Keeping Missionaries and Short Term Teams Safe
Continuing with our series on short term missions, this post addresses a concern often shared by parents and missions supporters: Safety.
It’s easy to listen to world news and hear all about crisis situations: Churches are bombed, governments are overthrown, terrorism rises, murders and kidnappings increase. Sometimes you get an urgent prayer request from your missionary. Other times you read about political unrest in a country where your youth group will be volunteering. Did you know that CRCNA has a crisis management team that monitors and evaluates these sorts of situations to help keep missionaries and volunteers safe?
Recently I interviewed Ron Geerlings about how it all works. As West Africa Regional Director for Christian Reformed World Missions, he is no stranger to responding to dangerous situations.
Q: The denomination works in more than 30 countries. It must be difficult to keep up on current events in all of them. How are situations brought to the attention of the Crisis Management Team (CMT)?
A. On-field CRC missionaries and development workers play a key role. CRC personnel in 31 countries have completed risk assessments for their contexts and considered ways to mitigate the greatest threats. This information is included in specific security plans for each country and these 31 documents are stored on a site that is accessible to all CMT members.
Agency directors are members of the CMT. So information about current events reaches CMT members through administrative lines and of course through their wireless devices.
To help implement security policies and to sort through the volume of security-related information, CMT has also appointed me to serve in a risk management role for the CRCNA. By subscribing to several security bulletins and by participating in a network of risk managers serving Christian organizations, we are able to stay informed on many situations without allowing security matters to consume all of our time and resources. I do a lot of daily monitoring and normally report only the most serious concerns to CMT.
Q. If a situation arises that seems to be a crisis, who makes the decision that a long-term missionary can leave the country? What factors go into that decision?
A. When an individual or a team agrees with their agency leaders that it would be prudent to evacuate, the decision to leave a country can be made through normal administrative channels.
If the Crisis Management Team declares a situation to be a crisis and appoints an Event Response Team (ERT) to handle the crisis, the ERT would make the decision on whether to evacuate some or all CRC-related personnel. The ERT would normally consider input from host country partners, sending country governments and others before making their decision. Additional factors that go into the decision are whether there are children involved and whether the missionaries have the capacity to do meaningful ministry in the conditions that are present.
For the specific cases of kidnapping and hostage-taking, CRCNA policy dictates, “family members will be relocated from the country of occurrence as soon as possible.”
Q. What are some of the different ways the missionaries respond in these situations?
A. Are you trying to get me in trouble?! Missionaries have earned a reputation for being independent thinkers even on non-controversial decisions. Deciding if and when to evacuate can be one of the toughest decisions a missionary will face. Home office personnel may disagree with on-field missionaries. On-field team members may disagree passionately with each other. Even husbands and wives may strongly disagree with each other.
It helps if there is a national church or partner organization telling missionaries that it is time for them to go. It helps if evacuation criteria are set before the situation starts to deteriorate. Once into a situation, the “frog in the kettle” tendency is almost universal and one’s sense of calling is often intensified.
Q. What happens if a volunteer/work team is in a country when something comes up? Does it make a difference if they are officially serving with a CRCNA agency?
A. Short-term volunteers and teams are at the greatest risk for some threats. From petty crimes to kidnapping, short-term personnel have often been victims. People with less experience in a setting are less likely to see or understand warning signs. For these reasons, CRCNA agencies try to restrict and discourage non-essential volunteer/work team travel when security concerns are elevated. And when volunteer/work teams are in a country when a crisis arises, they are likely to be the first people that we will try to evacuate.
Responsibility lines, for everything from orientation to possible emergency evacuation, are clear for volunteers officially sent by CRCNA agencies. If we are aware of other volunteers and in a position to assist them we would try to do so
Q. What would you say to parents who are concerned about their children volunteering with groups in developing countries?
A. Frankly, for children 17 and under, I would advise most parents and youth group leaders to look for a good inter-cultural short-term opportunity in North America.
For older children I would encourage supportive clarifying conversation. What part of the proposed trip is serving others? What part is learning? What is stronger, a desire to travel or a desire to discern God’s leading? I would encourage parents to counsel against reckless risk-taking for selfish reasons but to be open to a level of risk that may be required to do God’s will in a broken world.
Q. How can we best pray for our missionaries who are serving in conflict areas? Are there any current areas of concern?
A. I think Jesus’ longest recorded prayer in John 17 provides the best model for our prayer for missionaries. “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.” Let us pray for missionaries as Jesus did for his disciples – that they be protected, unified and sanctified.
Among Asian countries where the CRC has personnel, Pakistan has the highest security concerns. In Africa, security concerns are restricting ministry and travel in Mali and Nigeria. And in Latin America, Honduras has a homicide rate 20 times higher than the United States.
Q. How can churches learn more about the crisis management process?
A. Churches or individuals are welcome to contact me at 616-224-0720 or firstname.lastname@example.org