I have seen many missionary presentations, but there is one that will always stand out to me. One Sunday night, Di and I visited a church where a missionary family was presenting their mission. They had almost finished deputation and were departing for their field. Their message and testimonies were polished. They shared the blessings of deputation. At the end of the presentation, the husband and wife sang “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart,” with fervency and joyful tears. The congregation was moved by their zeal.

If I had seen the same presentation a year earlier, I would not have given it much thought. But my situation had recently changed. At that time, Di and I were living in the US and applying to join a mission agency. If we were approved, we would soon begin raising support. So we were no longer casual spectators—we were prospective missionaries with many questions. As I considered that night’s dramatic presentation, I wondered: “What are we getting ourselves into?”

Deputation, anyone?

Generally, deputation is the process of appointing someone to act for the needs of another. When a missionary family is “on deputation,” they are presenting the spiritual needs of another people or country to fellow believers. Churches may then decide to “deputise” or appoint that missionary family to go and reach those people for Christ. When the appointed family has sufficient financial support, they leave for their field of service. Another term for deputation is pre-field ministry, which helps to describe deputation as a time of special preparation.

Before beginning pre-field ministry, I had privately felt deputation was an impossible mission because of the challenges of raising support from independent churches. One challenge is the upheaval: pre-field time usually involves changing jobs, selling house, and moving. It is normal for missionary candidates to travel to over 100 churches to present their mission, seeking support. Imagine visiting that many churches! Increased living by faith is another challenge. As a candidate makes the transition from regular employment to mission support, he is trusting that God will provide through sponsors, rather than directly through corporate paychecks for his labour. To be supported for ministry work is a privilege, but it also requires a healthy trust in the Provider.

Other difficulties include the struggle to schedule meetings with churches and the length of time needed to raise financial support. This last factor is the most ponderous. Spending two years (or more) to raise support seems so long. Many believers consider these realities of pre-field ministry and conclude that deputation is “not for me.”

Our pre-field experience

After careful consideration, advice, and prayer, Di and I determined to raise support in the US before serving the Lord in Australia. We joined a mission agency, Biblical Ministries Worldwide, and began deputation. As it turned out, our experience was not the typical pre-field experience. We did not need to travel extensively and spent more time with fewer churches. Eventually, God provided enough support through these churches and friends, so we could begin work in Sydney.

While I thank God for his incredible goodness, I am concerned for prospective missionaries and believers in general who may harbour the same attitude toward deputation as I did previously. What changed my opinion toward deputation? It was the realisation that pre-field ministry is more than fundraising. It is a special time of ministry preparation.

Deputation = preparation

After completing the Master of Divinity degree (also known as the “Master of Infinity” because of the time required), I was thankful for the ministry preparation along the way. School and local church ministry are important in preparing for vocational ministry. The ordination process confirms that a man called by God is set apart and adequately equipped for ministry. The pre-field process continues and enhances the preparation for service, shaping and developing you in ways that formal instruction and home church involvement may not provide.

Exposure to multiple churches and ministries: The pre-field process is like being on a ministry team, where you can interact with many churches. It is fascinating to personally observe and evaluate how other like-minded churches are worshiping, learning the word, and reaching out to their communities.

More experience in the school of prayer: The challenges of deputation chipped away at our self-reliance. Those who need to raise support find themselves constantly turning in prayer to the Lord of the harvest. The power of friends’ prayers also becomes more apparent. I found that a stronger prayer lifestyle is the most common reality for men and women who have spent time in deputation.

Confidence that God has gone before you: Related to prayer is the joy of discovering answers to prayers. It is challenging to find supporting churches. But God answered prayers in ways we never imagined. Every missionary can share unconventional stories, because we serve an unconventional God!

New opportunities to serve: Pre-field is a time of promotion: we promote our vision, the specific mission field, and the needs of the people we intend to reach. But pre-field work is essentially a ministry to others—for God’s glory, not ours. How is deputation a ministry? As missionaries present their mission to churches, they get to share testimonies of God redeeming and calling them to serve him. They serve by encouraging other believers to lift up their eyes to God’s harvest and to join in his work, locally or elsewhere in the world. Serving also means preparing sermons and special talks, listening patiently to others in churches and homes, and managing correspondence and paperwork.

For most missionaries, pre-field ministry seems disjointed because of the constant traveling to multiple churches. It’s also hard for them to keep involved in their home church when they are away. But deputation is more enjoyable when you go as servants. A businessman might look at the typical process of visiting many churches and think, “How inefficient!” True enough, but a servant thanks God for another opportunity to serve this way, whether a church supports him or not.

If you are considering mission work, don’t be deterred by deputation. God uses this experience to prepare more effective, God-dependent servants for his kingdom.

“Depend upon it, God’s work, done in God’s way, will never lack God’s supplies.” Hudson Taylor

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About Ben Kwok

Ben is part of a church plant team establishing the Rouse Hill Church. He holds a Master of Divinity degree. Ben and his wife Diahanna live in Sydney, Australia with their four young children.

7 Comments

  1. Robert Apps 23 June, 2010 at 5:30 am - Reply

    KJV one week, Calvinism the next, and then the real controversy…deputation! :)

    seriously, I agree that deputation serves a good vetting process these days.

    But what about all the time, travel costs involved with deputation? Are there any ways of letting our technology assist with defraying some of these things to get missionaries out faster on the field?

  2. Ben Kwok 23 June, 2010 at 7:38 am - Reply

    Perhaps if the missionary candidate and his sending church can present a strong case for the mission via DVD or internet, then a like-minded church could provide support without needing a visit.

    In my agency, we’re currently looking at ways to reduce time in deputation. There are quite a few factors, with opportunities to be innovative.

  3. lumpy 23 June, 2010 at 7:50 am - Reply

    There certainly is a way for missionaries to get to the field more efficiently Robert. Churches could take on far less missionaries for far more support. That has the added benefit of churches owning their missionaries (as in “they are our missionaries to care for, this church is responsible for them”), and hopefully a resultant increase in the level of care in the many other facets of support. Also, the missionary wouldn’t have to travel as far or as long on furlough.

    Neal Pirolo’s book “Serving as senders” has some excellent thoughts on the whole process.

  4. Jason Harris 23 June, 2010 at 1:03 pm - Reply

    Wow Ben. You have hit on a controversial one.

    Personally, I feel that modern “deputation” is a scourge on the mission movement. If a missionary spends two years on pre-field service, four years on the field, a year on furlough, followed by another four year term and one year furlough, we find that before his third term of ministry begins, he will have spent fully 33% of his time doing something besides the work he is being paid to do.

    If he has a salary of US$70,000 (including averages of special offerings for tickets, setup, etc.), then before he sets out on his third term, the Church of Jesus Christ will have spent more than a quarter million dollars paying a man to do something besides what they sent him to do. And the worst part is, he wants to be doing the work he was sent to do.

    Multiply this by 5,000 missionaries and divide it by the 12 years in the scenario and you see that the Church spends easily over 100 million dollars every year on pre-field and mid-field ministry. Of course many missionaries spend far longer than this on pre-field service and many earn more money.

    I don’t know the best solution. I think lumpy’s solution is the best that has been put forward so far. But I don’t think we can afford to keep doing what we’re doing. I would think 3-6 months of post-preparation (education, internships, etc.) and pre-field service would be more than adequate to gain the benefits you mention without wasting valuable time and resources.

    I suspect Hudson Taylor would have agreed.

  5. PJ 23 June, 2010 at 2:55 pm - Reply

    I wonder if simply having one local church commit to supporting one family to plant a church somewhere might avoid much the problems raised in the article and discussion.

    In the same way that a local church might financially support an assistant pastor – why not support a church-planting pastor?

    (Also, a $70,000 salary for a missionary!? You’ve got to be kidding! I reckon that would be nearly twice what a pastor in independant circles earns!)

  6. Jason Harris 23 June, 2010 at 4:14 pm - Reply

    PJ, There are many factors.

    Currency conversion, medical insurance, travel expenses, airline tickets, love offerings, special offerings, passport/visa fees, container expenses, mission projects, set-up expenses, gifts in kind, mission agency fees, etc.

    While I agree that the average missionary might live on something closer to US$35,000, the combined average of all investment in that missionary is probably not as far from $70,000 as some might think.

    Perhaps others have insights on this…

  7. Ben 23 June, 2010 at 9:13 pm - Reply

    I don’t know anyone who thinks deputation today is ideal, but in the meantime, candidates will still need to raise at least some funds. I’m simply describing the reality within independent churches. This is unavoidable but God is still faithful.

    The missionaries themselves are the ones most aware of the problems with deputation. Sometimes they meet churches who understand the issue and will support them properly. But not all churches have a solid grasp of missiology (or ecclesiology!), and many churches are not financially able to contribute substantially to mission work after meeting their own expenses. Again, God is still faithful.

    I want to encourage potential mission workers to trust God to provide, through whatever means He uses. Raising support is one way. Both candidates and churches can improve in this area.

    I think prospective missionaries should understand the challenges of raising support, yet we should also recognise God’s ability to provide, despite the shortcomings in the process.

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