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Training center preps missionaries for life & witness at the ‘uttermost’

ROCKVILLE, Va. (BP)–Southern Baptists expect the International Mission Board to prepare their newly appointed missionaries for overseas ministry and service.

And just as the IMB seeks to find the most innovative methods for reaching a lost world with the gospel, the training and orientation new missionaries go through also require employing cutting-edge techniques, says Greg Holden, who directs missionary orientation for the board.

Images of classrooms and daily lectures, however, don’t come close to describing the extent of orientation undertaken at the agency’s Missionary Learning Center.

Located 15 miles outside Richmond, Va., the Baker James Cauthen and Eloise Glass Cauthen Missionary Learning Center (MLC) has been equipping missionaries since its completion in 1984.

But the way missionaries are trained has changed in the last 20 years, partly because new and innovative missions strategies require a new kind of preparation, Holden says. In addition, many new missionaries already have had overseas experience through short-term missions

Before departing for their assigned field, all missionaries spend five weeks at MLC. Missionaries returning for stateside assignments also spend time there for debriefing.

Under Holden’s leadership, the missionary orientation process has been streamlined and revamped to better provide for the needs of today’s missionary.

For one thing, all personnel now go through orientation together, instead of in separate conferences for career, journeymen, Masters and International Service Corps.

“Two- and three-year missionaries today are on the front lines, shoulder-to-shoulder with the career missionary,” Holden says. “They need to have the same level of orientation as career folks.”

Also, he says, “Many short-termers are testing the waters to see if long-term service is what God wants them to do. If they are called to career service, they generally will not need to go through orientation again.”

The process also has been shortened from eight weeks to five to accommodate the large numbers of Southern Baptists flooding toward the mission field, Holden says.

To help build team relationships with other missionaries from the same region, MLC now houses orientation participants by the region of the world where they will be serving, rather than by appointment classification, as formerly done, he says.

Addressing the learning needs of each missionary is crucial to a successful transition overseas, Holden says. He and his staff use a “head, heart, hand” approach to learning.

“We want to build aggressive learners,” he says. “Missionaries need comprehensive preparation, so we address learning needs in the head (cognitive), heart (character and spiritual) and hand (skills).”

Exposing missionaries to other cultures, especially other religions, helps them prepare for the transition to another culture, Holden says. Small-group sessions teach new missionaries how to engage people of other worldviews.

Missionaries in orientation also take field trips to observe followers of other world religions in their places of worship.

A parallel program helps the new missionaries’ children prepare for their own changeover to another culture.

Missionaries also spend almost two weeks on what Holden calls “the Main Thing” — helping them develop personal strategies for church planting, personal growth and evangelism and reaching their people groups.

“Integrated in that time is a challenge to figure out not only how they will disciple others, but also how they will receive spiritual nurturing on the field,” Holden says. With many new missionaries heading for highly restricted countries, the need for personal spiritual disciplines and growth is even more crucial.

Veteran missionaries also are involved to a greater degree in the revamped training strategy.

“They are the teachers. It’s the dynamic of rubbing shoulders with those coming right from the field, intentionally spending time together and gleaning information and better learning skills,” Holden says.

Personnel in orientation also spend time preparing for health issues they may face overseas, such as malaria, water purification and other illnesses.

“Missionaries may have to be their own doctors in many cases, deciding what treatment might be appropriate and when they may need to go somewhere else for professional medical care,” says Travis White of the IMB’s medical department.

A medical consultant, White helps oversee the health needs of about 9,000 missionaries and children, a job that begins about a year before orientation. More than 6,000 immunizations — for everything from Japanese encephalitis to rabies — were given at MLC in 1999.

A total of 1,318 missionaries, plus 391 children, prepared for overseas service at MLC in 1999, Holden says. With Southern Baptists coming forward for missions service in ever-larger numbers, the strain on the MLC facility will only increase.

To address that critical need, IMB trustees have approved a $23 million construction project that will add living quarters, expand the dining facilities and build a larger children’s educational complex.

“We see equipping as a lifelong process,” Holden says. “Missionary orientation is just one link in a chain of preparation that begins with helping people explore the call to missionary service and continues throughout a missionary’s career.

“Our focus is to make MLC an intensive, rich learning experience for our new missionaries preparing to go to the field,” Holden says. “We want them to leave here with new skills for learning and growing.”

(BP) PHOTO (horizontal) and cutline posted in the Baptist Press area of the Southern Baptist Convention website (www.sbc.net) by the Richmond (overseas) bureau of Baptist Press. File name: mlc.jpg.

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  • Russell Rankin