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‘International member care’ helps churches stay connected to missionaries

Natalie Ford speaks to a Georgia Baptist Woman's Missionary Union (WMU) group last spring, just prior to accepting the role of International Member Care coordinator at Helen First Baptist Church. Photo from Natalie Ford.

HELEN, Ga. (BP) — Missionaries are rightly celebrated and honored prior to leaving for the field. However, the challenges of settling into their ministry assignment and cultivating ongoing effectiveness can be overlooked by churches.

Natalie Ford considered that reality last year during a conference that had a breakout session on the local church’s involvement in caring for missionaries.

“My mind was spinning at the concept of it and what could be done,” she said. “I left thinking there was so much we need to do to undergird our missionaries to ensure longevity.”

Natalie Ford and her husband Jeff, Student Ministry director at Helen First Baptist, pause during an overseas member care visit. Photo from Natalie Ford

It led to Ford, a member of First Baptist in Helen, Ga., being named the church’s International Member Care Coordinator in June. In that role, she maintains consistent contact with six missionaries who have been sent out through First Baptist and the International Mission Board. She also works to keep missionaries and their work in front of church members, bringing them alongside as partners in delivering the Gospel.

While member care is offered through the IMB, Ford saw the opportunity for more support through a local church. Her background as a licensed counselor also brings an acute awareness to mental health’s importance for those on the mission field far from home.

“Several of our missionaries have their own counselor, not me, because of our existing relationship,” Ford said. While she helps missionaries process their times on the field and offers support, professional ethics prohibit Ford from counseling in a traditional role.

However, she noted, “I would say my counseling background impacts how I relate to people in general.”

Lead Pastor Jim Holmes said the work and Ford’s background will be central in the church’s expanding work to support missionaries.

“Natalie is one of our most strategic hires for us in recent memory,” he said. “She is top-shelf and this has excited the church.”

Helping ‘the best and brightest’

The conference Ford attended was hosted by Barnabas International. Further training for her role has been received through the Global Member Care Network. Areas in that training include member care on the field as well as how to debrief missionaries and help them adjust upon their return.

Ford also connects with missionaries through Zoom and WhatsApp. She develops a biblical theme each month that is shared with missionaries, church members and small groups like Sunday School classes, helping prompt discussions on serving abroad.

Jim Gant, executive pastor at First Baptist who also oversees counseling, spoke on Ford’s role and how it came to be.

“Natalie alerted our staff to the attrition rate among missionaries and brought recommendations for what we could do to help,” he said. “These missionaries are the best and brightest of us, and if they’re struggling, it’s obvious we need to do more to help them.”

Ford’s role calls for communicating with missionaries at least twice per month and encouraging them in areas such as personal spiritual development as well as strategies that lead to personal and relational wellness. Other responsibilities include coordinating efforts among church members to encourage missionaries and facilitating on-site visits with missionaries at least once per year as church finances allow.

“Each of our adult Sunday School classes supports a missionary and invests in them,” said Gant, who, when he moved out of his home had it repurposed for missionaries who are temporarily stateside instead of letting it sit empty.

“This is all very new to us, but First Baptist is such a generous church that gives toward missions and does everything to help missionaries succeed,” Gant said.