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?”
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