Different Paths but the Same Mission
The Rev. Dr. John Loum and Joanna Johnson are among the Synod’s newest missionaries.
“Have you ever thought about becoming a missionary?”
David Fiala, assistant director of Missionary Recruitment for The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), asks this question on a regular basis as he recruits church workers and laypeople to serve in a variety of roles on the international mission field.
Fiala often gets tips from his contacts — pastors, current missionaries, seminary professors and others — about people who might be good candidates for missionary service. He follows up on every lead, whether they come over the phone, in text messages or emails, or scrawled across scraps of paper.
Sometimes, potential candidates come right up to him and start a conversation.
From Contact to Candidate
That’s how Fiala met Joanna Johnson, a 2015 graduate of Concordia University, St. Paul, St. Paul, Minn. He was staffing the Synod’s booth at the LCMS Youth Gathering in New Orleans in July 2016, and she was serving as an adult leader with her congregation’s youth group. They struck up a conversation in the exhibit hall, and she expressed interest in becoming a missionary.
It was an idea that had been planted in Johnson’s head several years earlier, when a speaker visited Concordia to talk about being a missionary. Her friend went up to talk to him after the presentation, and Johnson followed.
“He ended up talking to me a lot, actually,” Johnson said. She told him about the short-term mission trips she had taken to Russia and Alaska with her home congregation, St. John’s Lutheran Church, Conover, N.C.
“He said, ‘You’re mission-minded.’ I said, ‘I’m not; my church is,’” she recalled. “That was where [the idea] really started.”
After meeting Fiala, she realized the time was right to apply. She later learned that there was an opening for a missionary teacher in Taiwan.
“I had wanted to work on a cruise ship playing the trombone and then go to grad school,” Johnson said. “But I thought if mission work is what I wanted to do big picture, then in a way this other stuff is kind of a waste of time, even though it would be awesome.”
A Long Process
Although Johnson started the application process last summer, she won’t land in Chaiyi, Taiwan, until August — just in time for the start of the school year. She will teach English and Bible classes at Concordia Middle School and its after-school program for elementary students, while also assisting a congregation of the China Evangelical Lutheran Church.
“You don’t just get hired and sent on a plane,” Fiala said. “It’s a long process.”
After expressing interest, a candidate goes through a self-evaluation process that can take several months. Fiala and his team help the candidate work through questions like: How well do you understand the doctrine of the Church? Are you healthy enough — both physically and emotionally — to live overseas? How well do you function under stress?
“Living overseas is very stressful,” Fiala said, speaking from his own experience as a missionary in Slovakia for 10 years. “Why would we turn your life upside down when you could do ministry right here? We need missionaries domestically almost as much — maybe even more — than we need them internationally.”
Along the way, many candidates realize that missionary service isn’t right for them or their immediate family members.
Those who complete this process are submitted for consideration by the LCMS Board for International Mission, the Synod’s sending organization. The board then reviews the candidates and extends calls for ordained or commissioned ministers or solemn appointments for laypeople.
Equipped for Service
In March, Johnson was among a group of new missionaries who completed a one-week orientation at the LCMS International Center in St. Louis. During the week, the new missionaries learned about fundraising, building a network of support, communicating with donors and other aspects of their new roles.
“This orientation provides intensive training specifically geared toward preparing each missionary to go out to congregations, sharing the message of the work that each will be doing, asking for partnership in accomplishing the work of telling others about Jesus,” said Christian Boehlke, director of Missionary Services for the LCMS.
Orientation also provides an opportunity for the missionaries to meet their new regional director as well as the staff who will be supporting them from the International Center.
“It’s nice to know who you are talking to [by phone and email] and to just have conversations and think things through,” Johnson said. “Most of them have mission experience, and some of them have been to the same school in Taiwan where I’ll be teaching.”
The Rev. Dr. John Loum, director of the Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, also attended orientation. He recently accepted a dual call to serve part-time in his native country, the Gambia, in addition to his role at the seminary.
“I’ve been a missionary before, but this orientation has been fabulous. It widened my horizon,” Loum said. He moved to Sierra Leone at the age of 17 and spent many years in ministry there before immigrating to the United States after the nation’s 10-year civil war.
In between his duties at the seminary, Loum will travel to the Gambia twice each year to provide training and encouragement to the country’s small Lutheran church body. There is only one ordained Lutheran pastor, who tends a small flock with significant potential for growth.
Loum specializes in outreach to Muslims, which he says will be useful to Lutherans in the Gambia, since approximately 90 percent of the country is Muslim.
“This people, surrounded by so many Muslims, should know they are not alone. They have bigger brothers in the States,” he said. “I want to help them feel encouraged and blessed and invigorated with the message of the Lutheran church.”
According to Fiala, Loum’s dual call is a “new concept” for the LCMS Office of International Mission — one that allows special skillsets to be used effectively in multiple locations.
“When the need is not great enough internationally to have a full-time person, but the need is still there, our ability to be flexible and really work as a Synod is necessary,” Fiala continued.
The Right Time
Although the recruitment process can be complicated, Fiala said it is “good, orderly and in line with the Scripture and Lutheran Confessions.” Its whole purpose — from initial contact to deployment — is to ensure, as much as humanly possible, that candidates have everything they need to be successful in their new positions.
For Loum, this preparation started long before he ever began thinking about paperwork or logistics.
“I’ve been praying and longing for the day when I will return and help my own people come to Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit,” he said.
The time has finally come for both Loum and Johnson. Although they took two different routes to missionary service and have been sent to two very different parts of the world, they had the same response when they heard God’s call: “Here I am! Send me.”
Pray with Us
God our Father, Your Son taught us to pray for Your Kingdom to come and Your will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. By Your Holy Spirit, break the power and schemes of the evil one through the Word of Christ. Continue to work, we pray, through Your Church to bring Your Word to this world, that those who hear may repent and trust in Your Son as their Savior. Bless those whom You have called into mission work. Provide more workers for the harvest field according to Your gracious will in Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
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