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  • Writer's pictureBradley Bell

The Missions Pastor's Gospel

All my friends are dead.

Don’t worry, it’s just the title of a book—a spoofy children’s book for adults. There’s a drawing of a bewildered dinosaur on the front next to the bold font, “All my friends are dead.” In the book’s own words, it’s “a delightful primer on the inevitable,” like the sock whose partner has gone missing or the tree whose friends have all become paper. My wife and I saw the book one day and laughed out loud as we flipped through it.

Then we almost cried.

As a former missions pastor, I can identify with the gulping, perplexed posture of the last lone dinosaur. Much of my time was spent with people who were inevitably going to leave me. For example, a few years ago I led our church’s commissioning of a young missionary—a guy I had deeply invested in for about a year and a half.

I can still remember the first time we met and he told me he wanted to be a missionary. We soon afterward traveled on a short-term mission trip together to Europe, where he really proved himself. He had meals in my home. I think he even became my three year-old daughter’s first crush. We walked through hefty mission applications together, as well as the process of deciding where in the world to go serve.

Most significant to me, we met regularly for six months, exploring his deepest struggles and applying the gospel to them. He grew. I grew. At our very last meeting together, he confessed to me, “More than ever before, I realize how weak I am and how much I need Jesus.” It was then I knew—he was ready to go.

Am I Being Selfish?

All this came not long after saying a bitter goodbye to a family who had been some of my family’s closest friends. We had journeyed even further with them, present for all the evolutions in their calling from youth ministry to one of the toughest unreached peoples in the world.

We led them on a trip to the Middle East, then on another trip to Africa. We helped them navigate “the toilet bowl,” my tongue-in-cheek term for the emotional swirl and identity flush of pre-field preparations. We helped them sell their last possessions at a yard sale.

Then they were gone.

Afterward I was like the proud, pitiful father dropping off his youngest at college orientation. I knew they’d be terrific missionaries. I knew they’d come back changed. And I knew they’d struggle at times. When I really thought about it, I felt lots of conflicting emotions. Delighted. Sad. Nervous. Eager. Lonely.

Honestly, a lot of how I felt was selfish. I felt sorry for myself for being left behind. I felt jealous that I don’t get to go too. I felt insignificant because I would only influence them from a distance. I felt insecure because I probably could have better prepared them.

I felt anxious that their “performance” would be a reflection on my leadership. I wondered if I should have been more relationally distant, less emotionally involved. It would certainly have made it easier for me and my family.

And there was my pedestaled pastor’s heart on full display.

The Missions Pastor's Gospel

In his book The Pastor’s Justification, Jared Wilson writes that for such ornery ones as me,

There is something both lay elders and career elders have in common, something I’ve seen in the thirty-year senior pastor of a southern megachurch as well as the bivocational shepherd of a little, rural New England parish, the laid-back fauxhawked church planter and the fancy mousse-haired charismatic, and in nearly every pastor in between: a profound sense of insecurity for which the only antidote is the gospel.

I was finding, once again, that the things I taught to missionary candidates were what I needed too.

That my worth to God is not based on my effectiveness in his mission.

That on my best day I’m still desperately needy for Jesus and his grace.

That my suffering and sacrifices are seen by my Father.

That he doesn’t just want to work through me, but also in me.

That I am known and loved, and that’s enough.

This article was originally featured at The Upstream Collective.

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