Insights from the Lives of Olive Doke and Paul Kasonga for Pioneer Mission and Church Planting Today
The author of this book, the pastor of Kabwata Baptist Church in Zambia (the formerly Northern Rhodesia), has planted twenty churches in Zambia and surrounding countries. A committed church-planter and seasoned journalist, he writes to address problems that arise in the leadership transition stage of a church-planting ministry. All too commonly, distrust leads to broken relationships. In response, the author proposes mutual respect and admiration. In short, the book is about “how to phase out pioneer missions work and bring in local leadership” (22). But in a more general application, it is about “how we ought to work with one another in missions” (23).
Most leadership transition problems stem from suspicion and distrust. From the perspective of a national pastor, “One of the most difficult phases to handle in pioneer missions work is the handover process to indigenous leaders. Often relationships between the two parties are marred by paternalism on the one hand and an inferiority complex on the other. This has resulted in suspicion from both sides, which has made a conducive working relationship and partnership extremely difficult” (14). The source? “Sadly, these are often related to money issues. The missionaries often hold on to the moneybag and use it as a bit in the mouth of a horse to drive it wherever they wish. In the same way, the local leaders sense this and resent what is happening to the extent that even where there is a genuine benevolent charity, it is held suspect. Relationships break down and strangle an otherwise growing work” (15–16). That said, the author surprisingly contends, “the very first stage of missions work invariably has to be paternalistic” (47). In support of this statement, the author identifies three phases for leadership change: the initial paternalistic phase, the shared leadership phase, and the final withdrawal phase (57, based on A. B. Bruce, The Training of the Twelve, [Tzgel, 1988] 88). This three-phase structure becomes the basis of the author’s handover strategy in the penultimate chapter, “Transforming Paternalism into Partnership: Application” (147–67).
The author states his thesis, definitions, and method for the study clearly. Publications treating matters of missions and church planting typically focus on the perspective of the missionary sent out from the USA or another sending country. But the author writes as a national pastor who sees things differently, so much so that he discovers a solution to a potentially devastating problem for the leadership handover stage of church planting. The solution requires careful study rooted in the rigors of research. Dr. Mbewe’s thesis is “Where mutual respect and mutual admiration are fostered between the missionary and the potential local leaders, the handover process of missions work is likely to go more smoothly” (21). To be precise, the author then defines his terms: “Although respect and admiration have a lot in common and can be used as synonyms, the researcher is deliberately using both in order to achieve emphasis. By respect he means due regard to a person’s feelings and rights, and by admiration he means the recognition of a person’s achievement as being unusual and excellent” (21). Unfortunately, the book introduces these definitions on page 21 after much discussion rooted in these contextually nuanced definitions of the two terms. The method is case study analysis that “shows us real human beings doing that which produces the results that we want to produce” (21). The author illustrates the study with the amazing story of Olive Doke, a missionary sent out through South African Baptist Missionary Society (SABMS), and Paul Kasonga, a national Zambian with leprosy.
Doke and Kasonga illustrate a missions partnership without paternalism. “Olive Doke and Paul Kasonga had a real brotherly affection, deep respect, and unfeigned admiration for each other. This was despite the many differences between them: Doke was white, but Kasonga was black. Olive was a female, but Kasonga was male. Doke was a missionary, but Kasonga was a local person. Doke grew up in the comforts of the developed world, while Kasonga grew up in a rural village. Doke enjoyed very good health, but Kasonga was a sickly leper” (13). After working together for over twenty years, Kasonga died due to his leprosy. Doke and Kasonga offer us a significant example of how a good transition can occur. But other good examples of partnership also abound. “Thankfully, there have been very good examples of the opposite situation, where mutual respect and admiration has characterized the relationship between foreign missionaries and local leaders. This wholesome relationship has led to benefits that have spurred the church being planted onto higher heights” (31). One questions why this can’t be every church-planting story, indeed, every ministry transition story. What provokes distrust and suspicion in the transition phase of church planting?
Financial support causes many problems in the handover stage of church planting. “Only a deliberate effort on the part of the pioneer missionaries to show the indigenous people that leadership must not be tied with social or economic means will save the church being planted from such expectations. Sadly, the problem can also be exacerbated by the indigenous leaders’ expectations.... A local person should aim to be supported by the indigenous people and not by external sources that supported the missionaries whose job they have taken over” (37–38). Rather than indigeneity and autonomy, an improper view of money fosters not only dependence but also resentment when the time for missionary support tapers off. But even worse, “instead of missionaries emphasizing spirituality, they wait for indigenous leaders to also qualify financially before they can be true equals. Indigenous leaders have detested this. Hence, even the final choice and ordination of leaders still remains in the hands of the missionaries long after the first indigenous leaders have been chosen” (54). There are no easy answers for many of these questions. Even those who like to err on the safe side are not sure which side that is. A further reason for the lag pattern is the indigenous leadership’s fear. “Often, once missionaries have established an indigenous leadership, the new leader will be very reluctant to see them withdraw because they feel a sense of safety with the missionaries around” (65).
Church plants should view leadership handover as a process rather than event. “However this ‘handover’ is not an event but a process—a long process—which must be handled sensitively. It begins with the foreign missionaries identifying among the local disciples those who are gifted and growing in grace, and then discipling them into leadership roles. Then it goes into a phase of shared leadership, whereby the converts work as equals with the missionaries in making decisions about God’s work. Then, finally, once the missionaries are satisfied that these new leaders can work without them, they withdraw and move on to another sphere of work (or they work under the new leaders, but in a more specialized role—e.g. theological training)” (15).
The paternalism and distrust which undercut church planting relationships in Zambia can happen in any ministry relationship, at home or abroad. Fear that a young, less-experienced leader may fail leads to prolonged control. Here, Mbewe quotes Roland Allen from a century ago:
“It would be better, far better, that our converts should make many mistakes, and fall into many errors, and commit many offences, than that their sense of responsibility should be undermined” (40, citing Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours, 145). Mbewe adds, “In other words, foreign missionaries should give room for local leaders to make mistakes so that they can learn from them, just as the churches of the foreign missionaries also made mistakes and have grown because of those same mistakes” (40). Trust for managing finances should include trust for selecting, training and ordaining leaders. In general, senior church leaders can offer encouragement and nurture young and emerging leaders without having to control them. Of course, there will be mistakes. But these can be minimized with the right kind of ongoing support.
Several issues may invite strengthening: A first concern is for the popular incarnational model. This suggests that Christians are to empty themselves (based on the Greek word, kenosis in Philippians 2:7) as Jesus did in order to become Spirit-led believers. But Andreas Köstenberger corrected this ministry model in his published dissertation (The Missions of Jesus & the Disciples according to the Fourth Gospel with Implications for the Fourth Gospel’s Purpose and the Mission of the Contemporary Church [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998]). Jesus’ divine act of self-emptying is not the prerogative of believers, although the same passage admonishes us to look out for the interests of others (Philippians 2:1–3). This misunderstanding does not weaken the author’s argument that pioneer missionaries must learn to trust the spiritual maturity of indigenous church leaders. A second concern is the conspicuous absence in the book’s documentation of works like Glen Schwartz, When Charity Destroys Dignity: Overcoming Unhealthy Dependency in the Christian Movement (Authorhouse, 2007) that challenge missionaries to reassess ongoing financial support, particularly when it undermines the dignity or responsibility of nationals. Finally, this outstanding study would have benefitted from Jack Barentsen, Emerging Leadership in the Pauline Mission: A Social Identity Perspective on Local Leadership Development in Corinth and Ephesus (Princeton Theological Monograph Series; Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2011).
Although this outstanding book offers many takeaways, two in particular are worth noting. First, Paul Kasonga’s disabilities that came with leprosy shaped him into an outstanding pastor. He lost fingers and toes, eventually a lower leg and was chronically ill. At the time he was ordained, he could neither walk nor write without assistance. But others helped this giftied preacher because they valued his giftedness, commitment, and spiritual insight. His suffering, which was often severe, gave him rapport with the suffering poor, sick, and outcast. His people drew from his limitations, “If a man in his condition could do so much, how much more should those of us who are able-bodied do?” (177). The author’s own conclusion is that all believers “ought to read the life of Paul Kasonga and put aside their excuses for not serving God because of their alleged inabilities” (173–174). Perhaps hidden to the casual observer, Paul’s disabilities gave him ministry integrity among his peers and valuable spiritual insight for preaching and counseling, both for which he demonstrated extraordinary giftedness. The church today needs pastors, missionaries, Sunday school teachers and other leaders with disabilities. Perhaps ironically, it suffers spiritually without them.
The author illustrates the book’s argument for correcting the handover phase in ministry with a wonderful story. Pastor Conrad Mbewe tells a beautiful tale of two unlikely friends, a white South African woman and a black Zambian leper who work together to reach a nation, one new convert at a time. This is a story about a different kind of suffering and the way that co-laborers serve together to overcome insurmountable relational odds by God’s grace. It is about two human beings who love the Lord more than they fear differences. What can we learn from them?
The reviewer recommends that every believer read this book, but especially church planters and others involved in training local church leaders.