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Missionary work — and image — becomes increasingly diverse

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A UMNS photo by Andra Stevens

Missionary Priscilla Legay Jaiah, who is Liberian, serves in Ghana at the Buduburam Liberia Refugee Camp.
June 21, 2006

By Mary Beth Coudal*

NEW YORK (UMNS) — When you think of a missionary, what image comes to mind?

For many people, it might be the white, male, English-speaking hero in the Amazon jungle, as depicted in storybooks and in movies such as “End of the Spear,” released earlier this year.

Just as today’s reality for women is different from that of the 1950s U.S. housewife, so too, the missionaries of 2006 stand in distinct contrast with the stereotypes of the past. The “typical” missionaries of yesterday have given way to a diverse field of missionaries who can be found in a myriad of settings.

Take for example, the Rev. Priscilla Legay Jaiah, who is Liberian, serving in Ghana at the Buduburam Liberia Refugee Camp. Or consider Esther Karimi Gitobu, who is Kenyan and serving with women’s empowerment for the United Methodist Church in Cambodia. And there's the Rev. Juarez Goncalves, a Brazilian who serves in the New England Annual Conference in Brazilian Portuguese Language Ministry.

The percentage of non-U.S. missionaries serving through the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries in the United States and internationally is at its highest. In total, 32 percent of the board's 230 standard support missionaries come from countries other than the United States. Hundreds more people serve in mission through the board in categories such as deaconesses.

While the diversity of missionaries has increased, so has the number of United Methodist Volunteers in Mission. In 2005, about 135,000 UMVIMs served in 70 countries and in 48 U.S. states, making it the busiest year ever for the program. In comparison, in 2004, about half of the 2005 number — 68,204 — served in 51 countries and 37 U.S. states. The increase was driven largely by the volunteer response to hurricanes on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

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File photo courtesy of the Board of Global Ministries

Clara Mridula Biswas, a missionary assigned as a community worker in Cambodia, visits with a HIV/AIDS patient.

There have been slight increases in the number of people in the individual volunteers program, who serve for more than two months with Global Ministries mission partners nationally and internationally, and NOMADS (Nomads On a Mission Active in Divine Service), mission-minded people commuting from their recreational vehicles to work on mission projects in the United States.

“There’s a new generation of folks coming out of VIM experiences,” said the Rev. Stephen Goldstein, assistant general secretary of mission personnel for the board. “As a result, there’s a different sense of missionary vocation. They don’t see it as a long-term mission choice. People expect to make four or five career changes in a lifetime.”

Empowering local people

“The days of missionaries getting on a boat in Baltimore and getting off in Brazil are over,” Goldstein said.

Kathleen Masters, who now works for the board’s mission personnel office in New York, served in Africa and Asia with her late husband, Mark.

“Fifty years ago, perhaps if there was a political upheaval, you moved from India to Pakistan or from Congo to Zambia (or Rhodesia, as it was known then),” she said. “Now it is not as common for people to stay in one region for their whole life. As missionaries, we served in Asia Pacific for six years. We could not get work visas for more than that. ‘If you were doing your job well, then you’ve trained someone locally to replace you,’ the Solomon Islands government believes.’”

After the Solomon Islands, the Masterses served for three years at the Mission Resource Center in Atlanta, then for four years in Uganda and Zambia.

Today, more emphasis is placed on training people for ministry than was the case 50 years ago. “We’re trying to empower people to carry on the ministry. Let’s go in and equip people, train community health workers,” said Bruce Griffith, missionary in residence for the board. The focus has shifted away from setting up a clinic with a missionary name attached to it. “That was more of a colonial mindset,” he said.

In 1936, the average length of missionary service was 21 years, in five-year increments, according to Griffith’s research. At that time, women missionaries outnumbered men by about six to one. In 2006, missionaries are assigned for three-year terms.

The continuation of service depends on many factors, including the financial resources of the mission agency. Gradually, men have slowly increased their numbers in the mission ranks so that the gender split is almost 50/50.

Larger scope of work

The scope of missionary work is wide, Griffith noted. “There are HIV/AIDs educators teaching in Africa; missionaries in Cambodia and in all the church’s mission initiatives helping plant churches; missionaries helping the Lithuanian church come back to life.”

Griffith commented on another trend in missionary service: the need for specialists over generalists. For example, the board issued a call in January for missionaries in the fields of immigration law, construction and Native American ministry.

The training of missionaries has changed dramatically in 50 years — and even in the last five years. “In 2001, we trained for 10 to 12 weeks with missionaries and their families all in one place,” Kathleen Masters said. “Now, we have individualized trainings. We are tailoring the training to the individual and the sending and receiving communities. We’re beginning to do some distance learning.”

The passage of time hasn’t changed the demand for missionary support.

“One thing remains the same: there are more requests than we can fill — requests to become missionaries and requests to receive missionaries …,” Goldstein said. “And since the 1990s, there has been an intentional commitment by the General Board of Global Ministries to send more missionaries.”

Missionary programs receive support, in part, through the United Methodist Church’s second-mile giving program, the Advance for Christ and His Church. Donations can be designated for “Mission Personnel Inside the United States,” Advance #982597, “Mission Personnel Support Outside the United States,” Advance #00779Z, or other programs listed at

*Coudal is on the communications staff at the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or

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