers govern and support. Shifting the deck chairs has seen little essential change to this model over decades.

Interserve: A Case Study

From where we sit, working with and alongside Interserve (NZ): Te Riu Whakaoreore, COVID-19 is an invitation to do the deeper work that Roxburgh speaks of; to take the time to return to our values, critically examine our legitimating narratives in the light of those, and from there, review our structures. This is an opportunity to check we are building on rock, not sand, because mission is not our work, but God’s.[8]

The importance of such work and understanding is proven in the history of Interserve internationally.

Death and resurrection

Interserve began organisationally as the Zenana Bible Mission (ZBM) in Britain in 1852 to serve in India. It was founded by Lady Mary Kinnaird, who also founded the YWCA, and a group of friends “irrespective of denomination.”[9] It was conceived in the vision of two young Anglo-Indian women in 1819 who, disturbed by the practice of suttee—the live-burning of widows on their husband’s funeral pyre—believed that if women were taught to read the Bible and met Jesus for themselves, they would find freedom and advocate for freedom for others. British, Indian, and Anglo-Indian women were the frontline workers for the first one hundred years until 1952 when the organisation accepted married men. From the partition of India in 1947 the geographical footprint has expanded across Asia and the Middle East and into their diaspora even as the original feminine commitment to holistic ministry—seeking to bring the kingdom of God in all its fullness to the neediest peoples—has endured.

By the 1930s, liberalism had eroded interest in evangelical approaches to mission, questioning its underpinning theology. Then the Depression arrived and in 1934, the governing committee was, confidentially, having to consider all steps to “avert disaster.”[10] “Strident appeals” for money in the years previous had brought little success. Drastic expense and then staff cuts were made at Head Office. Then, facing the end, the decision was taken in November 1935 to be incorporated into the Church of England Zenana Missionary Society—an offshoot created in the 1880s when our Anglican members decided denominational loyalty and funding was more desirable than the financial precariousness of ZBMM’s constitutionally enshrined commitment to being interdenominational.[11] And so “The Z.B.M.M was buried with suitable obsequies.”[12]

By February 1936

It began to be questioned whether the Committee had not assumed too hastily that God’s will for the future had been interpreted correctly … whether amalgamation was “keeping faith with those who in days past, for the sake of their interdenominational principles”, had given the Z.B.M.M. all it possessed.[13]

Essentially, this decision made at a structural level was coming under scrutiny as people reviewed a key legitimating narrative sourced in Lady Mary Kinnaird’s founding belief that “all true Christians could work together.”[14] Interestingly, under review had also been the previous years’ activity of “strident appeals” for money; it did not align with the value of dependence on God. Ironically, however, given another value of communal decision-making, time was not taken to gain the assent of the missionaries to a faith-based approach and so a few made the decision to close the Z.B.M.M.

A very close vote in April 1936 saw the resurrection of the ZBMM. Some resigned in protest. “By standards of human prudence the Mission’s decision to remain independent was foolish. Yet 1936 closed with a small surplus, the first for years.” The following statement made by the organisation in 1937 affirmed the organisation’s beliefs, values and commitment in its rebuilding:

By its sturdy, and now accentuated, adherence to the great principle of the unity of believers in Jesus Christ … by its unfailing loyalty to the Holy Scriptures and Evangelical truth, by its loving activities in India which know no limitations and admit no narrowness … the Z.B.M.M … stands for some of the most valuable realities of Christian activity.[15]

Life In a Time of COVID-19

We could panic as an organisation in the face of the realities COVID-19 is bringing. Our precarious finances as a not-for-profit are heading into unknown territory and deficit looms large. Faithful donors are facing deep concerns of their own. Structured, in the main, to support and enable New Zealanders to go and serve overseas—an approach that began when Miss Thomas first travelled from our country in 1875 to serve in Benares—the majority of our “partners” are now grounded in Aotearoa for as long as our borders, and those of other countries, remain closed. The identity we claim for ourselves, and declare to our supporting churches, will not, for the immediate future, be so much fuelled by the appeal of helping the neediest and living the gospel “over there.” Meanwhile, like all workplaces and communities, we face the challenges that social distancing brings. The immediacy of relationships to keep us accountable and our ability to extend tangible compassion have been significantly curtailed.

We could panic, or we could accept the gift on offer of the opportunity to head back through our story, critically examine our legitimating narratives for their alignment with our values and beliefs, and from there review our structures for life in our new landscape.

For eight years Interserve (NZ) has been travelling with Māori brothers and sisters who have taught us to walk into our future drawing from our past—as the whakataukī says: Ka mua, ka muri. Embedded in the name they have given us—Te Riu Whakaoreore—are two markers, or pou. These remind us firstly that Christ is within and beyond us, calling us, awakening us, mobilising us, and secondly of our heritage in the faith-filled journeying of our foremothers.[16] We have been following their teaching—learning more of our narrative and orientating ourselves to a deeper commitment to our values. But structurally we have remained the same. In a surprising chorus, COVID-19 joins with their voice and invites us to open the gift of values fine-tuning.

Already we are striking misalignment between our structures and processes, and our values. “Partners” are “sent” and “supported” while “staff” are “paid” at “home,” yet we value “wholistic ministry.” We have layers of decision-making and belonging in the organisation, yet we value “oneness in Christ” and “community.” We work with churches for the express purpose of sending “missionaries,” yet we value “partnership/interdependence.” Meanwhile, our history for years included local Indian and Anglo-Indian believers lovingly serving their neighbour in India, yet we struggled to see them as “missionaries,” even as we struggle today internationally to accept locals as “partners” in “overseas” teams.

Values and the Provision of Mission Resourcing

One of the values-misalignments which shouts the loudest is that we rely on donations to sustain our structures, yet we value “dependence on God.” This is a pressing concern ahead not only for us, but for many Christian not-for-profits—as it will be for many churches and individuals. We are people of faith, but we rely on a steady supply of money to keep our organisational structures fuelling our calling. At first glance, this could easily be thought to not be misaligned—for, after all, God can and does use a community of givers and fundraising efforts to resource God’s mission. But digging a bit deeper, have we with this approach been lubricating a certainty in the structure of the organisation rather than a faith in God for individuals within our missional community?

Whether we are in a time of sufficiency, abundance, or scarcity, for all of us, if God is not truly our provider, our trust is transferred to systems. Becoming dependents, the risk is an infantilisation—the abdication of agency, faith, and imagination to a leader and/or employer. In doing so, we enable people including ourselves to build on sand. When we truly understand that all that we have comes from God, it creates in us a healthy dependence on the only One who is able to resource and supply our needs, and space for egalitarian engagement under God. In the landscape we now find ourselves in, ensuring our narrative around finances and our resourcing structures are aligned with our values and in that with Christ, is of utmost importance.

Returning to Our Values

Psychologist Steven Hayes notes that

Values are an inexhaustible source of motivation – inexhaustible because they are qualities intrinsic to being and doing. They are visible only through their enactments. They're adverbs, or adjectives, or verbs … they give life direction, help us persist through difficulties. They nudge us, invite us, and draw us forward.[17]

Vision is grounded in values that build a narrative that gathers a structure to empower its contribution. The gift in a crisis for organisations is the invitation to return to our values, our “inexhaustible source of motivation,” and critically review our alignment to them. Is what we are doing consistent with who we say we are? But, deeper than even this; is who we have storied ourselves to be and how we are living that out consistent with what we believe and value and are committed to?

COVID-19 throws these questions into sharp relief, offering us a gift: will we find the courage to pause long enough to return to the why—our particular calling as God’s people—to wonder, examine, and realign?

Dr Rosemary Dewerse worked for eighteen years in theological education in four countries focusing on practical theology – missiology and missional church in particular. She continues to publish in theology while working at Unitec building institutional self-evaluative capability and chairs the Council of Interserve (NZ): Te Riu Whakaoreore.

Ruth Osborne is a consulting organisational development practitioner and leadership coach with for-purpose organisations. She has three decades’ experience, beginning in pre-liberation South Africa working within and alongside organisations fighting apartheid. For twelve years she has worked in Aotearoa-New Zealand supporting organisations to change for the sake of mission impact.

[1] Alan J. Roxburgh, Structured for Mission: Renewing the Culture of the Church (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015), 172.

[2] Roxburgh, Structured for Mission, 32.

[3] Roxburgh, Structured for Mission, 32.

[4] For example: Ross Parsley, Messy Church: A Multigenerational Mission for God’s Family (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2012), 27;Richard Randerson, “Missiology: The Missing Element in Theological Education,” Anglican Taonga 19 (Spring 2005): 20–22.

[5] McCrindle, “Faith and Belief in New Zealand” (2018) https://2qean3b1jjd1s87812ool5ji-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/images/FaithBeliefNZ_Report.pdf. As an example, membership in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand decreased by 25% from 42,180 in 2005 to 31,491 in 2018. Steve Taylor and Rosemary Dewerse, “Unbounding Learning Communities: Ako-empowered research in life-long ministry formation,” (Accepted for publication in Practical Theology).

[6] Michael Frost, “Coronavirus could set the church back 25 years,” (14 April 2020), https://mikefrost.net/coronavirus-could-set-the-church-back-25-years/.

[7] William Carey, “An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens” (Leicester, 1792), https://www.wmcarey.edu/carey/enquiry/anenquiry.pdf.

[8] Christopher Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010).

[9] J. C. Pollock, Shadows Fall Apart: The Story of the Zenana Bible and Medical Mission (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1958), 17.

[10] Pollock, Shadows Fall Apart, 170.

[11] This commitment, which was drawn up in 1867 by Henry Venn, made the Zenana Bible Mission the first officially constituted interdenominational Protestant mission society. Note: the society’s name changed to the Zenana Bible and Medical Mission (ZBMM) in 1880.

[12] Pollock, Shadows Fall Apart, 172.

[13] Pollock, Shadows Fall Apart, 173.

[14] Pollock, Shadows Fall Apart, 17.

[15] Pollock, Shadows Fall Apart, 175.

[16] “Te Riu” is the hull of an ocean-going waka (canoe). It represents our people journeying by faith into the hard places of our world. “Whakaoreore” refers to generating a movement, awakening or mobilising others, attuned to the call of the Holy Spirit. A whakataukī is a proverb.

[17] Steven Hayes, “10 Signs You Know What Matters,” Psychology Today (4 September 2018), https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/201809/10-signs-you-know-what-matters