Paul’s letter to the Philippians is very much a ‘Thank you!’ letter. He begins in chapter one by encouraging them as a ‘sending church’ by thanking them for ‘their partnership in the gospel’ (Philippians 1: 5). He goes on, then, to spell out what that means in real terms and so he thanks them for their prayers (Philippians1:19), their financial gifts (Philippians 4:16) and for the encouragement that he receives from simply knowing that they are deeply concerned about him and his needs (Philippians 4: 10). I suspect that many of us will be familiar with all of these ways, in terms of how we support those engaged in mission work both locally and further afield.
While these are all important ways in which we can show our support and care for those who have given themselves to full-time ministry or mission roles, the problem with them, though, is that they are done from a distance and so don’t help us get up close and personal in our giving. It is for this reason that Paul also specifically thanks the Philippian church for having sent out Epahroditus to ‘take care of (his) needs’ and ‘to make up for the help’ they could not give him directly (Philippians 2: 25 - 30).
The importance and significance of this particular section of Paul’s letter has struck me quite forcibly over this past year as I’ve had the privilege of visiting two of PCI’s global mission families in the places where they live and work.
From Malawi to the Middle East
Last September, as part of a small group from David and Pam McCullagh’s sending church, Kirkpatrick Memorial Presbyterian in Belfast, I visited Lilongwe in Malawi. More recently, just after Easter, I led a team of PCI ministers on a visit to the Middle East and, while there, we spent a significant time with Colin and Marjorie Dickson. Travelling with me as a member of the team was Rev. Alvin Little, Colin and Marjorie’s minister from Shore Street Presbyterian in Donaghadee.
On both occasions, the purposes of the visits were clear. Importantly, we weren’t going out to build or paint or run a holiday club, as important as these things can be in the outworking of our gospel partnerships with folks overseas. Rather, we travelled out with the sole purpose of taking time to see what everyday life looked like in the places that God had called these families to serve Him in.
We wanted to meet the people that they worked, worshipped and ‘did life’ with. We wanted to listen to their stories and to hear of the things that excited them, the things that frustrated them and the things that made cross-cultural living simultaneously rich, diverse, exciting and difficult.
While I knew from our contact with the McCullaghs and Dicksons before we left Ireland that they were looking forward to sharing their lives with us, what I wasn’t prepared for was just how much both families appreciated having members of their sending congregations visit them. Both families are, of course, very appreciative of all the support and encouragement that they receive from the denomination in general, and their sending churches in particular, but the encouragement that they received from a visit was at a whole new level!
I wasn’t alone in being struck by this, for as Rev. Alvin Little shared in our team time just prior to our return to Ireland. ‘I had no idea just what an impact it would have on Colin and Marjorie having their home minister visit them.’ This was a pastoral visit by their minister par excellence!
The gift of encouragement
Just as Epaphroditus’ presence meant so much to Paul, going out of our way as congregations to send members out to spend quality time with those who are serving God at a distance from ‘home’ means so, so much to those who receive this gift of encouragement.
Going back to the beginning of this blog, though, on the basis that it is good to be able to both give and receive, overseas pastoral visits also bring real benefit to the sending congregation. Through such visits, the local church is able to hear first-hand – between home assignments – the encouragements and issues that our global mission workers encounter in their daily life and work, which can help give specific direction to the church’s prayers, financial support and pastoral care. Church members can also be encouraged themselves as they hear of the difference that their pastoral care for fellow church members who just happen to be serving overseas really makes.
So, if you’re heading to sunnier climes this summer for your holidays and you begin to ponder your next holiday, who could you consider taking an overseas trip to visit next year, so that you too might give them the gift of encouragement?
Trust me – when you do, you will receive far more than you give!
Rev. Dr. Mark Welsh is the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s Mission Development Officer.